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Incident of 15 December 2010

HUDSON MILLER, Ms Rosemary, Chairperson, Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees

WATSON, Ms Judyth, Member of Executive and Manager Committee, Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees

Evidence from Ms Hudson Miller and Ms Watson via teleconference—

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees. The committee has received your submission and we invite you to make some opening remarks to the committee which will be followed by some questions.

Ms Hudson Miller : The organisation that we call CARAD, as a quick way of saying who we are, made this submission because we offer a support service in Perth and shortly to be offered in detention centres as well. We provide a visiting service to the detention centre, and also at the boat explosion time and at this time we offer a visiting service in hospitals. Many of the people who come down from the remote detention centres have got medical issues. So we sometimes visit in hospitals, even without the overlay of a tragedy. But CARAD volunteers visit, and visited in this case in both the hospital and the detention facilities here in Perth at the Banksia caravan leisure park and also at the other facilities that were here.

Ms Watson : Added to that, the purpose of the visits, besides any kind of friendship that develops, is to advocate for those individuals who might need that and to seek appropriate referral contacts if that is necessary. That is what we have always done whether people are in detention or not. And there is a list of the main focus of our work on the front page of our very brief submission.

CHAIR: Yes, thank you. In relation to the after-incidence support provided to survivors, your organisation has recommended that information exchange between the survivors, their families and government agencies should be better managed in order to minimise further distress to survivors. What problems did your organisation identify in relation to the information exchange?

Ms Hudson Miller : The information that we have comes from the people who were in the detention facilities. So this is our understanding of it. But in the matters that we observed, there was a lack of coordination of information to the clients who, of course, in particular the couple that lost the child, were seeking information every day and there was just no information coming. And from the other point of view, there were a lot of people who wanted to talk to them about things that they did not seem to understand. They did not seem to understand the context of them. For instance, people were interviewing them on such a range of issues—their detention applications, their witness statements from the boat tragedy and other aspects. Apparently all were done by the Australian Federal Police, as they reported to us. There did not seem to be a good understanding of how many people were interacting with these distressed people from the immigration staff, who are meant to be a kind of case managers in these cases.

Ms Watson : Apparently three groups of AFP people went in to focus on three separate aspects of their inquiry—for instance, the need for identification, the need for witness statements, the need to go over the same questions. As we have said, it could only enhance their grief and loss when they had no idea why they should be interviewed on three separate occasions by three separate groups of police. It made them feel implicated somehow.

CHAIR: Did anyone from your organisation raise these concerns with the AFP or DIAC?

Ms Hudson Miller : We did. We raised them through DIAC. I would have to say that one of the issues around this whole thing was that it was general holiday time, and that I think did not help. The DIAC people here had no understanding that this was the process that people were being subjected to. Once they did know, they were able to quickly remedy that by discussion with the AFP and bringing those interviews to a close. I think there are some things that interpreting cannot do, even when you use a very skilled interpreter. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to convey a completely foreign legal system to people who are so bereft. We would see a remedy as having case managers at the individual level and also a coordinating aspect quite high up to whom those case managers can refer and advocate.

CHAIR: Thank you. I was going to ask you, with the benefit of hindsight, what do you think would have been the best way to manage the exchange of information? I think you have answered that. Is there anything else that you think needs to be done?

Ms Hudson Miller : We have experienced two of these disasters from CARAD's point of view, and it does seem like there does need to be that high-level coordination about who is interacting with the actual clients, the people who are most affected. This coordination has not been there in either case, as we have experienced it and as our clients have told us. People do not actually know what is going on. People come from different agencies and they need to do their jobs, but they also need some kind of case coordination. It does seem to me that sometimes it would be really helpful to have people, probably from the immigration department actually, with consent, present at these meetings. People do not understand the legal setting they are in. Plus, they probably need to have a lawyer for themselves—someone who is there in all of these circumstances. There is probably a double recommendation that we are making. Someone needs to be there as an advocate alongside the client, as well as a much higher level of coordination from the department of immigration about the particular interactions that happen with that particular client.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr PERRETT: I just wanted to tease out that recommendation. Is it your position that for every interview, for every arrival, there should be a lawyer sitting in for the interview? Was this vessel and the treatment of the people on it different to other arrivals that CARAD has dealt with? Was this atypical in terms of the ID check, the witness statements and the interactions?

