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

PYNT, Mr Ben, Director of Human Rights Advocacy, Humanitarian Research Partners

CHAIR: The committee welcomes Mr Ben Pynt from the Humanitarian Research Partners. The committee has received your submission as submission No. 26. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission, Mr Pynt?

Mr Pynt : Yes, Chair, I provided an extra document to the secretariat this morning, which I believe has been received by the committee.

CHAIR: Yes, the committee has agreed to accept that document formally. We will make a further decision as to publication of that document when we have had an opportunity to look at it and take it in. But we can still ask you questions that come out of that document. I need to make some preliminary remarks.

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 of Australia and that Australian law cannot protect individuals in another country, whether they are Australian nationals or not. 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, alleged to have been involved in the incident at the Manus Island detention centre during 16-18 February.

Mr Pynt, I invite you make a short opening statement before you go to questions.

Mr Pynt : Thank you. I am humbled to be before this committee today. During my workday my world could not be further removed from the horrors of immigration detention, as I sit at my desk at a large transmission pipeline construction company in Perth, dealing with alternative dispute resolution of complex claims in the magnitude of tens of millions of dollars. By night, although my daytime employer would point out that I spent considerable time during my workday on this too, I speak to asylum seekers and staff members at Manus Island. I speak regularly with other advocates, journalists, lawyers and human rights specialists.

My colleagues and I help asylum seekers take complaints to the department and minister for immigration, as well as to international human rights oversight and accountability mechanisms. We connect asylum seekers with lawyers to obtain urgent medical injunctions and to argue against transfers that would otherwise directly jeopardise people's physical and mental health. We help lawyers connect with clients in offshore processing centres as well.

Humanitarian Research Partners has been writing to the Australian government since before Manus reopened in November 2012, when we worked with the Global Human Rights Clinic in Geneva to submit an urgent appeal to the UN special rapporteurs on the right to health and the freedom from torture regarding the severe risk of malaria at Manus Island. From my submission to this inquiry, you can see that malaria is a serious concern that persists today, and has never been—nor can it be—fully addressed.

On the nights of 16 and 17 February this year, other advocates and I were speaking to asylum seekers and staff on Manus Island, and, as I live tweeted the events, I pleaded with the government to send medical reinforcements, as I knew that dozens had been critically injured. All of our pleas have gone unanswered. Since then, I have been working 18 or more hours every day between my two jobs to draw attention to the plight of the men at Manus Island. They have been forgotten. They have had their rights curtailed and violated. They live in constant fear of reprisals. Knowing what I know, who would I be if I did nothing?

I am here as a human rights advocate, but mostly as a friend to dozens of men at Manus Island. I am here because they cannot be. Not only have they been summarily deported from a state whose protection they have requested, but they have been marginalised and silenced by a series of governments who seek to dehumanise them. They are—as I am—ordinary people. They had aspirations, they had desires and they had fears. They have families and they have friends. The only thing that separates them from you and I is hope. Hope which they no longer have for a better tomorrow. Hope that governments, both Labor and Liberal, have dismantled and undermined through policies of arbitrary and indefinite detention in conditions that lead 80 per cent of asylum seekers to mental illness after just two years detention in an onshore centre. The same policies induce 14 per cent of long-term immigration detainees to attempt suicide, and over 30 per cent to attempt self harm—that is more than seven times the rate experienced by the Australian population, according to ABS figures. Offshore centres are far worse.

These instances of self harm are cries of desperation. Desperation at life in detention, at the indefinite nature of that detention, at the complete absence of progress in processing their claims and at the incessant and meaningless threats to which they are subjected on a daily basis. At Manus Island, these threats include malaria, tuberculosis, rabies, typhoid, cholera, dengue and HIV AIDS. There is the degrading yet pervasive practice of addressing asylum seekers by boat number rather than by name and the humiliation of having to ask for a pair of underpants from a young member of staff—such as the brave Miss Judge, who we heard from yesterday—because their only pair was stolen. There is the crushing pressure of not knowing what will happen to them for months or years on end and the unspeakably harsh conditions of detention.

