We're no rogue agency: Immigration Department chief

By Jason Whittaker

March 8, 2016

The boss of Australia’s most contentious Commonwealth agency, Immigration and Border Protection, has made a rare public statement defending his department and staff against accusations of cruelty and illegal acts in detention centres.

Michael Pezzullo (pictured), secretary since appointed by Tony Abbott in 2014, says the department and its uniformed operational arm Australian Border Force “does not operate beyond the law” and isn’t an “immoral ‘rogue agency'”.

And he says ultimately the goal of the department is the same as its critics: “to have no children at all in immigration detention”.

Pezzullo said in a statement posted to the departmental website today that “for the reputation of my department and its officers, it is crucial that I set the record straight”:

“Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong — and yet they continue to be made in some quarters.

“In the same vein, any contention that prolonged immigration detention represents ‘reckless indifference and calculated cruelty’, in order to deter future boat arrivals, do not pass even the most basic fact check. The number of children in detention would not be falling if that were the case.”

A paper from psychiatrist Dr Michael Dudley published in Australian Psychiatry last month made the Nazi comparison among numerous complaints around detention practices on Nauru and Manus Island where all asylum seekers who arrive by boat are sent for assessment. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refuted the accusations at the time, though Pezzullo has said nothing until now.

According to Pezzullo, the resources devoted to medical and support services, and the commitment of doctors, service providers and departmental staff, “undercuts emotive and inflammatory claims to the contrary”.

Operations, he says, are underpinned “by the law of the land”. Pezzullo pointed to High Court decisions that upheld the Coalition government’s controversial “turn back” boats policy and its regional processing arrangements:

“While policy can be debated, there should be no place for falsehood, rumour and unfounded speculation. People smugglers are constantly poised to jump on any relevant mistruth in order to convince prospective asylum seekers to pay them to get to Australia.

“That is also why official statements on this issue have to be precise and unambiguous as to the essential objective of government policy. The maritime path to Australia is closed; and people subject to regional processing will not be allowed to settle in Australia.”

‘Significant progress’ in removing children

Pezzullo says “significant progress” has been made over the past year to move children and families out of detention and into the Australian community. From a peak of 2000, just 58 children remain in detention, he writes:

“What is often overlooked in so called commentary on this issue (and even, regrettably, in some media reporting) are the facts …

“Much recent commentary has centred on a group of asylum seekers temporarily in Australia for medical treatment. A large number of this group are family members accompanying those in need of treatment. Consistent with policy and law, they will be returned to Nauru or Papua New Guinea at the conclusion of their treatment. The policy of the government is that these persons will not be allowed to settle in Australia. No child will be returned to a place of harm, and we will exercise appropriate discretion and compassion in making decisions on a case-by-case basis, without fanfare.

“Those returning to Nauru will return to a full open centre arrangement for all transferees and settled refugees. All are free to come and go from the accommodation centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The department has taken “significant steps” to enhance oversight, advice and scrutiny. And engagement with independent bodies — including the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth Ombudsman — has increased, Pezzullo writes.

Detainees with mental health issues are supported, he says, with individualised care plans. Access is provided to mental health nurses, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists on site.

Around $37 million has been spent upgrading medical facilities on Nauru. “Hard-walled buildings” and expanded education facilities have also been built.

Pezzullo also rejects claims that doctors and other staff working in detention centres risk jail by speaking out. That’s “wrong”, he writes, and “unsupported by any facts”:

“The secrecy and disclosure provisions in part 6 of the Australian Border Force Act are not unique. These types of provisions are similar to those which apply to partner agencies and a wide range of other Commonwealth agencies with responsibilities for the management of confidential or protected information. They do not prevent, for example, medical professionals from seeking the best clinical outcomes for their patients.

“In the midst of this debate, the department will continue to focus on the fair, dignified and humane treatment of people in our care. We make decisions compassionately, consistent with Australian law. We will continue to reduce the number of children in detention as soon as practicable, within the law, as we have done in recent years.

“Ultimately, the department shares the same goal as its critics — to have no children at all in immigration detention, consistent with the law of the land.”

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