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Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee
Incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 to 18 February 2014

ADLER, Mr Nicholas Robert, Registered Migration Agent, Playfair Visa and Migration Services

NANAYAKKARA, Mr Shanil, Practice Manager, Playfair Visa and Migration Services

PLAYFAIR, Mrs Petra Madge, Managing Partner, Playfair Visa and Migration Services

CHAIR: Welcome. The committee has not received a written submission from Playfair Visa and Migration Services. I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee emphasises, however, that parliamentary privilege does not extend outside Australia and that Australian law cannot protect individuals in another country, whether or not they are Australian nationals. For this reason and so as not to prejudice ongoing criminal investigations and legal proceedings, the committee urges witnesses to exercise caution with regard to naming or otherwise identifying individuals located outside Australia, including Papua New Guinean nationals who are alleged to have been involved in the incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 to 18 February. Would you like to make a short opening statement before we go to questions?

Mrs Playfair : I would. I want to, firstly, thank you, Senators, for the invitation to appear at the hearing and to present an opening statement. I would like to, briefly, give you background about myself, Playfair Visa and Migration Services and its role at Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. I worked for seven years as a senior social worker for International Social Services, ISS. It is a United Nations affiliate, with a head office in Geneva. ISS worked with families and individuals whose problems could not be solved without the cooperation of two or more countries and the respective governments, their agencies and their social work departments within those countries. During this time I was involved in the Refugee Council of Australia, the New South Wales committee on adoption, and I worked closely with AusCare, the International Red Cross and those sorts of agencies.

Based on this professional experience, in 1988 I left to establish an independent private immigration practice. I am currently the managing partner of Playfair. We have around 30 staff and have specialised in migration law for 35 years. But the professional experience I gained from ISS, that complex cross-cultural casework, immigration casework in particular, informs our work on Manus Island today. So within the last 10 years I have also served as New South Wales president of the Migration Institute of Australia. I have been a board director of the Migration Agents Registration Authority. That is a regulatory body that is responsible for professional standards required for all migration agents and migration solicitors in Australia. That is my background.

Since 1988, Playfair as a company has provided advice across a full spectrum of commercial and private migration matters and, in line with my background in social and humanitarian work, Playfair also provides migration advice and assistance to asylum seekers and other disadvantaged people in the community in Australia.

The specific service provided to asylum seekers by Playfair is similar in concept to legal aid. The firm has a team of highly skilled employees in social areas, with extensive knowledge of both international and domestic migration law. For example, we have a team leader today on Manus Island, Besmellah Rezaee, and he was recently awarded the Young Migration Lawyer of the Year Award by the Law Council of Australia. He is our team leader there on Manus today.

We are also proud to have employees who have themselves arrived in Australia by boat as asylum seekers and it is their personal experience that gives this great value in understanding the psychological and emotional issues that are faced by our clients, particularly while in detention.

Playfair is a multilingual office. We employ staff able to converse in over 10 languages relevant to our clients and, typically, the languages that are included in the cohort we work with now are Urdu, Hazaragi, Pashtu, Dari, Farsi, Arabic, Bahasa, Indonesian, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Since 2001 Playfair has been assisting disadvantaged clients as a service provider under the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme, which you may be familiar with. We have represented clients in many places, including the following detention centres: Villawood, Christmas Island, Northern Immigration Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, Curtin in Western Australia, Inverbrackie in South Australia, Pontville in Tasmania, Wickham Point in the Northern Territory and Scherger in Queensland. We have also represented a lot of clients in community detention and in residential detention who are primarily families and children. Since 2009 we have represented over 3,700 asylum-seeker clients either in detention centres or in the community.

That brings us to Playfair's role as a protection claims assistance provider. In 2013 Playfair was one of two independent firms contracted to provide protection claims assistance to asylum seekers held and transferred to regional processing countries. As with those previous task forces in detention centres I described, Playfair deployed its team to Manus Island at the request of the department of immigration. Our role is limited to providing assistance in the refugee status determination process—I will call it RSD.

We assist clients in preparing and submitting RSD applications. We represent clients at the government interviews that follow. We prepare applications for merits review and we represent clients through the review process and will do at their hearings if instructed to do so. We make detailed written legal submissions to support their applications where appropriate. We provide group information sessions to explain the RSD process. We also provide a shopfront service which allows clients to make an appointment for a face-to-face meeting with us to discuss any aspect of their claim for protection. By providing these independent services to our clients, we lay the foundations for their claims to be documented and assessed.

Playfair was first requested to send staff to Manus on 8 July 2013 and following on from the Prime Minister's announcement on 19 July 2013 those clients left Manus Island and returned to Australia. Then Playfair was requested to send a team of eight to Manus Island on 1 August 2013. On 23 August two staff were requested for a deployment and the last person on this deployment left Manus Island on 19 September 2013. The next team to be requested arrived as a team on 6 February 2014 to assist preparing applications and to provide information sessions, and we were present during the incident of 16 and 17 February. During that deployment about 173 interviews were completed and lodged. That deployment ran over about a month.

Interestingly, we were requested to deploy staff on 14 August 2013, 28 August 2013 and 12 September. Two of these deployments were cancelled en route and the third was cancelled just prior to departure. We were requested to provide one staff person to undertake shopfront duties and carry out group sessions on Manus between 19 December and 13 January and then from 22 January up to when the team arrived on 6 February. Since about March 2014 we have been requested to provide personnel on an ongoing basis, which we have done.