Then there are the constant threats of personalised physical harm from people inside the centre and out. Some of these threats come from the fact that none of the perpetrators of the violence on 16 to 18 February this year have been charged with crimes, and many continue to work at the centre. Asylum seekers know that if harm does befall them, no protection will be afforded, no legal assistance will be permitted and no investigation will be conducted. Crime scenes will be washed of evidence before forensics teams are invited in, and it will take over a month for police statements to be taken. I note that the photos that I provided in my submission were taken by asylum seekers, as none were taken by medical personnel or police investigators.

Finally—but perhaps most importantly—there is the policy of denying or unreasonably delaying specialist medical treatment that, even in the absence of all other factors, would constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. I stated in my submission—as I did in my article in the Sydney Morning Herald—that I am bearing witness to crimes against humanity. For the legal minds on this committee, and for the sake of the public record, I would like to briefly quote from Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to explain this claim:

For the purpose of this Statute, "crime against humanity" means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f) Torture;

(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

I note for the purposes of paragraphs (e) and (d)—as Mr Web pointed out yesterday—that article 31 of the Refugee Convention prohibits the imposition of penalties on asylum seekers for their unauthorised entry into a convention state. I look forward to your questions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Pynt, before I go to broader questions, why is the extra document that you have given us today important? Why should we be concerned about this?

Mr Pynt : Over the past few days, a number of witnesses have spoken to the lack of training afforded to people in positions of care, particularly people with significant duties of care. I note that towards the middle of the document there is a mention that people involved in PSP, which is psychological support program monitoring, do not have sufficient training to be doing what they are doing. People who are on PSP have usually threatened extensive self-harm or suicide. I note that training is a significant factor and always has been.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Can I go to some of your evidence in relation to the event we have been inquiring into over the last few days. There have been a number of reasons put to us as to what was the underlying cause of what happened: there was a lack of communication and there was frustration about what was going on with the processing of people's claims; but, ultimately, it was more than that. It was about whether people knew whether they would ever be resettled and where indeed that would happen. There seemed to be much confusion about that. We were being told in Australia that everyone there would be resettled in PNG. That is not actually what people were being told in detention. Is that your understanding from the people you have spoken to?

Mr Pynt : Absolutely. A number of other witnesses have touched on coerced returns, and there is certainly a culture of forced returns happening at Manus Island. People are being misled in all sorts of ways. I note that there is a recording of an interview between Playfair delegates talking to five Syrian asylum seekers—and it is out on the web now—where they are telling them they have no legal rights, they are unlikely to be found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea and, even if they were, conditions of resettlement would not be good and it would take an indeterminate amount of time for that to happen. People are being told all sorts of mixed messages, even though the government has said that the Cambodia solution, if it comes into force, would only apply to people on Nauru. People on Manus Island are being threatened with Cambodia every single day.

People on Manus Island are being threatened with being resettled in a country that does not want them, in a country where they are constantly attacked—there were the physical attacks that happened on 16 and 17 February and then two weeks ago, when people were on the soccer field and a bunch of locals threatened to attack them with machetes and axes. People are being told that, if they are ever resettled—and there is no guarantee of that happening—it might not be in PNG; it will not be in Australia; it might be in Cambodia; or they might be able to go to a third country. The messages are mixed and never definite.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You have regular communication with people inside the centre. How do you do that?

Mr Pynt : Mostly via Facebook and also by phone. With Facebook, asylum seekers in two of the compounds have access to the internet on an ad hoc basis. It is meant to be on a schedule. Some people are able to access it more often than others, but the rule is an hour every two to three days, if you are in one of the two lucky compounds. For everybody else, there is no internet access, despite that being a contractual requirement, to my knowledge, and there are issues of people being held incommunicado as well. Others have access to one 20-minute phone call either once a week or every three days. We also speak with people who are outside Australia and outside Papua New Guinea who have regular contact with a large number of asylum seekers, and they are able to feed information to us that way.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: An incredible amount of secrecy covers the detention centre. We heard from witnesses yesterday and on previous days about the notion of confidentiality that is drilled into staff who work there. Media are not allowed onto Manus Island. You cannot just rock up as a visitor. Even if you got yourself to Manus Island, you could not just walk in and say that you want to speak to somebody. Even as a federal politician, I have to go through various hoops in order to get inside. Given all of that, the fact that people talk to you on Facebook seems a bit strange. Is that monitored?