Ms Hudson Miller : I think this was a particular circumstance. This should apply in every kind of disaster circumstance. I guess that that is an impossibility for all arrivals who are not traumatised in this way.

Mr PERRETT: So it would be not for every single arrival by a maritime vessel?

Ms Hudson Miller : No.

Mr PERRETT: It would be in the case of trauma or some compelling circumstance that you would have an independent legal advisor—paid for by DIAC, are you suggesting?

Ms Watson : As Rosemary said before, we met people from the boats that exploded and we also met people from this shipwreck, and we think that special arrangements should be made when people are injured, distressed, bereft. While we might have views about how other people are dealt with, we are making a plea for people in these sorts of circumstances to have special consideration in terms of case management and coordination of the overall case.

Mr PERRETT: Why a lawyer? Why not a social worker or a case manager? Why would they particularly need their legal rights represented?

Ms Watson : An advocate of some kind.

Mr PERRETT: Much of your submission was about post-traumatic stress and the ramifications of that rather than their legal considerations.

Ms Watson : Our submission dealt with their need for appropriate information, and we saw that that was not managed well at all and it compounded whatever stress they had.

Mr PERRETT: Thank you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Your submission talks about the need for reliable information, communication that is effective and the need to relieve people of added unnecessary stress at a very traumatic time. Unfortunately, your submission is not unique. There does seem to be a systemic problem with the level of communication and the means of communication in this particular case. Others make the point that this is a broader issue in relation to how individuals detained in these facilities understand where their cases are up to. One of the things I wanted to touch on was your direct communication with DIAC over the cases that you had become aware of—anyone treated in the Perth hospital and then subsequently waiting to be sent to a detention centre elsewhere. Did you find your direct communications accessible? Did you find that that was effective? What was your assessment of your attempts to communicate with DIAC on behalf of these individuals?

Ms Hudson Miller : We find DIAC in Western Australia very responsive to the communications from CARAD. They seek to remedy the issue, at their earliest convenience of course. But the issue, as you say, is a systemic issue, so we wonder why these things have to happen and that why we have to intervene. If there could be a better system, it would be a preferable thing than having to fix things once they have gone wrong or advocate for something once a misunderstanding has happened.

The other thing is that I think that there were people who were worried about what they could say to these clients\, whereas perhaps normally the coroner's office would be very clear about how they would communicate to people, that they would be thoughtful and compassionate in the way that they communicated and also very upfront about difficulties faced by the coroner in releasing the details. The clients that we were seeing did not seem to have that clear communication to the coroner's office directly themselves; it was coming via other people. It did seem to us, whether it is accurate or not, that there was information that the clients did not actually know about—particularly about the child who was missing—that may have alleviated some of their distress. 'Why couldn't they see the child?'—those kinds of things. We heard stories about why they could not see the child, identify the child, all of those kinds of things, and it did seem to us that our clients never had a clear explanation about why that was not possible. That is another part of the communication problems that happen in these circumstances where people are detained. Everyone seems to take a step back rather than perhaps doing what they would normally do in a circumstance like this where people were not in a detention facility.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you visit any of the individuals who were receiving medical assistance while they were at the Perth hospital?

Ms Hudson Miller : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were Serco security guards present in their rooms?

Ms Hudson Miller : They are generally outside their room. We attempted to visit the women on the 17th and we were subsequently able to visit the next day. We delivered some hygiene packs to the women—toilet bags with some toiletries in them, individual things—the first day we went there and the Serco guards took them and passed them on for us.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you could not see them directly yourself?

Ms Hudson Miller : We did not see them the first day they were there, which was 17 December.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: This might sound silly, but in the context of how traumatic this event was, were the Serco guards in uniform?

Ms Hudson Miller : I do not have that information. I have the report from our volunteer in front of me and I do not have that information. I expect they are in uniform. It is their normal practice to wear uniform, I understand.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How did you know that these women were at the Perth hospital?

Ms Hudson Miller : I think there was fairly wide publicity. It was reported in the news that people were being evacuated to Perth. We wrote to the DIAC manager of the Perth Immigration Detention Centre and said that we were available and that we would be happy to visit people as appropriate.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You were not asked to do that by the department; you initiated that yourselves?

Ms Hudson Miller : We let them know that we were available to do it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay.

Ms Hudson Miller : And we have developed quite a positive relationship with DIAC case managers here. It is a collegial relationship and we expect to be able to do this work for them. They know us, after 11 years.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes. That is all for my questions. Thank you.

Mrs MARKUS: Could you please describe the management structure of your organisation and the staffing—the number of professionals, their qualifications and background, non-professionals and volunteers—and also how supervision and training is conducted?

Ms Hudson Miller : CARAD is managed by a management committee. Currently, we have three staff, social work and sociology trained people. They all work part time. Then we have volunteers. CARAD has a rigorous training program run by a clinical psychologist and a social worker. Many of our volunteers are professionals in their own right, but they work for CARAD in a voluntary capacity, so they do a range of things. People who visit in detention or detention-like facilities have extra training on top of the general training that we offer for everybody in our organisation. We have about 80 active volunteers at any one time.

Mrs MARKUS: Based on your observations, would you say that the coordination, communication and the way case management was handled are the key areas that need improvement and did not operate effectively?

Ms Hudson Miller : Say those three things again?

Mrs MARKUS: Would you say that case coordination, communication and—I cannot quite remember the other one—were the most challenging areas and that did not operate effectively?

Ms Watson : Yes, they are. There are always concerns about these three aspects of people who are in detention while they are having their status determination made, but they are emphasised when there is so much trauma, so much physical injury and so much psychological impact around these individuals. We think it is inevitable that there will be other tragedies and we would like to see it handled much better if that is at all possible. We know these things are not unique, but the emphasis is heightened when the ship blew up and when the boat was shipwrecked.

Mrs MARKUS: Could you give some suggestions about how case coordination and responsiveness could be improved, particularly with regard to the management of grief and loss? It has been highlighted already this morning that there have been some challenges, particularly for some of the survivors and the children to be able to accept that their family members were no longer alive. Could you give some suggestions on how this could be improved?

Ms Watson : Acceptance is a long process in the grieving process. ASeTTS, the torture and trauma service, were available to the six people who we had here in Perth. I would hope that a similar service would be available elsewhere for the survivors. They need careful professional help in the beginning. There was one women who knew we were there but just could not accept any help from anybody, she was so immediately traumatised.

Mrs MARKUS: What were the barriers to her being able to access that help?

Ms Watson : Her grief. We do not know what happened to her. Her husband and I think two children, one of whom she was holding, disappeared. I think her support came from a couple who were in the same place that she was who had also been rescued.

Mrs MARKUS: Are you aware of what consultation advice the department received or who they may have consulted with to be able to plan and respond, particularly to the grief and loss of the families?

Ms Watson : Their submission nominates two psychiatrists who were sent to Christmas Island: Dr Fenner and a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I do not know which psychiatrists went to the Perth centres, but we know that very experienced counsellors from the torture and trauma service here were available and did help those people there.

Ms Hudson Miller : One of the critical things in this circumstance is that everybody must have the same clear information, inasmuch as those things are not confidential or a client has given permission for those details to shared with people working with the clients. It seems to me that it would be helpful to have that information clearly put to the clients from the range of people who are interacting with because they asked everybody the same questions who could not answer them or who did not know if they had the authority to answer them. That was something that people kept saying, that they did not know or they could not tell them, and the lack of clear information just compounds the grief in the circumstance.

Senator FIELDING: How many of the survivors have CARAD been working with?

Ms Hudson Miller : There were six here in Perth and we work with five of those survivors. Not the woman we offered assistance to whom we referred to in our last conversation. We work with the five others.

Senator FIELDING: What has been the ongoing involvement with those five?

Ms Watson : They have gone. They were transferred to other centres—to Darwin and to a community detention facility in Sydney. Our volunteers put in some very intensive work, but we do not know the outcomes of their determination. Sometimes, clients keep in touch with volunteers and with CARAD by email, but I am not aware of that happening in this circumstance.

Senator FIELDING: I was just trying to work out how are they travelling psychologically. I was wondering if someone has been involved from the start and what are the ongoing lessons learned from dealing with this sort of situation?

Ms Hudson Miller : The couple were in Perth for 2½ to three months, so we had an idea of them over that time span. But the single fellows were transferred—

Ms Watson : One to Darwin and the other to community detention in Sydney. A Kurdish couple started to get some glimmer of hope in February, two and a bit months afterward, and they were keen to start a new life.

Senator FIELDING: I am trying to understand how much of the trauma was potentially made worse because of the lack of information. You are saying that it was a significant issue for the couple you had an involvement with for a longer period of time.

Ms Watson : It must be for all of them; I cannot imagine. The other interesting thing which does not relate to this is is that many of us are still in contact with refugees we knew 11, 10, 8 years ago. They were very distressed by this episode. Those who had post-traumatic stress had terrible memories, visions and flashbacks initiated by this shipwreck and the constant talk in the media about it. So for the people who were directly involved, I can only imagine that their healing will take a long time too.

Senator FIELDING: Thank you.

Mr PERRETT: Obviously, in your dealings over the years with arrivals, I imagine it is traumatic to be dislocated from your country, where your roots are. I imagine the journey is traumatic and I imagine that the final boat journey would be traumatic. Could you compare the five people you have been dealing with and the other arrivals—the less traumatic arrivals, shall we say? Is this particular tragedy cumulative? Are there people who have come through this event and have moved on with their lives, like you said, and others who have had a much less traumatic journey who are damaged forever? Could you tell us how these thing work out?

Ms Hudson Miller : Our experience is very clearly that the longer people are in detention and do not know what their outcome will be, the worse the outcomes are for them in terms of their focus and probably—though I have no professional expertise in this—their post-traumatic experience. When the system was working and people would come through and have a determination in three to six months and that was what people were expecting, they have actually been able to see that process as an ongoing thing. When people are detained for extended periods of time, their resettlement is much more difficult. What we have seen is that people who were resettled in the mid-2000s are now actually experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms. If, for all intents and purposes, they have settled well into Australia, have jobs, have new families and so on, and suddenly it all just comes apart, our experience is that the length of detention is the difference in this matter not necessarily the trauma of the journey. Every case of course has its own differentiation in it.

Mr PERRETT: You have empirical data on that? Is the length of the decision-making process directly connected to the ongoing mental health of the person, irrespective of the trauma they came from or suffered in the journey to Australia?

Ms Hudson Miller : Just let me deal with that and then come back to the 'irrespective of the trauma'. There is a lot of mental health literature. Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was working in mental health. There is a lot of mental health literature—Patrick McGorry, Zachary Steel, and Louise Newman—that absolutely points to this. McGorry calls detention centres 'factories for mental illness' and we see that. We see it here in Perth, you do not have to go to a remote centre. The other thing is that you cannot say 'irrespective of their trauma'. We have just been collecting information about people who have been tortured. That torture experience is never ever going to leave those people and it compounds their distress. I remember when people first arrived here straight out of detention in 2000, ASeTTS, actually changed its techniques for the way it counselled people. Up until then, most of the people who were referred to them had been living in camps and had spend some time distant from their torture, their trauma and their escape. They kind of had a way to deal with those people. I can remember counsellors saying, 'We've had to review all that because this experience is so raw, and it has made us think about the people whose experiences are compounded either by the ship blowing up or by wrecking as well as by a long time in detention.'

Mr PERRETT: I have got a lot of trauma survivors in my electorate, but they did not go through the detention process.

Ms Hudson Miller : We are in no doubt about that at CARAD.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission to the inquiry and for your presentation of evidence to the committee today.

Ms Watson : Before we close, we sent a little addendum that raised some concerns that have not been clarified for us about the conduct of the current coronial inquest in Perth. We were concerned about the compounding of the flow of information and communication for survivors. Apparently people were notified in a very legalistic letter in English from the WA police. The lawyer and team representing survivors had not been funded at that time. We want to let you know that. They are not sitting today. They have not started any interviews of any survivors or their legal representatives.

CHAIR: Thank you for that information.