I also want to give you some statistics, some information relating to our work there, before I close. There are currently just over 1,200 people detained on Manus, according to the nom roll that we have referred to today; 440 clients have been interviewed and had their RSD applications lodged and 122 government interviews have been scheduled.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mrs Playfair, can I get you to repeat that second number?

Mrs Playfair : One hundred and twenty-two government interviews have been scheduled. That means we have been sent the schedule and we are sent out slips and people have come in—or requested to come in—for the government interviews based on those applications lodged. At 9 June 2014, 48 transferees had received an assessment outcome of which 23 were positive; 25 were negative. At 9 June 2014, 11 applications for merits review had been lodged.

I am just going to cut to the point here: we work through the internet and it is not working all the time, so some of our figures are not absolutely statistically accurate. We tried to obtain information that is fairly accurate for today but please don't think it is done to the exact number. They change every day, but I just want to conclude because I know you are ready for questions. I need to introduce my colleagues properly: Mr Nick Adler is a registered migration agent. He was the team leader at Manus Island at the time of the relevant events; and Shanil Nanayakkara is our practice manager in Sydney in Australia. Thank you for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Just before I start off on a list of other questions, I just want to clarify: the 440 interviews plus RSD lodged—what interviews are we talking about?

Mrs Playfair : They are not the transferee interviews that you may have heard about in the public domain; they are the interviews that take place when, in our role, we go in and interview clients, and prepare a statement of claim, a form, an information, to enable them to document why they are seeking protection.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So they are not the introductory interviews?

Mrs Playfair : Those are not our responsibility.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Who does them?

Mrs Playfair : In Australia they would be the responsibility of the department of immigration and are called entry interviews. When they are done in PNG, they are called transferee interviews, and my understanding is that they are the responsibility of the PNG government. I am not privy to how these are negotiated, on what grounds and for what purpose, because they are not part—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: They happen before you are even given your client's name or allocated a client.

Mrs Playfair : Currently, as of now, they happen before we interview clients.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Before Playfair interviews them.

Mrs Playfair : Currently, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: This is important because you obviously, I assume you seen some of the evidence that has been put forward to the committee over the last few days and in written submissions. What is being discussed in the public domain is the fact that the RSD process, the lack of uncertainty about it and the length of time they have been taking was a contributing factor to the tensions that led to the incidents. The department told us yesterday that over 800 transferee interviews had been done by 16 and 17 February. They are not actually part of the RSD process, are they?

Mrs Playfair : Not as far as we are concerned, but we would like copies of those and any documents, if it would assist our applicant.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you don't even get copies of those interviews or the information that is gathered from that?

Mrs Playfair : We do now.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You do now? When did that change?

Mrs Playfair : I can't give you the exact date, but it changed within the last couple of months.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Prior or since the incidents?

Mrs Playfair : Since February.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Since February 16.

Mrs Playfair : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Had you specifically requested that?

Mrs Playfair : We requested that in 2013. The Australian government indicated that we would be able to have them; when I first went there, we did not have them. Our understanding then was that it was up to the PNG government. But, again, I am not privy to exactly how that works between the two governments. Can I just put it in context. I just explained our history. In Australia, we started with large numbers of people in detention in 2009-10. I do not think we got entry interviews when we started there either. It does not mean we do not want them or would not like them, but they are not technically supposed to be part of our process.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Why do you want them, then?

Mrs Playfair : We would like any information or any document where somebody talks about themselves—either their identity or information about their history. Because that information is on the record within the government, I think we should also be entitled to it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So, now, as a matter of course you get access to that information for the clients that you currently have?

Mrs Playfair : We do now.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But it did not happen prior to February. What has happened to those clients whose RSD applications you had been preparing? Did you have to do that in the dark, effectively, without that information?

Mrs Playfair : Yes. As I said, we have done that historically in this country as well, but we have also requested all those applications and we are getting them—we are in the process of getting them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are any of the people that you prepared applications for prior to February, prior to having to those entry interviews, people who have received their assessment outcome?

Mrs Playfair : I have not cross-referenced and brought that information with me.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If they are people who have received assessment outcomes that were negative, would you be applying for a merits review on the basis that you did not have information for them that you now have for others?

Mrs Playfair : We would include all information that would advantage a client in a merits review, of course.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: My question is: is that a basis for a merits review?

Mrs Playfair : I think you have to consider whether or not information that was in a transferee interview was used by a government official without us being aware of it in a decision process. That is what we would be looking for.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Let's go back. There was a bit of confusion yesterday with the department about these transferee interviews. It was all okay and the claims that the RSD process was not happening was a bit of a furphy, effectively, because transferee interviews were happening. That is effectively what the department put to us yesterday. I just want to be really clear. From your understanding, how many people, as of 16 February, do you believe were undergoing their RSD process—your clients?

Mrs Playfair : I have given statistics in my submission. I am quite happy to give them to you in writing, based on our facts.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: My understanding is that the numbers you have given me are to date, not from 16 February.

Mrs Playfair : Oh, from 16 February.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Sorry, as of 16 February is my point.

Mrs Playfair : I did not bring that information with me.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Could you take that on notice for us? It is actually quite important for this.

Mrs Playfair : Yes.

Senator SINGH: What we heard from the department was also that the transferee interview is the beginning of the RSD process.

Mrs Playfair : Did they explain to you in what context they stated that?

Senator SINGH: No, Mr Bowles said it was a long, involved process but that the transferee interview was the beginning of the RSD process. I understood that that was not the case. What is your view on the transferee interview? Is that the beginning of the RSD process?

Mrs Playfair : The RSD process is the process that a government undertakes. We represent a client to present an application to lodge. The process itself is not determined by us. We have no control over the timing. We have an understanding of that process. If they want to say that it is the beginning of a process, it is their point. It does not—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mrs Playfair, I was surprised when I heard the department say this yesterday because I know in the Australian context what is effectively the entry interview is not considered part of the RSD process. Is that your understanding?

Mrs Playfair : That is our understanding, but it may not be the understanding of the PNG government. That is what I am trying to say. We are not in control of how the PNG government considers that process. That is probably an important point to take into account. It is a new country.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What information were you given by the department as to what was required of you while working with clients on Manus Island from the time your team arrived on 6 February?

Mrs Playfair : I was actually overseas at the time, but—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Adler, you were on the island at the time.

Mr Adler : Yes. Our job was to provide information sessions to inform as many people as possible in the centre about the process that they were going to engage in, if they had not already engaged in it, and to conduct a full schedule of interviews to begin the RSD process for a number of clients. We would do three interviews per day per person. That meant at that time 18 interviews per day. So there were 18 clients having their applications prepared and lodged per day.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What was your understanding of what would happen to asylum seekers once they had lodged their application? Were you given a time frame by the department?

Mr Adler : No, there were no time frames given.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were you given in any way information as to how explain that to your clients?

Mr Adler : No, we were not given any information on how to explain it but it certainly was part of our role to explain that and we would do that. We would make it very clear. People would often question that and ask, 'How long will it take?' We would make it very clear that we were not in control of that process. The scheduling of the next interview stage is not done by us and we were not able to give any indications because we simply do not control that time line and we have no information to offer. We are very open and honest and make it as clear as possible.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What about resettlement? At the end of the day, people were applying for refugee status. What was the endgame? Back here in Australia we have all been told since July that anyone who is found to be a refugee will be resettled in PNG. Is that the conversation you had with your clients?

Mr Adler : No, it was not. Resettlement was clearly not part of our remit and we were very careful not to engage in that subject because it was not part of our role. Our role was restricted to the RSD process. Resettlement can only occur when someone has been determined to be a refugee. Our role was to help in that assessment process. If there were a positive outcome, resettlement would be another question. I am aware that this was an important issue for our clients. Of course people were wanting information on this. But there was no reliable information available. There was a lot of conflicting information circulating and a lot of rumour—unsubstantiated rumour and conflicting rumour.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What kind? I am really interested in this because we—the Australian parliament and the Australian people—have been told very clearly that anyone who is found to be a refugee after 19 July will be resettled in PNG. How is that not clear?

Mr Adler : Because there were messages coming from other sources that were suggesting otherwise. For instance, on the application form for refugee status determination there is a declaration which everyone must sign. A part of that declaration states—I haven't got the exact words in front of me, although I think it is one of the documents that has been tabled—that resettlement will be in PNG or another country. So there were different sources of information. It was impossible to tell which ones were actually correct because one person might be saying one thing and another person might be saying something else. So our role is not to engage in that, and we did not want to engage in that. We believed strongly that if we addressed that subject anyway, we could only be adding to—well, we would certainly not be mitigating—the rumours that were going around, because we had nothing reliable to offer.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you were not able to clarify that with the department?

Mr Adler : What I clarified with the department very early in our deployment was that we would not address this matter in any way, in information sessions especially. People were constantly asking questions about this and I made it very clear that we would not go there. It was outside our role. It risked blurring our role in a way that would not be helpful to establishing a position of trust which would then enable us to do our job properly, and without any kind of relationship of trust with our clients you can imagine that it is very difficult to make a proper refugee assessment in getting them to tell you about their experiences. It was very important that we did not blur that. I was insistent, and I instructed my team accordingly, that we should never address that issue.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Was that a decision of yours and Playfair's not to blur that role or was that a request put to you by the federal government in Australia, that has obviously contracted you?

Mr Adler : That was our decision. We act independently. We make independent decisions, and it was our decision not to go anywhere near that issue.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: These information sessions that you hold for asylum seekers inside the camp, how many people would you have there at any one time?

Mr Adler : It varied. When we first arrived we had some large sessions and then, because the tension was high at the time, as you know, large sessions were quite hard to manage and so we came to an agreement with the immigration department, the PNG immigration department and G4S to hold a series of small information sessions. The idea was that we would work through the whole of the centre—in fact we talked to everybody. This was my role at that time. We restricted those to groups of 10.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you were holding those sessions in addition to your one-on-one client interview?

Mr Adler : Yes. This was a parallel operation, absolutely. The one-on-one interviews were going on in one area and I was holding repeated information sessions with groups that were brought to me at a separate location—Bravo compound on your map there—so that I could effectively and properly explain to the best of my ability, calmly and thoroughly without there being a large group that got overexcited, exactly what we were doing and what was going to happen.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Was the information that you gave in each of those sessions consistent?

Mr Adler : Absolutely, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you stick to a script?

Mr Adler : No, I did not stick to a script. There had been some talking points suggested to us, one of which had been the subject of resettlement, and I had established that I would not address that subject. The rest of the talking points were essentially all the things that we would be saying anyway. There were things about the RSD process—what happens, information about the one interview or two interviews, the time line being unclear—all those things that we would normally explain to people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Where did those talking points come from?