Mr Pynt : Yes, it is monitored. On 4 May, I believe it was—it is detailed in my submission—I became aware that, as the men were telling me, 'goons' stand behind them and watch what they are writing. I am also aware of the central phone log that records what phone calls are being made by whom to whom and the subject of those conversations. Things are being monitored. I can speak in camera about some of the things we are doing to try to rectify that situation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: One of the things that was highlighted among a number of things that led to the feeling of frustration and anxiety amongst asylum seekers—and this was particularly outlined by Steve Kilburn, one of the G4S officers—was the total lack of privacy that individual asylum seekers have. Do they talk to you about that?

Mr Pynt : They do. They still talk about lack of doors on the toilets.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There were no doors on the toilets when I visited over a year ago. Are there still no doors on the toilets?

Mr Pynt : I think there are some toilet blocks that have doors—perhaps in Mike compound. It is one of the more recent compounds. Certainly in some there is no privacy. There are no screens on the showers, which has led some asylum seekers to claim they are being sexually assaulted. Actually many asylum seekers have claimed they have been sexually assaulted in the showers. I heard one story a few weeks ago about a guard walking between the two rows of showers with one on either side of him because they are in a shipping container. The asylum seekers were splashing this guard with water. The guard was irate because the water is contaminated. The guard was fearful that he would get a fungal infection or some other disease from the water. That shows also that there is no privacy in the showers. If they could easily splash water on this guard, where are the shower screens? Where are the doors?

I have seen photos as well of the living conditions in some of the compounds, particularly the hard-shell compounds. There are bunk beds that are side by side. Despite the leaking roofs and the complete lack of privacy afforded by those close quarters, they are not even allowed to hang sheets in between the beds so that they can have some darkness as well as some privacy. They were doing that at one point but they have since all been taken down. They have been told in no uncertain terms, 'You cannot hang sheets between the beds.'

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Who do the asylum seekers tell you is in charge of the centre?

Mr Pynt : There is absolutely no ambiguity: Australia is in charge of the centre.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Each of the different contractors and the department officers wear different coloured shirts, right?

Mr Pynt : Yes, that is right.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So it is quite easy to determine which group someone is from by their coloured shirt?

Mr Pynt : That is right.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have asylum seekers ever described to you what the department officers look like?

Mr Pynt : Department officers come in different guises, but often department officers wear plain clothes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You talk about water and sanitation in your submission. You talk about tropical disease and internal threats adding to tensions and what happened. If there is an issue of water contamination or water shortage—and there seem to be regular water shortages inside the camp—who deals with that and what is the process for raising a concern from an asylum seeker's perspective if they need something fixed?

Mr Pynt : They raise concerns on a daily basis. I think one of the attachments that I have provided to the committee showed that an asylum seeker who regularly receives electric shocks in the shower has been complaining about it for close to a year—and nothing has been done. I know that asylum seekers in what we call the first wave of people who were sent between November 2012 and July 2013 complained of the same thing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How do they actually lodge an issue of concern?

Mr Pynt : There is a complaint form that they can use. It is usually given to the primary service provider, which in this case is Transfield. But they do often lodge complaints with the department. I have made a number of freedom of information requests. The department has all of the information relating to water, to tropical disease, to conditions of detention and to missed meals registers and phone logs. The department keeps everything. If the department was not in control and had no oversight over what was happening it simply would not have these documents, as with the subcontracts, as evidenced by Mr Bowles.

Senator SINGH: How do electric shocks in the showers occur?

Mr Pynt : As I detailed in my submission, the reverse osmosis water filtration plant is on one side of the detention centre and the generator is on the other side of the centre. The electric wires run across the centre. Somewhere in the middle there is an ablution block. When it is windy the electric lines touch the pipes in the ablution block and the men get electric shocks in the showers. They are not substantial, they are not life threatening, but they are enough to deter them from washing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you ever heard from people inside about the issues in relation to unaccompanied minors that have been sent to Manus Island?

Mr Pynt : Yes, there are a number of unaccompanied minors that I am aware of at Manus Island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: They are still there?

Mr Pynt : Yes. The story that I most commonly hear is that they want to retain privileges when they first arrive at Christmas Island, such as smoking or being in a compound with one of their family members—and it would be an extended family member rather than a mother, father or brother—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Someone they befriended on the boat or on the journey?

