Manus Island

Government senators have said Parliament should rely less on information from media reports for what is happening in offshore detention centres, while the government refuses to release information about what is happening in those centres.

On Friday, the report from the Senate inquiry into the Nauru Files — more than 2000 reports of incidents that had occurred in offshore detention on Nauru, published by Guardian Australia — was tabled, with every senator largely sticking to his or her party’s policies on offshore detention. The majority report from Labor senators recommends new audits and oversight over medical services, the appointment of a children’s advocate in line with Labor policy, and that the government consider policy to resettle refugees elsewhere, including in New Zealand. 

The report found widespread evidence of poor mental health and high levels of self-harm among refugees on Manus and Nauru, ongoing concern about the level of medical services provided to refugees, and allegations of poor treatment of children by centre staff. There is also concern for the safety of asylum seekers in the communities, as the government claims they are no longer in detention. The report also complained about issues with transparency and accountability in the offshore detention regime, noting that there was “a persistent unwillingness on the part of the department to speak openly about matters associated with the regional processing centres, including to this committee in the course of this inquiry”.

The committee criticised the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for delaying offering information, using old images to mislead the committee on the state of the detention centres, and general reluctance to provide information when asked. The committee said most of the useful information for the inquiry came from Nauru Files and the Australian National Audit Office report on Immigration contracts.

But while Labor and Greens senators complained of a lack of information from the government, forcing them to rely on alternative sources, Coalition senators criticised the committee for this practice.  The entire report was a “politically motivated public-relations stunt”, according to Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald. He said the committee should rely on evidence from the department — evidence the department does not present. Macdonald said:

“The report is highly speculative and relies consistently on anecdotal evidence, second- and third-hand reports, and on unsupported allegations that are presented as fact. The report also paraphrases evidence rather than providing direct quotes and uses this technique to introduce highly emotive and pejorative language that does not reflect the true state of affairs. The report references media stories as ‘evidence’ and ‘reports’ of alleged incidents at the RPCs. Government Senators would suggest that the Australian people deserve a higher standard of veracity from Parliamentary inquiries. “

Such a claim would hold water if the government had been forthcoming with evidence to back up its own claims. Last week, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed that an incident in which shots were fired by PNG Navy personnel in the Manus Island detention centre on Good Friday had been caused in part by concern for a child taken into the detention centre. But PNG police have disputed the facts as Dutton presented them. The police said a boy had been brought into the centre earlier, given some fruit and was taken back out, but there were no complaints about sexual assault and no concerns for the boy’s safety.

The violent incident was said to have been triggered by a soccer match on the naval base, PNG police said. When this was put to Dutton on Insiders, Dutton claimed the ABC was relying on “Twitter facts” and he had access to facts about the incident that weren’t public.

“I think that there are facts that I have that you don’t so why don’t we let the police investigation run its course and allow them some independent analysis of it because if you’re asking me why the mood elevated, these two incidents fed into it and I have that on very good authority on the island. The parents of the boy involved in the incident might have a different view to the one that you have read off tweets and that’s fine.”

Dutton so far is refusing to release the information he has, or the CCTV footage of the incident.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey