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Immigration Minister faces question in Parliament about wrongful detentions.

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Wednesday 6 December 2006

Immigration Minister faces question in Parliament about wrongful detentions


MARK COLVIN: It's been a challenging day for the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone. She woke up to press reports that other ministers were campaigning to have her dumped from her job, and then spent most of the rest of the day defending her department's handling of a swag of cases of wrongful detention. 


The Commonwealth Ombudsman has published the results of his investigation of another 20 cases of wrongful detention. He says the most disturbing fact is that 10 of those detainees were Australian citizens.  


Another four were permanent residents and four more held valid visas. 


That leaves just two more who were held legitimately. 


It doesn't look good, but the Minister says it does confirm the Immigration Department's commitment to open government and its determination to find the problems. 


In one case a mentally ill Timorese refugee, who'd been a permanent Australian resident for eight years, spent 43 days in immigration detention.  


From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: After the damaging detention of Cornelia Rau and the detention and deportation of Vivian Alvarez came to light, the Immigration Minister commissioned the Ombudsman to investigate another 247 detentions. 


Professor John McMillan's just completed his investigation of another 20 of those cases. 


JOHN MCMILLAN: Of greatest concern, I would think, is that in 10 of these 20 cases the people detained were Australian citizens, people who otherwise have freedom to move unhindered in the community. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: An East Timorese refugee in 1975, Mr G, who is now 52, was living on the streets of Fremantle in 2002, and suffering chronic schizophrenia. 


Police took him into custody after a complaint he was sleeping on someone's veranda. 


The Ombudsman says his schizophrenia was plainly evident. 


An Australian resident, Mr G was detained 43 days while immigration officials didn't follow-up calls made by members of the East Timorese community. 


The Ombudsman found a lack of rigour and analyses, recommending Mr G be compensated. That's now being negotiated. 


Another nine people in poor mental health were detained despite being Australian citizens or permanent residents, or in the case of one, a visa holder. 


They were kept in detention for up to 18 days. One person was detained twice. 


JOHN MCMILLAN: Immigration officers had placed too much reliance either on information provided by people who were mentally unwell, or on the failure of those people to provide information to confirm their immigration status. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Ombudsman's also highly critical of Immigration's detention of 10 children. Eight were Australian citizens, or held visas entitling them to live in the community. 


JOHN MCMILLAN: The wrongful detention occurred through the failure of immigration officers to focus separately on the circumstances of the child, and to recognise that a child's immigration status may be different to that of its parents. 


A related problem is that in nine cases a child was detained in an immigration detention facility without proper consideration being given to an alternative place of detention. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: In one case, a nine-year-old child called JT was in the Villawood Detention Centre for 282 days. She was born in Australia and under the Citizenship Act, JT would become an Australian citizen on her 10th birthday.  


The Ombudsman notes that as that day approached, plans to deport the family appeared to increase, citing an email which said: "We're trying to organise this ASAP, in the hope that we could remove the family before Mrs T's eldest daughter turns 10." 


The Minister, Amanda Vanstone, says as far she's concerned, the more light shed on the problems, the better. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Today for me is a very good day because the Ombudsman's reports on a number of cases have been finally released. They're not happy stories, I understand that, but what I want to emphasise is that I'm pleased that they've been dealt with, and particularly pleased with the acknowledgment from the Ombudsman of how much has already been done in terms of repairing things that needed to be repaired, upgrading things that needed to be upgraded. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Labor's Immigration spokesman, Tony Burke, says it's time someone took responsibility, setting his sights on the current minister. 


TONY BURKE: She should've been sacked long ago. There's no doubt about that. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: There's some speculation that some on her own side are campaigning for her to be dumped. 


But Senator Vanstone says she's very happy doing her job. 


AMANDA VANSTONE: Look, it's the silly season. Other people can comment as they choose. That's their business. I'm just getting on with my job. I'm not going to be distracted from it. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Peter Costello says Amanda Vanstone's a very valued colleague. 


PETER COSTELLO: She packs a punch, and she's got a big following out there in Australia, and I've really enjoyed serving with her. 


I think she's one of those people that brings a constituency to the party, and a lot of colour to the Parliament. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Another Minister's told PM , the agitation is an effort to try to pressure Senator Vanstone into going, but says there's no sense she's for the high jump, suggesting the speculation is most probably being fuelled by an ambitious few. 


MARK COLVIN: Alexandra Kirk.