Mr Pynt : It could well be—so at first they do not claim they are minor because they want to keep those privileges. Then they are sent to Manus Island, they realise the consequences of what they have done and they try to let the department know that they are minors. I know that departmental policy is not to reassess these things once an initial determination has been made, and it can take months and months for any outcome to be reached.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you know what kinds of questions those young people are asked when the department is determining how old they are?

Mr Pynt : I do not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You talked about people having reported sexual assault inside the camp. How is that being dealt with?

Mr Pynt : It mostly takes place around the ablution blocks. I know there are now more guards stationed around the ablution blocks. I think that is the main measure taken to reduce the likelihood of harm.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do asylum seekers just raise with a guard that they are being intimidated or assaulted?

Mr Pynt : Yes, usually. I have also seen copies of minutes of meetings which take place between all service providers and the department. They record who attended from each of those organisations and they record that concerns have been raised about safety in the shower blocks. The recommendation is that the person not go into the shower blocks alone, that they take a friend with them wherever they are going.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So, again, no privacy?

Mr Pynt : No.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You have been here listening to the evidence over the last few days. You have put to us that you have regular enough contact to have heard the asylum seekers' side of the story about the period from the 16th through to the early morning of the 18th. Is there anything in the evidence we have before us that you think needs to be further explained or clarified?

Mr Pynt : The time line of events is certainly accurate when compared with the information I received. What I would like to focus on is what happened afterwards. After the attacks, after people had been triaged and the most vulnerable or most pressing medical cases had been taken down to the Bibby Progress, there were still hundreds of asylum seekers inside the centre of the compound, in the courtyard, waiting to receive minor medical attention—that is, for anything from a minor cut or bruise or abrasion, something not serious enough to require stitches but still serious enough that the person consider themselves injured. We believe that those people are not counted in the 77 that Minister Morrison disclosed shortly after the attacks.

There is also the intense mental harm created by the events, which nobody has touched on. I know that people are still keeping guard at night. There is somebody in each of the hard-shell tents and somebody in each of the rooms who stays awake at all times, because they are petrified of being attacked again.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So they have set up their own guard system.

Mr Pynt : They have, because they do not feel that they are being adequately protected by the guards that are employed at the centre. In fact, they feel threatened by a number of the guards at the centre. I know of one story that chilled me to the bone. An asylum seeker contacted me shortly after he had been to medical. He was in Mike compound. From Mike compound you get in the back of a ute and they take you through to IHMS, because you are not meant to walk through. He got into the ute, screamed, and got out of the ute, because the person driving the ute was one of the people who attacked him. This is happening all the time. The mental harm that is created simply by having the attackers remain at the centre is unbelievable and unconscionable.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There was evidence given to us from Transfield Services, who have taken over the contract now. I put very clearly to them questions about the process they had gone through to ensure that nobody who was there on the night, involved in attacks on asylum seekers, was currently employed. They put to us that, from their knowledge, no-one is.

Mr Pynt : I am telling you, categorically, from my knowledge, there are people who were involved in the attacks still working at the centre. I have heard it from multiple people on multiple occasions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you have any sources that you speak to on staff as well as asylum seekers?

Mr Pynt : I do.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you heard that from staff, as well?

Mr Pynt : Staff are less willing to speak about other staff members. Many staff, when they speak to me, talk about the culture of secrecy and how they feel that they cannot break that culture of secrecy. Even though they suggest to people that the environment would be a lot safer and that their jobs would be a lot easier if the culprits were apprehended, it is met with pretty stern silence.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You are convinced that there are still people working inside the centre, even to the point of transporting refugees to their medical appointments, who were involved in attacking refuges.

Mr Pynt : I am.

CHAIR: With respect to that description that you gave of someone getting into the ute and discovering that it was being driven by someone who had attacked them, it struck me—I would like you to confirm this—that probably a significant number of the people who have been transferred to Manus Island have previously experienced threats to their safety and assaults. They are saying that they have fled torture and persecution so they have previously had experiences like that and they are now experiencing those things again.