Mr Adler : There was a list of suggested talking points given to us by the Department of Immigration before we departed Australia.

Mrs Playfair : I could add there that I checked when I did come back. There were the talking points that had been used by the other provider on the Nauru prior to February—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The other CAPS provider—

Mrs Playfair : Yes, and they were the talking points that I think Nick was referring to. But the other talking points that Nick referred to, which were what we go through in the process, are the talking points that we use in group sessions based on the TIL, the transfer information leaflet, and that leaflet is based on information we put together.

Mr Adler : I think it is important to establish that if somebody was to give you a suggested list of talking points and if those talking points were things that you would address anyway then I do not think that there can be any suggestion that you were being pushed into saying something, if you like. It is only if there were things that you would not say and, where that occurred we made it very clear that we would not say those things.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What were the things you decided not to say that were on that list of talking points?

Mr Adler : The subject of resettlement and where resettlement might or might not be.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you a copy of the talking points you were given as suggestions by the department?

Mr Adler : I believe we do in the office.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would you be able to table that for the committee once you get back?

Mr Adler : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That would be helpful. Was there only one talking point about resettlement or were there a number of that you had to leave off?

Mr Adler : I think there was only one, from memory. I do not think there were many versions of the same thing; I think there was one.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mrs Playfair, your staff would go through the transferee information leaflet with an individual client in their one-on-one interviews?

Mrs Playfair : Yes. I would ask them to go through and use it as a guide before they started the interview, in particular, because it explained the process from our point of view; it explained who we were and why we were there. It was the only guideline they had to go through. It also allowed us to have a benchmark to make sure that the CAPs we sent there would actually go through the process. At the end of that verbal discussion we then had another page on the back, which we called instructions. We asked our client with an interpreter and our CAPs to go through and interpret that and sign it. That way we had a record on our files, which we lodged with the government, to indicate that this person understood what was happening.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I just want to be clear where the information in the information leaflet came from. Is it something that you developed or did it come from the department?

Mrs Playfair : This did not come from the department. This came from us as a private firm. It came from the other provider, then was worked on with me. We tried to be consistent, simple and plain. It is quite lengthy, but it needed to be at the time. Then the two providers translated it into all the languages we could.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You never felt like you had to give it to the department?

Mrs Playfair : I showed it to the department. I was very happy to show it to the department. I also then lodged it—just the back page—with the PNG department. We did not have to do, but we chose to because it was the process we were developing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, for that.

Senator SINGH: Mrs Playfair, you mentioned that, I think it was from 9 June, 48 transferees received assessment, 23 positive and 25 negative. Is that from 9 June until now?

Mrs Playfair : No, that is according to records we have up to 9 June.

Senator SINGH: Sorry, up to 9 June this year, starting from when?

Mrs Playfair : From the start. These are the first notifications that have been made.

Senator SINGH: So those are the figures for people who have received assessment since Manus Island detention centre has been in operation until 9 June.

Mrs Playfair : That is correct.

Senator SINGH: What is your role and then, from your role, can you tell the committee what happens with the 23 who are positive and the 25 who are negative?

Mrs Playfair : I will start with the 23 who are positive. That is called a recommendation. It is not called a decision and it is certainly not a visa decision not associated with going anywhere or a settlement. It is a recommendation made. That then, internally—that is our understanding—goes up to the minister, because only the minister can make a decision. That is as far as it has got with the positives.

Senator SINGH: So those 23 are sitting with the minister?

Mrs Playfair : We do not know. Those 23 at this stage have been recommendations where a PNG CAP protection officer, they are called, will hand that decision to somebody. That person will be referred to us and we will discuss it with them—give them information as best as we know. These are very recent recommendations.

CHAIR: Can I just clarify: which minister does it go to?

Mrs Playfair : PNG ICSA.

CHAIR: So the PNG minister?

Mrs Playfair : Yes.

CHAIR: Not the Australian minister?

Mrs Playfair : No, because the application being lodged under the domestic law in PNG for refugee determination is then a decision made for refugee determination under their regulations. And under those regulations and under their act it is the minister who must ultimately make that decision.

Senator SINGH: And you are saying that these 23 positive are only recent recommendations? When you say recent, is that post 17 February?

Mrs Playfair : Yes.

Senator SINGH: So, before 17 February, were any transferee assessments done?

Mrs Playfair : There were no recommendations made until, I think, very recently. We do not have the exact date—

Mr Adler : End of April.

Mrs Playfair : End of April.

Senator SINGH: And why is that?

Mrs Playfair : You would have to ask that question of the PNG government.

Senator SINGH: That is fine.

Mrs Playfair : Or the Australian government. We receive a schedule saying there are recommendations—

Senator SINGH: So you did not receive a schedule until when?

Mrs Playfair : We received our first schedule as of April.

Senator SINGH: It just helps this inquiry, because obviously this inquiry is looking into—

Mrs Playfair : Circumstances.

Senator SINGH: the incident that happened between 16 and 17 February and there are a number of contributing factors that have been provided to this committee as to why that incident occurred. So there were none, until April, provided to you—

Mrs Playfair : To us.

Senator SINGH: by the department of immigration?

Mrs Playfair : Actually, the scheduling for those notifications, I think, comes from the PNG ICSA scheduling.

Senator SINGH: Do they? Right.

Mrs Playfair : They actually do not come from the department of immigration in Australia. Other schedules do come from the department of immigration in Australia, but not those particular ones.

