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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20124

Senator BARTLETT (2:27 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. I refer the minister to media reports that some hunger striking detainees are currently being subjected to force-feeding. Can the minister confirm whether this is occurring and, if so, whether doctors or nurses are involved in the force-feeding? Is it also the case that people in detention centres in Australia have fewer legal rights than any other human being in Australia? In relation to the widening concerns about conditions in detention centres and broadening allegations, will the minister consider expanding the internal inquiry which has been established to make it a full judicial inquiry to enable people to testify and provide evidence without fear of retribution, whether that be centre staff in fear of management or asylum seekers who are in fear of having their refugee claims refused?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Justice and Customs) —Senator, I have some information here on the provisions relating to medical treatment of persons in immigration detention. I will give you that answer. As to the remaining questions, I believe they need to be referred directly to the minister responsible and I will do that. Provisions enabling medical treatment, including the administration of nourishment and foods, were first included in the 1989 migration regulations in September 1992, on behalf of the then Minister of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Mr Gerry Hand. The purpose of the provisions was to enable the secretary to the department, acting on medical advice, to use reasonable force to cause a detainee to accept medical treatment in circumstances where the detainee has refused or failed to consent to the treatment or is not reasonably capable of giving consent for that treatment and, in the absence of such treatment, there would be a serious risk to life or health of the detainee.

The explanatory memorandum prepared by the then Labor government advises that the need for these provisions arose because two individuals whose applications for refugee status had been rejected, and who were held in immigration detention, had gone on a hunger strike. The provisions were amended by the Labor government in December 1992 to, amongst other things, make it clear that it is the secretary acting in person who has the power to authorise medical treatment to be given to a detainee, to make it clear that the use of reasonable force includes the reasonable use of restraint and sedatives, to provide that any medical treatment given must be given by, or in the presence of, a registered medical practitioner and to make it clear that a medical practitioner will not be expected to act contrary to his or her ethical, moral or religious convictions. The provisions have remained unamended since then, except for some very minor changes in terminology, and are now contained in regulation 5.35 of the migration regulations 1994.

Senator BARTLETT —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the answer to part of her question and appreciate her seeking further advice from Minister Ruddock. Could the minister also answer the question on mandatory detention, given the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's—and the Australian Democrats'—longstanding opposition to mandatory detention and the call for an exploration of alternatives by an expanding coalition of church, welfare and children's rights groups? Will the government at least consider exploring options to find an alternative, in relation to children, given that virtually every other country in the world has managed to find another way of dealing with unauthorised arrivals other than locking them up for the entire time their asylum claims are assessed? Will the government consider options taken by other countries, at least in relation to children, to find a better way?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Justice and Customs) —I will take that on notice and refer it to the minister. There is a bit more information I can offer you, which was in answer to a separate question. Somewhere between 30 and 51 detainees have been participating in the hunger strike since 17 November. Of course, the medical staff are closely monitoring the detainees' health. Food and fluids are available. The outdoor mosque area at the Woomera centre, where the protesters are assembled, is shaded. The reasons for the strike action had not been made clear at the time of writing of this answer, which was 2 o'clock on the 24th. The action will in no way assist their claims to remain in Australia. They have been urged to cease that action. I will take the remainder of your questions on notice.