Mr Pynt : Retraumatisation is a huge problem at Manus Island. It occurs, as you rightly say, from the events that they experienced in their home countries that made them flee in the first place, from the trauma of the boat journey, the trauma of arriving at Christmas Island and having your medication thrown out and being kept in dirty clothes until the full medical procedure is undertaken, and then being woken at four o'clock in the morning to be transferred offshore at five o'clock in the morning. Then there are the events of 16 and 17 February that left people with a profound sense that nothing they can do can make them safe. It is retraumatisation on a daily basis when they see locals from outside the centre, through the fence making the sign of slitting their throat, or staff members who are within the centre threatening to kill them. I do not think I can describe how profoundly it affects the men. They are at breaking point.

Some research that we have recently conducted shows that about 60 per cent of asylum seekers have a history or trauma before they arrive in Australia. On Manus Island I would say, after the events that have occurred, it would be close to 100 per cent.

CHAIR: And they have nowhere to go. They are constrained within that environment.

Mr Pynt : That is right. And even if they can access psychological support, which not a lot of them can, they feel that it is ineffective. In fact, the mental health professionals that I have spoken to agree. There is very little that you can do for someone when their main problem is that they are being indefinitely detained against their will with no prospect of release. There is very little support that a psychological care person can offer to somebody in that position.

CHAIR: They are also subject to fear of people who have power over them every day.

Mr Pynt : Exactly.

Senator SINGH: Thank you, Mr Pynt, for your very detailed submission. It does give the committee an eye-witness view of asylum seekers. Obviously, we have not been able to have transferees appear before the committee and this is probably the closest we have to that. At point 2 you talk about the 16 February event. Where does the detail come from?

Mr Pynt : Sources on the island. Perhaps I could point out as well that on 18 February, the day after everything happened, a number of Perth advocates and I got together and we collated our first-hand sources and uploaded a report onto both the Humanitarian Research Partners website and the Refugee Rights Action Network website, detailing exactly what we thought had happened. Only one detail from that account has changed in the meantime.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Since formal timelines and so forth have been released by government?

Mr Pynt : Yes, and since we have been able to have further communication with asylum seekers.

Senator SINGH: At point 2 you also state that in the evening PNG immigration officers and Australian officials arrived accompanied by a detachment of the police mobile squad flanked by attack dogs. Is that when they attended the meeting?

Mr Pynt : That is right.

Senator SINGH: You are saying that when Australian officials and PNG immigration officers attended the meeting to address the transferees about the processing of their claims, they arrived with the police mobile squad.

Mr Pynt : That is certainly my impression.

Senator SINGH: The mobile squad were inside the compound.

Mr Pynt : Yes, with security.

Senator SINGH: At that point, had things reached crisis point?

Mr Pynt : No, they had not. You might note that at figures 2 and 3 there is evidence of the peaceful protests that were occurring before.

Senator SINGH: It does say that in the paragraph above. Since the Australian and PNG officials turned up with the police mobile squad to attend a meeting of transferees, were they trying to intimidate or provide a show of force to the transferees?

Mr Pynt : And, I believe, to show the power dynamic that existed.

Senator SINGH: Correct me if I am wrong, but I think we heard evidence earlier in the week that the police mobile squad only participated in events once the crisis began. You are saying that they entered when there was no crisis.

Mr Pynt : It is possible that my sources have misidentified the detachment of police or the type of police involved. It could have been constabulary police, but the information I was given was that it was mobile squad.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Some of the documents we got from the department on Tuesday outline a discussion about a show of force at about 2pm. There is no confirmation that it happened.

Senator SINGH: Right. A few more paragraphs down on that same point 2, you describe that at 8pm the local PNG G4S staff and the other locals together attacked Oscar and Mike compounds.

Mr Pynt : And that information, I believe, is consistent with the Four Corners report.

Senator SINGH: Are you aware of this voluntary statement that detainees were made to sign in Christmas Island to be sent to PNG?

Mr Pynt : Yes, and my advice to people, when presented with that document, is to write, in their own language, 'I do not understand this document.'

Senator SINGH: Do you have a copy of that document?

Mr Pynt : I do not.

Senator SINGH: Another part of your submission, which I accidentally went to ask the previous witnesses about, is point 7, where you talk about indefinite detention.

CHAIR: Sorry; can I just interrupt for a minute, because the secretary has raised an issue with me. That document would be a departmental document presumably.