Senator SINGH: So the 25 negative—

Mrs Playfair : The 25 negative, then we receive a detailed assessment record and after the recommendation is given, that client is then referred to us. We can go through that decision and, if the client chooses, the client will instruct us to lodge a merits review, which we aim to lodge on the form given to us by the PNG ICSA within 28 days. We have not gone past lodgement, as I have just explained. I have not got any hearings scheduled or any other information or any time lines.

Senator SINGH: And is that merits review under Australian law or PNG law?

Mrs Playfair : PNG law.

Senator SINGH: I want to ask you about repatriation. Are you aware as to whether the department of immigration offered repatriation to two Syrian asylum seekers?

Mrs Playfair : I am not aware that the department of immigration did that.

Senator SINGH: Officials.

Mrs Playfair : I am aware that we have got some Syrian clients and Nic would probably be in a better position to answer.

Mr Adler : I was asked to go to a meeting when I was there in February with some Syrian people, three Syrian men initially. The request was made by one of the torture and trauma counsellors to come and just explain to them their situation. They were not actually our clients at that time. I was happy to go along just to be helpful, which I did, and explained to them the process as I understood it. There was then a further meeting with one of them—this would have been, I forget exactly, perhaps a week later—who seemed to be very insistent that he wanted to return to Syria. This was another meeting with the counsellor, who facilitated it, and someone from the department of immigration whose name, I am afraid, I do not know. I was asked to go along as a kind of witness, if you like. I am not quite sure what my role was but just to sit there and listen. Again, I was happy enough to do that because it seemed to be helpful. At this meeting it was discussed that he wanted to go back to Syria and it was discussed how that might be facilitated.

Senator SINGH: What was the final outcome?

Mr Adler : There was no final outcome. The discussion went on for quite a long time. He was informed fully of the difficulties and the consequences and that he needed to be extremely clear about this decision if he was going to proceed with it.

Senator SINGH: What, that it was a wartorn country?

Mr Adler : Yes. He had just left there, relatively recently, so he was under no illusions about the situation in Syria. It was made very clear to him that if he did pursue this it would be his own decision. That was the nature of it. Then, in fact, the meeting was called to a premature halt because there was some rising tension in the camp. Soon after that we were asked to evacuate.

Senator SINGH: That was one Syrian. I think there were a couple of others.

Mr Adler : Yes, there were three at the initial discussion that I alluded to, then there was one at the second meeting.

Senator SINGH: At the initial meeting there were three. Did all of them want to return to Syria?

Mr Adler : They were all meeting with their counsellor, whom they had been meeting regularly for their emotional and psychological needs, and with me just to simply explain the refugee status determination process. They were interested to know whether they could get some sort of priority; they wanted to ask that question. I gave them as much information as I could.

Senator SINGH: In relation to the incident that occurred on 16 and 17 February, what involvement did Playfair have with the asylum seekers and the facility in the lead-up to that incident occurring? I know the scheduling and the transferee assessments did not happen until April, obviously way after the incident. What was your involvement with the facility in the lead-up to that particular date, so in January and February, for example?

Mrs Playfair : If you go back to the opening statement it should indicate that we were not there in January. I was trying to make that point clear. We had a shopfront person, but the role of shopfront is not to prepare or lodge a claim; the role of shopfront is to answer questions, just to be there. We did not get there until 6 February, so at that point I can hand over to Nick, who was the team leader at that time.

Mr Adler : As I said before, our role was essentially to conduct a full schedule of interviews to start the whole process moving and get applications completed and lodged.

Senator SINGH: Were you there every day?

Mr Adler : We were there every day.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: From 6 February?

Mr Adler : That is correct. Until we left on—

Senator SINGH: Were you aware of this tension that was rising?

Mr Adler : Yes, the tension was very evident. We conducted some information sessions on the night of our arrival. The tension was very high, there is no question about that. It was very volatile. There were active protests going on. It was extremely tense and volatile.

Senator SINGH: How were you aware as to what the factors were that contributed to that tension?

Mr Adler : I am sorry, could you repeat that?

Senator SINGH: You said you experienced that there was tension there from the moment you arrived. Do you know what were the factors that were creating that tension?

Mr Adler : I do not know specifically. People were chanting slogans like 'freedom' and those sorts of things. It would be common sense to understand the underlying reasons were that people had been kept in the detention centre for a long period of time and they were frustrated. They were not aware of how the process was moving forward for them. That was the impression we got, but nobody spoke to me and said, 'These are the reasons these tensions are there.'

Senator SINGH: How did you find the facilities at the centre?

Mr Adler : On that visit? Or on previous visits?

Senator SINGH: From 6 February.

Mr Adler : Do you mean our working environment, or the living conditions?

Senator SINGH: Both.

Mr Adler : Well, I am sure it is common knowledge what the nature of the centre is. I am sure I cannot elaborate on that any more than on what you would be aware of.

Senator SINGH: But you obviously have dealings with other detention centres, which I think Mrs Playfair outlined in her opening statement. How would the Manus Island facility compare with, say, Villawood or Christmas Island?

Mrs Playfair : 'Processing centre' was what they called Manus Island initially, whereas, say, Villawood or Christmas Island are very much high-security, high-wire centres. They are structured differently and run by the Australian government or whoever they employ. There is very different infrastructure, I would say, in the way it operated. Look, I do not know; I have been there in 2013—July and August. To compare it with Australia now, I am probably not the best person to do that, but it was not the same as our detention centres here. My understanding was that it was not designed that way, and I think the submissions that went to you from the people involved in G4S would have said it was designed to be a processing centre as opposed to a detention centre when it was first built.

