After much press coverage and detailed questioning at Estimates, we’re still no closer to knowing why nearly 90 asylum seekers have ended up staying at a former miners’ lodge at Leonora, smack in the heart of the WA goldfields.

With all respect to the good people of Leonora, the town is a very long way from anywhere, and perches on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert.

The town is also a very long way from any support services that the detainees might need — the sort of services that would be available at large regional centres or in capital cities.  The local school has room for the children accompanying the group, but, Crikey understands, not the extra resources needed, and no ESL teacher.

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Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tried to prise from Immigration Minister Chris Evans at Estimates recently the rationale for Leonora, and didn’t get far.  Pressed on the rationale for the selection of sites to house families that could not be kept in the crowded Christmas Island facility, Evans was purposefully vague.  “As you know, we require a whole range of services, so there are a range of considerations that the department take into account when making these decisions,” he told Hanson-Young.

Department of Immigration bureaucrats attending with Evans stressed the importance of accommodation that was suitable for families.  “We are looking for more suitable longer-term arrangements for families as well as some temporary arrangements,” Evans went on to say.  “I have a picture of the ideal solution, but I do not expect to find that, so we will find what we can make work best. As I said, the department is searching and responding to offers. We are in negotiations and discussions with some people about those things.”

“I struggle to see how housing families in the middle of the desert is either cost effective for the taxpayer or practical,” Hanson-Young told Evans.

“But putting people in a motel in the middle of Brisbane is not ideal either,” Evans replied.

Certainly not from a political perspective.

We asked the Department of Immigration about the rationale behind the selection of sites for “overflow” asylum seekers.  Spokesman Sandi Logan replied that it was “the immediate need for accommodation that was suitable for occupation by families with children and offered the necessary infrastructure for support services.  Accommodation availability and infrastructure for support services were the primary consideration, which is what was offered at the location.  It is difficult to locate suitable properties that are readily available and meet all necessary criteria for our duty of care to detainees”.

“Many offers of sites have been made by a range of entities and the department continues to examine these.”

The story behind the Leonora facility is more complex than that, however.  The facility is owned by a company called Tecline.  Tecline already has a relationship with the Department of Immigration through a related company, NTLink, which provides accommodation facilities for the department on Christmas Island and to mining companies.  Tecline and NTLink have a sizable presence in Leonora; two years ago NTLink pitched an idea to the local council to convert an old primary school in the town into more mining and tourism accommodation.

The department “became aware” of the facilities at Leonora through NTLink and its provision of services to the resources sector, Logan told us.  The contract for the Leonora facility is a “short-term” one, he said.  Media reports suggest it is for six months.  The department would not reveal the cost of the contract on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Tecline was also contracted “to improve the facilities to meet the department’s needs including further provision of dining facilities and other amenities”.  Normally, a contract such as that would, under Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines, be put to tender.  However, the department “direct sourced” the services from Tecline, without tender, due to the urgent nature of the works required.  That’s permitted under the CPGs, although the “urgency” of finding accommodation for “overflow” detainees has arguably been apparent for some months.

The bulk of the Leonora asylum seekers are said to be Afghani or Sri Lankan, with a small number of Iranians.  As targets of the government’s suspension of applications from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the group is at risk of being detained for longer than the normal time for processing claims, and perhaps longer than the six months apparently intended for the Leonora facility.

Peter Fray

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