Senator SINGH: Yes.

CHAIR: So I think it is something that the committee could certainly ask the department to provide a copy of.

Senator SINGH: All right. We can do that. I just thought that Mr Pynt might, through his dealings with—

CHAIR: Yes. We can certainly ask for that anyway. We will follow up with that.

Senator SINGH: That is a good idea. Mr Pynt, can I just ask you about this 'no advantage' principle?

Mr Pynt : Yes, of course.

Senator SINGH: Can you explain that to the committee?

Mr Pynt : Professor Triggs made a very good statement when she said that the policy—that the government denies is a policy and in fact has not been enacted in any way, shape or form—has no legal content. To say 'no advantage', it is a little bit ambiguous—no advantage compared to what? There are 10.5 million registered refugees around the world. There are 45 million people of concern to the UNHCR. Are we comparing them to—as the previous witnesses stated—people in urban situations, people in refugee camps? There is no global comparator. Ninety-two thousand people are resettled worldwide under the official UNHCR programs each year, and if there were a queue it would be 175 years long. There is no such thing as an advantage or a disadvantage. The analogy that I like to draw is one that President Roosevelt drew when entering the war. He said, 'When your neighbour's house is on fire, you do not ask for money for him to use your hose; you get your hose out and you start spraying.' When people come to our doorstep, we have an obligation to help them. If they are halfway across the world, we do what we can, but, when they come to our doorstep, we let them in.

Senator SINGH: So this 'no advantage' principle is an Australian government principle?

Mr Pynt : It is.

Senator SINGH: But it does not really make any sense?

Mr Pynt : It does not make any legal sense; that is for sure.

CHAIR: I might just ask one question on that principle. When was that first mooted, that idea of a 'no advantage' principle? Do you know?

Mr Pynt : November 2012. I know because of the recent work that we have been doing on the Immigration Ombudsman's reviews of people in long-term detention. We are anticipating a rise of about 10,000 asylum seekers covered by that in the next year, because the 'no advantage' principle will have taken effect, and people affected by it will have been in detention for two years at the end of this year.

CHAIR: Without ever really understanding what it means or what the implications are or what the comparator is or what the advantage is going to be assessed against.

Mr Pynt : That is right.

CHAIR: And that was November 2012, so it was the previous government that introduced that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Can I actually clarify? It was 13 August 2012.

Mr Pynt : 13 August.

CHAIR: Has that terminology been adopted and repeated and used by the current government, do you know?

Mr Pynt : Not to as large an extent, but I believe it has been used by this government.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Singh, did you have some more questions you wanted to ask at this point?

Senator SINGH: I just wanted to ask finally, and I am happy to pass on: from the accounts that have been provided through your contact with the transferees, who is in charge of this immigration facility?

Mr Pynt : I am not sure that my contact with the transferees would bear that out. I think it is more helpful to look at section 198 of the Migration Act and to look at principles of international law that are very clear when they say, 'If an asylum seeker asks a country's official for protection, that country is then obliged to assess that claim for protection.' Section 198 of the Migration Act allows Australia to send people offshore and together we would say that the people have arrived in Australia, they have asked for protection and, under Australian law, we have transferred them to a place that Australia runs, operates, pays for and organises. It seems very clear from the facts, and I don't think we need to look at what asylum seekers are saying, to determine that Australia has effective control of the centre.

Senator SINGH: I have to ask the question, because we have had the department tell us that they have funded the PNG government to do that. Every other witness has said otherwise, so I just wanted to ask that.

Mr Pynt : We also have pretty definitive statements from the High Commissioner for Refugees in each of their monitoring reports that Australia and Papua New Guinea retain joint and several responsibility for the centre and for the asylum seekers there.

CHAIR: We will be moving into in camera session in a minute, but is there anything further that you want to put on the record before we do that?

Mr Pynt : There is. Every day I speak to asylum seekers on Manus Island. Every day I receive an email, a phone call or a Facebook message telling me that a person is going to commit suicide in a certain way. They are going to cut themselves on the razor wire over the fence and jump into the ocean. They are going to hang themselves. They are going to find something that they can cut themselves with, and it is extremely distressing. There really is no point to us creating this mental harm. I think we need to re-evaluate our priorities and we need to look at the human consequences of what we are doing. We need to stop thinking of these people as asylum seekers and start thinking of them as people—as human beings they deserve dignity, respect and human rights. We need to stop putting them in a position where they believe it would be better for them to go home and die with their families than to die in a strange place like Manus Island, which is what I get told every day.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, Mr Pynt.

