The current scale of immigration detention operations on Christmas Island is unsustainable and more asylum seekers should be processed on the mainland, says the Commonwealth Ombudsman in a report released today.

The report, released today by Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman Allan Asher, offers an oversight of immigration processes on Christmas Island between October 2008 and September 2010. It says that, due to an increase in boat arrivals, there was now a serious issue with overcrowding on Christmas Island.

According to the Ombudsman, this overcrowding had lead to a deficiency in some of the services offered by the Department of Immigration:

ombudsman

At the time of the report, there were more than 2700 people detained on Christmas Island. Asher says that the Christmas Island detention facilities have a nominal operation capacity of 744 and that “the stage has been reached where the current scale of operations on Christmas Island is not sustainable.”

“Simply put, there are too many people detained at the combined Christmas Island immigration detention facilities,” he wrote.

Overcrowding was leading to hygiene problems, a lack of adequate phone, computer and internet access, as well as limited access to medical and dental services, the Ombudsman said. There were also a lack of facilities for lawyers and migration agents representing asylum seekers, while there were also questions about the quality of personnel employed to perform independent merits reviews. Activities designed to stave off depression and improve morale had also declined at one visit, although they had eventually improved.

To ease overcrowding, Asher urged DIAC to begin moving as many detainees as possible from Christmas Island to the Australian mainland. It was also recommended that DIAC address the shortage of facilities on Christmas Island as a “matter of urgency” so as to provide appropriate services for detainees requiring health services, especially those relating to mental health.

Length of processing times for asylum seekers were also queried — particularly the time it took to complete ASIO security assessments — with the Ombudsman noting that “there is no doubt that protracted waiting times raise on-island tension”. Asher said that a regular “holistic review” of processing was required and that times needed to be reduced.

DIAC said in its response to the report that they could not provide a “definitive timeframe for completion of security assessments” but were working on reducing processing times. ASIO have come under scrutiny from asylum seeker advocates recently for the amount of time taken to complete security assessments.

At one visit, the Ombudsman told DIAC cross-agency coordination was a possible burden on processing times, which then led to improvements in that area.

Asher also raised issues with a lack of interpreters on the island, particular a case in which a Sinhalese interpreter was being employed to interpret for a group of Tamils “despite the inadequacy of her interpretation” and another occasion where Dari speakers where being used as Hazaragi interpreters.

It was observed that there was tendency among staff to dismiss this issue as a “manifestation of ethnic tension” and that there had been at least one case where a Hazaragi speaker had been deprived of proper medical care because the Dari interpreter and the patient were unable to communicate with each other. Also, interpreters were not being used properly in merits review hearings and were sometimes providing advice to detainees instead of DIAC staff.

Asylum seekers who had been granted refugee status should be released from detention in a more timely manner, said Asher, with a suggestion offered that asylum seekers could be transferred to the mainland with strict reporting conditions.

It was not all criticism, however, with some praise offered to DIAC for improving services on Christmas Island. Asher said that longer postings for key DIAC staff — up to six months instead of three weeks — meant improved continuity in administration on the island. There had also been an increase in mental health staff, although a lack of accommodation for those services was also noted. The report approved of an increase in case managers for asylum seekers and the engaging of detainees to run some of the activities — including ESL classes.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between Afghanistan and Australia came under a cloud after Kabul’s envoy to Australia, Amanullah Jayhoon, told The Australian that the pact only related to voluntary returns — not involuntary repatriation as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has claimed.

The federal government’s plan for a regional processing centre on East Timor has also come under the spotlight, after a copy of its regional assessment centre concept document revealed up to 4,000 asylum seekers could be housed at the facility, raising questions about the tiny nation’s capacity to deal with such a large number of people.

Peter Fray

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