CHAIR: Mr Adler, you were there and you witnessed it, from 6 February. Had you been there before that?

Mr Adler : Yes.

CHAIR: Did you witness any living conditions there that you think would have actually made the situation unpleasant or tense for people there? We have heard from other people, but I am very interested in hearing your point of view as well—what you observed.

Mr Adler : There can be no question that it is a very crowded environment, as you would know, with people living in conditions where there are large numbers in single spaces with very little privacy. There is obviously a cohort of people in states of high anxiety. They are very worried about their own situation and about their family's situation. All these things come together. There is uncertainty about how long things will take—all these things we have talked about. So certainly they are very difficult conditions.

CHAIR: Did your clients ever reflect that to you in your interviews with them?

Mr Adler : People did not talk to us about their living conditions, as I can recall.

CHAIR: Really?

Mr Adler : Not in any great detail. They might express feelings about being present in the centre, but I do not recall specific things such as 'My bed is no good.'

CHAIR: I am just interested: you are sort of in the role of a lawyer, giving advice to someone who is seeking to make a refugee claim, essentially. We heard evidence earlier that a lot of people had no-one there for them, except perhaps the Salvation Army—no family, no friends. I would have thought that perhaps you were in a position where they would reflect to you their frustration or unhappiness about living conditions that they were experiencing.

Mr Adler : All I can say is that we were there to do a job, and we tried to keep focused on that, because that was the best way to assist people—to prepare a thorough application and get that lodged. So, the best way we could help people was to focus on that and not be distracted by other things. And if they needed to discuss those welfare matters then it was more appropriate that they address those with the Salvation Army than for us to try to—

CHAIR: I was not saying that you would elicit it, but—

Mrs Playfair : Yes. If they did talk—

CHAIR: Sorry, Senator Singh; I did not want to take your time. I just felt that Mr Adler and Mrs Playfair are our eyes and ears. I have not been there. I am trying to assess what it is about this place that it ended up in the incident that we are investigating. And we are hearing evidence from different people who have been there. Certainly some of the evidence we have heard about the conditions people are living in is pretty horrific, to be quite honest. You have been in the position of seeing different conditions in different processing centres or detention centres, or whatever you like to call them. So I am just interested: is there something that is particularly different about Manus Island and the conditions there? We are trying to end up with some understanding about how this incident occurred so that such an incident will not happen again.

Mrs Playfair : I think you are going to get a lot of information from the Salvation Army, who look after the welfare. People come to us. They are desperate to tell us their story. They know they may be in very difficult circumstances and they are very vulnerable. Unless they were mentally or physically unfit to actually talk to us, they would turn up and just try, if they could, to tell us about their claim. If we identify a problem that is welfare related we take it and refer it back to the people who have some responsibility and obligation for that. Ditto with IHMS.

CHAIR: As I said, though, you have eyes and ears. You would have observed things yourselves by being there, presumably for a significant number of hours during the day. You were processing quite a few people each day, 18—sorry, how many claims a day was it?

Mr Adler : In the February period it would have been 18 people per day, yes.

CHAIR: So you were there for some period of time each day. But I do not want to take any more of your time.

Senator SINGH: Just on that: when you went on 6 February, Mr Adler, the transferees had been there for a number of months. Were you concerned or perplexed as to why Playfair had not been given any scheduling?

Mrs Playfair : That is probably a question aimed at me. I was aware that it was a decision of the government's as to whether they wanted to send us and when they wanted to send us. Within our contract it is up to them, as the PNG government, to invite us and up to the Australian government to schedule us. It is up to government policy to determine whether we are to go, just as it would be in Australia, and they refer clients to us. You are crossing the question with concern. We would think that we should be there. That is our concern. But we are not perplexed. It is their decision. It is out of our control. We would like to be there. We are ready; we were ready.

Senator SINGH: I know you are ready. And here are all of these transferees sitting there. Tension is rising. Frustration is rising. You are ready to go. They are waiting.

Mrs Playfair : I am not privy to how the two governments are working together on this contract or the way they want to operate at that level for RSD. It is just the way it is—government policy.

Senator SINGH: At any of those points did you go to the Department of Immigration and ask: 'What's going on? Why aren't we being asked to start having these transferee assessments done?'?

Mrs Playfair : I was aware from the fact that our task forces were turned around en route that there would have been questions. And there was a change of government around that time. There are still questions. It is up to government to determine how they see us, our role, and the benefit.

Senator SINGH: What do you mean your 'task forces were turned around en route'?

Mrs Playfair : I think in my statement I explained that the deployments—I think that was the term I used, rather than task forces—around that period of time—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Twice in August and once in September.

Mr Adler : That is right.

Mrs Playfair : Yes—in 2013. Although we were ready and deployment started, we did not get there. The reason we did not get there I am not familiar with, because I do not determine government policy or where those decisions are made within government. But we were ready, and we cannot do more than be ready and say we are ready. Under our contract we have to be ready to go; we expect to go. It is to the benefit of the client for us to be there. We believe it is also to our benefit to go as early s possible into a situation where people are detained.

CHAIR: I am just conscious we are nearly out of time. The recommendations that you have alluded to now: 23 positive, 25 negative—what would be the Australian equivalent of that level of decision in the Australian system? What would it be called? You said it is not a decision; it has to go to the immigration equivalent. It is a recommendation.