CHAIR: We will now go in camera.

Proceedings suspended from 13:02 to 13:14

CHAIR: I will just indicate that we went briefly into an in-camera session with you regarding actions that you have taken in relation to international human rights mechanisms.

Senator SINGH: I want to ask a question in relation to this document of additional information you have provided the committee today. In this document it says, under the DIAC heading, that the bare minimum will be provided to those who have not been processed from now on.

Mr Pynt : Yes.

Senator SINGH: Do you have any understanding of what that means?

Mr Pynt : I could give some examples.

Senator SINGH: Yes, please.

Mr Pynt : People in that situation are often denied extra clothing, as Ms Judge indicated, and that can include pairs of underpants or shorts or shoes. It is very common for people to be told that if they want those items they should go home. That is even the case with some medical treatment. There is a man I am aware of who has burns to a large extent of his body. His burn cream and other medications are being withheld at the moment and he has been told that if he wants treatment then he should go home. I believe that is what the statement is alluding to.

Senator SINGH: So the Department of Immigration is making a decision to provide the 'bare minimum' to transferees from the 17 January date for things like underwear and medical treatment.

Mr Pynt : I met people when I was at Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre who had been in the first wave of people on Manus Island and they had pockmarks all over their bodies from—

Senator SINGH: What marks?

Mr Pynt : Pockmarks, the scars from mosquito bites and other insect bites that had not properly been treated while they were up at Manus Island. They had taken seven or eight months to heal—and that included small children. So I believe that part of the basic service provision is where you might be able to have some antibiotics, but you can only have a week's worth and even if that is not quite enough if you look a little bit better that is enough for us.

Senator SINGH: This is where it just becomes very confusing.

CHAIR: I would like to identify the nature of the document. It is not clear to me what it is.

Mr Pynt : No, it is not clear.

CHAIR: It is a document that is headed 'Operations Meeting—Manus Island—17 January 2013'. You were not in attendance at this meeting, so this is a document that has come into your possession—

Mr Pynt : Yes.

CHAIR: Is it a document that you have prepared on the basis of information that you had, or is it a document that as provided to you in this form?

Mr Pynt : It was provided to me in that form. I have not made any amendments.

Senator SESELJA: Who is the author of the document? There is no author.

Mr Pynt : There are names at the top of the document. I am not sure who the author was but—

Senator SESELJA: There are names saying 'in attendance' but it is unclear. It is obviously purporting to be a record of a meeting, but it is not clear whose record of meeting it is.

Mr Pynt : I would not be able to speak to that.

Senator SESELJA: It is difficult to know the veracity of the document when we do not know who—

Mr Pynt : Perhaps you could ask the department for a copy of the document and compare the two.

Senator SESELJA: We do not know at this stage whether it is a departmental document.

Mr Pynt : No, but if the department was in attendance at the meeting I assume they have a copy of it.

Senator SINGH: I think that is a good idea. We could ask the department.

CHAIR: We can follow up on that. I think that was my concern too, Senator Seselja, we do not actually know the authenticity of it—who made it, who created it and whether it actually records accurately what it purports to record, and so on. It does not stop us from asking you questions about it, My Pynt, but obviously the weight we accord to it is relevant to those questions.

There are also a few abbreviations in it that I am not familiar with and that I probably need to understand—and again, I will not take away from you, Senator Singh; we will come back to you. If we could just establish the question that Senator Singh was asking. It was certainly one that I was interested in too. Under the heading, 'DIAC'—and we know what that stands for—there is PPM. Do you have a view about what that might mean?

Mr Pynt : I am not sure what PPM is, sorry.

CHAIR: There is PPS.

Mr Pynt : Personal protective services.

CHAIR: We know TSA—that is the Salvation Army—and PSP discussion.

Mr Pynt : Psychological Support Program. As I was mentioning before, people who are at particular risk—

CHAIR: Suicide watch—

Mr Pynt : Yes.

