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Wednesday, 21 September 1983
Page: 1078

Mr WEST (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs) —Pursuant to section 9 (1) (c) of the Human Rights Commission Act 1981, I present the House Human Rights Commission Report No. 6: 'The Observance of Human Rights at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre'. I seek leave to make a statement on the report.

Leave granted.

Mr WEST —I thank the House. Honourable members may recall that following receipt of a number of complaints concerning possible infringements of human rights at the Immigration Detention Centre at Villawood, the Human Rights Commission decided in December 1982 to hold a public inquiry into the conditions under which prohibited immigrants and deportees were being held at the Detention Centre. The Human Rights Commission has concluded its inquiry and a copy of its report will also be tabled by the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) in the Senate today.

First, I emphasise that the task of ordering the detention and deportation of non-citizens is among the more unpleasant of my responsibilities. While accepting the necessity for these controls, I have directed that the task of apprehending and removing illegal immigrants must be performed with sensitivity. These people have not, in general, been convicted of any offence and they should not be subject to conditions of arrest or detention, which would be inappropriate even for convicted criminals. For this reason, I welcome the report of the Human Rights Commission and, in general, support its recommendations.

I should mention that one of my first actions as Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs was to undertake a visit to the Villawood Detention Centre. I was , to say the least, very much distressed and disturbed to witness the conditions under which people were being detained there. Years of neglect by the previous Government and a shortage of custodial staff had resulted in this situation and clearly no overnight solutions could be found to solve completely the problems at the Centre. However, following the visit, I immediately directed that a number of improvements be made. Many of these improvements are incorporated in the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission. I therefore propose to outline the main recommendations of the Human Rights Commission and what has already been done following my directions under the main headings of Privacy, Legal and Access Rights of Detainees, Visitors, Messages, Property and Valuables , Recreation Needs and Welfare.


The Commission recommended a reduction in closed circuit television surveillance by the removal of cameras from internal areas thus concentrating surveillance on the external boundaries of the Centre. Cameras have already been removed from some areas and privacy has been improved in other areas by the erection of screens. The remaining internal surveillance will be reduced as soon as practicable having regard to the need to ensure the safety of both detainees and staff.

Rights of detainees

A number of recommendations relate to procedures for ensuring that detainees and their families are informed adequately of their rights and have access to legal counsel and to grievance machinery. As a result of my first visit to the Centre, much has already been achieved in this area. A pamphlet, translated into 36 languages, setting out access to legal and consular advice is being distributed to detainees; another on the rules of immigration detention centres, currently being developed in Melbourne, will be adapted for Villawood and be available in due course. Interpreter facilities are available to detainees through the telephone interpreter service. On-site interpreters are now being used when necessary. Legal aid solicitors are visiting the Centre regularly. Those detainees who prefer a private solicitor of their choice can have access to such a solicitor.

As to grievance machinery, detainees are made aware that they can consult either the welfare officer or the manager. Both these people were recently stationed at the Centre at my request. If any grievance remains unresolved, detainees have a statutory right of access to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. If complaints are against police officers, there are statutory mechanisms and procedures of which detainees are made aware.


Several recommendations relate to visitors, including longer visiting hours, the lengths of individual visits, provision for contact visits and procedures for the issue of visitor passes. Visiting hours have been increased to six hours per day. The length of time individual visitors can stay is regulated according to the number of visitors who are waiting to see the same detainee. The very large number of visitors has at times overtaxed the available space as well as the staff available. Building alterations are already planned, but some limitations on visitors, especially contact visits, will remain until the proposed administrative building is completed.

A review is being made of the arrangements for controlling visitor access through the system of passes. There has been some relaxation of the rules relating to gifts handed over by visitors to detainees, but the Commission agrees that some control is required to ensure that gifts posing a security problem do not enter the Detention Centre.


Some of the recommendations propose improved procedures for the receipt and despatch of mail, messages, phone calls and for the notation of occurrences affecting detainees. Detainees are requested to open inward mail in the presence of a custodial officer to ensure that no contraband enters the Centre. Arrangements to permit detainees to post outward mail directly into a sealed mailbox are under discussion with Australia Post. A number of practical difficulties are associated with the Commission's recommendation to have a pay phone installed at the Centre. Until these are resolved, detainees will continue to have access to telephones at Commonwealth expense. Access to occurrence and message books poses practical difficulties of preserving the privacy of detainees' messages and circumstances.

Property and valuables

Several recommendations refer to arrangements for the storage of and access to property and valuables. Personal lockers are being obtained to enable detainees to keep personal possessions, including valuables.

Recreation needs

The Commission recommended a number of steps to improve recreational facilities at the Centre. As a result of my visit earlier this year, the Centre has been provided with a wide range of indoor and outdoor recreational material, culturally diverse games, exercise equipment, a variety of newspapers, magazines and books in a number of languages.


The appointment of a welfare officer to the Centre has brought about major changes. The welfare officer is responsible for ensuring that detainees are aware of their rights, that all due access is provided to legal and consular assistance, that the general welfare needs of detainees and any specific needs of individuals are met, including access to clergy for religious observances and access to medical treatment. I further directed that, as a matter of general policy, my Department is not to place in detention centres women known to be in the advanced stages of pregnancy, and children, for whom the Centre's facilities are clearly inadequate. Most of these improvements were initiated by me before the Human Rights Commission lodged its report, but the need for them was reiterated by the Commission. However, a number of matters remain of concern, both to me and the Commission-for example, limitations on contact visits, lack of access by detainees to sleeping quarters outside the silent hours, inability to remove all internal television surveillance and, most importantly, the continuing closure of the women's wing, except for sleeping.

These problems are due to some extent to restrictions imposed by lack of space in an outmoded building, more seriously by an extreme shortage of custodial staff, especially female officers, and, most importantly, by reluctance to adopt progressive social reform. I believe that all of these are a legacy of the previous Administration.

As the Commission has commented, many of the difficulties have arisen from a sharing of responsibilities between the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and the Australian Federal Police. The Commission has recommended that, in order to ensure clear lines of responsibility, control and the protection of human rights of each detainee, the administrative functioning of the centre should eventually be transferred to one responsible department. It suggests that , in the long run, the requirements of the United Nation's minimum standard rules for the treatment of detainees would be better met by the development of a separate custodial service within that responsible department.

Honourable members will recall that, in May this year I outlined to the Parliament various amendments to the Migration Act specifically dealing with criminal deportation. At the time, I informed the House that the Migration Act would remain under continuing review. Among the issues to be reviewed are the status of prohibited non-citizens who have no serious criminal record, the provisions relating to search, arrest, custody, and legal and human rights while in detention. Honourable members may also be aware that the Human Rights Commission is currently calling for submissions for a report on the Migration Act. This report will no doubt address all of these issues. I am waiting to consider its findings and recommendations before proposing any further amendments to the Migration Act. But I want to assure the House that I am very much aware of the need to do so. During my short term of office, and the short term of office of this Government, I have set in progress some improvements. I admit that much remains to be done. I can assure the House that it will be done.