Mrs Playfair : Interestingly, there is no equivalent. We are in unprecedented territory where we sit now in PNG. You have had very good submissions from organisations and academics explaining the international law and how it plays down. The closest I can come—and I don't know if this is even appropriate to draw an analogy in this environment, so I say this with caution—would be the early, early days when it was called RSA, 2009 and 2010 in Australia. We called this is a non-statutory process with no access to judicial review where people came in and the minister did not lift a bar and they were allowed to lodge forms that had no value in terms of visa application. That was an assessment process called refugee status assessments. It was that sort of process. It is a process that allows somebody to be determined whether they are a refugee or not and, from there, the minister makes a decision as to what would happen next.

CHAIR: I appreciate it is a difficult question to ask you. I am struck by the fact that more than half are found to be negative as opposed to positive. It would seem that if the decision ultimately is to be made by the minister, it would seem highly unlikely that those where there was a negative recommendation would then ultimately be agreed by the minister to have refugee status. So I would have thought that—I may be wrong—given that more than half are found to be negative at that initial recommendation point of view, that is not very good odds for someone just on that small sample size. I am interested in getting a sense of how that compares with the Australian process—do you understand what I am asking?

Mrs Playfair : Very similar. I think it is similar in 2009; 2010 similar. Many, many applications in Australia, a good 50 per cent or more, were refused at the primary level. It is publicly available information that the 50 to 60 per cent refusal rate at the primary level was then reversed at the review level.

CHAIR: That is what I was going to ask. So then there is another step in the Australian process whereby that may be reversed and my understanding is that, overall, the success rate in terms of refugee applications is significantly higher than the 50 per cent initial success rate.

Mrs Playfair : Yes, that sounds correct.

CHAIR: In this situation—I will just leave it there.

Mrs Playfair : I think we should not speculate either on this, because we are referred clients. We don't know anything about their circumstances. They are asylum seekers. It is up to us to document and determine depending on the circumstances, their profiles, where they come from, the year they are coming to us. What may have been a situation in a country three or four years ago may be different now. It may be different countries, cohorts, profiles, ethnicities or groups that we are dealing with than we were dealing with then. It should not be the way we approach it. The whole premise behind this is: document and assess.

CHAIR: I accept your—

Mrs Playfair : Robust, fair and expeditiously.

CHAIR: I accept your qualification there and we cannot draw any real conclusions from that. I was just interested in that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Firstly, I just want to clarify. Mr Adler, you were there from 6 February. When did you leave?

Mr Adler : I left on 20 February.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you were there throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th unrest.

Mr Adler : Correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: On the afternoon Sunday, 16 February, there was a meeting hosted by the department to discuss with cultural leaders, spokespeople, the issues that they had asked to be discussed. Significantly, a large number of those questions they wanted answers to were in relation to processing of their claims. Were you informed that this meeting was happening?

Mr Adler : No, I was not directly informed that it was happening. I did hear that it was happening. I was aware of arrangements being made in the centre in preparation for it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you did not have any discussion with the department of immigration about that meeting or what was going to be discussed?

Mr Adler : No, none at all.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did that strike you as strange considering the work that you were doing and the fact that you were running information sessions with transferees about this very topic?

Mr Adler : You could look at that in two ways. I would say probably not in the context. In fact, I was pleased not to be tied in any way to this meeting because it was very important for us to remain independent. We were independent of the government. We wanted to remain independent and be seen to be independent. That is very important in our role. Had we been asked to come along to that meeting or been told about what was going to be done it would have been a compromising situation to be in. So, in fact, I am very happy that we were not. From a practical perspective, not knowing what is going on in a place like that can be awkward. You need to know because you need to know what not to do, such as not scheduling interviews that day, or perhaps expecting they might not go ahead because something else was happening. From that point of view, it would have been helpful.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you know what information was given to the people—

Mr Adler : I do not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: who ended up being your clients?

Mr Adler : I am not aware of the exact information. I was not given a copy of any document that related to that. But in a broad sense I know what the questions were that were put to the respective governments.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you ever ask for information as to what your clients were told at that meeting?

Mr Adler : Yes, I did.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But you were not given it?

Mr Adler : I was told that I would be given it after the meeting.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Were you?

Mr Adler : I was not. I think that is probably more a reflection of what happened after the meeting than any kind of intention to not give that information out, because there was nothing contentious about it. After the meeting it would have been public knowledge.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you were not given it because things blew up from there and everybody's focus shifted for that next 48 hours?

Mr Adler : I think that is a fair representation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How often would you speak to the immigration department on a daily basis while you were there ?

Mr Adler : I would not speak to them on a daily basis, except perhaps for the person arranging the interpreters. That is a role that is obviously directly relevant to our ability to carry out interviews. Sometimes you need a different interpreter. Those are practical matters that need to be facilitated. In terms of having discussions with the immigration department about important matters, I would not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mrs Playfair, what type of communication did you have with the department while your staff were on the island?

Mrs Playfair : During that period? I talked to Nick. We had a phone on the island. When the internet and mobile phone reception was working we would talk when we could, but he was very, very busy too and we had to communicate after hours sometimes. That is also awkward. There were no private places he could go and easily talk about issues with me. But we have a system in place where we try to communicate daily and we have a reporting system—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am asking about your communication with the immigration department.

Mrs Playfair : Our responsibility is to have information sent to us, which we try to do now more on a daily basis. That information revolves around who has been interviewed, language groups that have been found and information that is relevant to scheduling more clients. I get reports sent up now when the internet is working. We send that back to the department of immigration in Canberra. I ask for information to be sent to me so I can bring it back.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you would speak to the immigration department in Canberra if you need to?