Senator SINGH: That suicide watch was being conducted by G4S security guards?

Mr Pynt : It was.

Senator SINGH: Obviously that would be inappropriate for the role, as the document says it is.

Mr Pynt : Yes.

Senator SINGH: This is where it is very unclear in our trying to get a grip on the running of this centre, because the department is stating, as they do in this document—if this is a document from the department—that the 'bare minimum' will be provided to those who have not been processed from now on, and we know from around this date processing started to go slow. If the department is funding the PNG government to run this centre, then they would not be directing that a bare minimum be provided to those who have not been processed from now on. It is pretty clear from this document that the department are really controlling the centre.

Mr Pynt : That is what I took out of the document.

Senator SESELJA: Just to make it clear, because I was a bit confused about the time frames. This is a document that is purporting to be a meeting, but it was at the beginning of last year—it was January 2013. Is that correct?

Senator SINGH: I am sorry, I did not realise that. I thought it was 2014.

Senator SESELJA: I think that brings some clarity, in terms of some of the questioning that we have had from Senator Singh, that we do not know the veracity of this document. At this point, all we know is that it is purporting to be a record of a meeting that is almost 18 months old. Is that correct?

Mr Pynt : Yes, but perhaps you might refer to the evidence from Amnesty International and the UNHCR, which shows categorically that there has been no improvement in circumstances, and the evidence from direct witnesses that show that these are still problems. What I was trying to demonstrate with this document is the depth of the problems and the systematic nature of not only the control that Australia exercises over the centre, but also the way in which it exercises that control.

Senator SESELJA: I did just want to clarify that for the record, because there seemed to be this tying in of recent events when—at least from what we know of this—it is purporting to be about a meeting that took place some 16 to 17 months ago. Is this something that was provided to you anonymously or was provided to you by the department? Where did you get this document?

Mr Pynt : It was provided to me through secure channels.

Senator SESELJA: But you understand it to be what? Apart from being a record of meeting, it is unclear from looking at the document who has even authored it, and obviously who authors it is important whether it is a departmental document or a document made by some other person.

Mr Pynt : I am not sure that is important, actually. If all of these people are in attendance, I would expect an email chain between the relevant people signing off on the minutes. Although I do not have copies of those, I am sure they do exist.

Senator SESELJA: I guess I beg to differ, because it is always important in trying to judge a document. Normally minutes are signed off by someone.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I guess the point is that, if we want to verify it, there are possible ways we could if we thought it was helpful.

Senator SESELJA: But you are not sharing with us whether you believe it to be a departmental document or a document created by someone else?

Mr Pynt : I do not know the details of that. I am telling you that the people in attendance included a departmental official and that I believe the department would have a copy of meeting minutes like this.

Senator SESELJA: Do you have any other information that suggests that this is an accurate record of the purported meeting?

Mr Pynt : I have no information to suggest that it is an inaccurate record of the meeting.

Senator SESELJA: I am just trying to get to the bottom of the veracity of this document. It may well be 100 per cent legitimate, or it may be something that someone manufactured. Given that there is no author, it is difficult to judge that one way or another.

Mr Pynt : Perhaps you could ask one of the people named on the document as having been in attendance.

Senator SESELJA: I guess we could. When we follow these things up, it is always useful to know whose document it is. It is anonymous at this point, so I will always treat that a little bit sceptically before I can verify anything in it. I think it is worth making it clear that it is anonymous, it is unclear who authored it and it purports to be a record of a meeting that took place 16 months ago. We do not know anything more than that.

CHAIR: I think they are all fair observations.

Mr Pynt : Absolutely.

CHAIR: They would be my observations as well. It could be that it has been recreated after the event on the basis of personal notes that an individual at that meeting took. The extent to which it is the official record—

Senator SESELJA: If it were the official record, you would expect it might have an author and some other details.

CHAIR: I think it is certainly something that the committee can ask the department about—that is, whether or not there are minutes from that meeting that we could have an opportunity to look at. There are no other questions arising from the evidence that we have heard from Mr Pynt, so we will finish there. Thank you very much for your attendance and for being willing to come and give evidence. The committee has agreed that answers to questions on notice are due by 1 July 2014. I declare this hearing adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 13:25