Mrs Playfair : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you ever speak to the immigration department of PNG?

Mrs Playfair : I have spoken to them when I have been there. I have spoken to—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But, while your team of staff have been deployed, they are on Manus and you know they are doing client interviews, who—

Mrs Playfair : Who do they speak to?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, who are you negotiating with, consulting with and talking to? The immigration department in Canberra?

Mrs Playfair : Yes. But the negotiations that I do with the immigration department in Canberra revolve very much around client scheduling issues or around contract issues in relation to accommodation, flights and organising to get us in and out. They are not necessarily about the RSD process specific to the PNG department of immigration. We talk to them now about the review process, for example—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did the department raise with you concerns they had about your staff on the island?

Mrs Playfair : There have been incidents. I do not think I was in Australia then.

Mr Nanayakkara : No.

Mrs Playfair : Mr Nanayakkara took that matter, so he is probably equipped to talk about that.

CHAIR: We will make this a brief answer and then will need to finish here. Maybe you can take it on notice.

Mrs Playfair : During that period?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: During that period, I want to know whether the department of immigration complained to you about your staff, what they were saying to clients and what was being said inside the centre.

Mr Nanayakkara : We did receive a complaint at the outset after the first night and we made Mr Adler aware of it. The matter was resolved amicably with no fault found with our staff member.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What was the nature of the complaint?

Mr Nanayakkara : I am struggling to remember it offhand, but I would suggest that part of the complaint related to the fact that, upon arrival, there was quite a bit of tension and they required staff to be available. My recollection of the resolution of the complaint was that our staff were ready and available and carried out the meetings that they were supposed to do—the information sessions—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So the department never raised with you, or you, Mr Adler, concerns in relation to what your staff were discussing with clients?

Mr Nanayakkara : What our staff were discussing with clients? I think you may be talking about the secondary issue, which involved having to get some mixed messages clarified. I think that is what you are talking about. Is that—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I do not know. I am just asking you the question. I would like an answer.

Mr Adler : I can respond. The whole issue of resettlement, as we have already discussed, was a very sensitive matter. I have already told you our position on that—that we were very clear on our position that we would not address it in any way because we could only be misleading or risk being misleading if we said anything. Clearly, we would not want to do that. You are already aware, as you have alluded before, of a position being given here and perhaps a different one there. There was a sense, if people were confused, of wanting to know why. What was the source of confusion? In our role of wanting to keep things as unconfusing as possible, if somebody said to me, 'This person appears to have misunderstood this,' where is he getting it from? That seemed to me to be quite a reasonable request to follow and say, 'We don't really want people misunderstanding these things.' It was reasonable to try and find out where he was hearing it from so we could clarify with the source to say, 'You've got it wrong. Let's not spread misinformation'—not necessarily maliciously; just because people were confused. If that is the kind of thing you are talking about, then—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I will ask the question again: did the department ever raise issues with you about concerns they had of what your staff discussed with your clients?

Mr Adler : I do not think they ever raised questions about what we discussed with our clients, unless there were some misunderstandings about talk about resettlement. If you are meaning: did they ask us for information about what sorts of things your clients are telling you—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did they raise concerns about things that were discussed with your clients by your staff—yes or no?

Mr Nanayakkara : Nick cannot answer that question, to be fair.

Mrs Playfair : If the Department of Immigration receives information about us, they escalate it through the section to Canberra and I will receive a phone call. I was not around to get that call—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there was a call?

Mrs Playfair : Whatever the call is that you are insinuating—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am simply asking the question.

Mrs Playfair : I have not got a call saying that the department has rung them saying, 'Your CAPS person said X to your client and you are not allowed to.' No, I have not got the call and, if I did, I would say, 'Whoops, sorry! It is a confidential conversation with our client and no-one knows about that. Where are you getting your source of information from, department?' Somebody in the compound says something to somebody else who says something to somebody else and it goes up the line and comes back as—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there were concerns raised by the department even in a general sense about—

Mrs Playfair : The department's concerns were not saying, 'Your staff person said something to your client or your client said something to your staff person.' The department's concerns at that time would be, 'Is somebody in the compound saying that a CAPS person said, "You have got third-country resettlement.'"? That was in the PNG papers. That would be a rumour going around the compound. It would have gone up to the department. They would have rung me and I would have—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So was that raised with you?

Mrs Playfair : That particular point?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes.

Mrs Playfair : Not with me. I know there was one point. Sorry, it is so unimportant for us, because we do not discuss with the department what we talk to our clients about in our room with our CAP. I do remember a department official coming to me one day, ringing me from Canberra and saying, 'Somebody in the compound said that the CAP person said this about that person over there and that person over there.' Right. I put the phone down and we worked it through it to find out what they were talking about and when I had the information right I sent it back and said, 'That did not happen and that did not happen and that did not happen.' But I do investigate. So if the department brings us something or says something, we check. Is that answering your question?

CHAIR: I am afraid that, unfortunately, we are right over time now, so I am going to have to leave it there. Senator Hanson-Young, do you have something you can ask Mrs Playfair or the organisation to take on notice in relation to this?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would like to know whether you have got any notes, Mrs Playfair, of what the department raised with you as matters of concern from 6 February until the 16th.

Mrs Playfair : Right.

Proceedings suspended from 15:17 to 15:27