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Incident of 15 December 2010

DIMASI, Ms Michelle, Director, Asylum Seekers Christmas Island

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: I welcome Ms Dimasi of Asylum Seekers Christmas Island and thank her for joining us today by teleconference. We have received your submission, which has been treated as confidential by the committee, but I understand given the discussion we just had in camera that you are now prepared to put some evidence on the public record and to refer to your submission, and to have the committee refer to your submission without identifying names contained with it. Is that correct?

Ms Dimasi : That is correct.

CHAIR: I invite you to make some opening remarks to the committee and we will follow that up with some questions.

Ms Dimasi : I would like to begin by mentioning that one of the most concerning issues was that there was little opportunity for survivors and islanders to engage in the aftermath of what happened in December 2010. Many islanders had said that they wanted to meet with the survivors; they wanted to know what happened to these people that they had helped on the day, but there was no opportunities for that engagement to take place. People were under the impression that they could not turn up to the detention centre to speak with survivors and felt intimidated to do this as well. What happened in March 2011 was that there was a memorial service and many island residents went to this service with the anticipation of meeting with the survivors. On the day there were no survivors present at this memorial service and Christmas Island residents were very confused and puzzled as to why this was the case. The non-attendance of survivors on that day may have hindered the healing process for island residents and it may have prevented them from recovering and moving forward with what happened. If this was a sensitive issue and the department believed that the presence of survivors may have caused some problems for the survivors themselves, this should have been communicated to the local community but it was not.

Another issue I would like to raise was the treatment of survivors while they were held in immigration detention on Christmas Island. The survivors should have been moved to the mainland. They would have had better support through their own ethnic and religious communities. Christmas Island is an isolated place and it became difficult for them to be able to receive the best care possible. While I believe that the department tried to do everything it could for those people while they were on Christmas Island, better care could have been provided if they had been moved to the mainland.

The final issue I would like to discuss is the decision to take survivors to the mainland for the funerals in Sydney only served to increase unnecessary stress and added to the trauma that they had already experienced.

CHAIR: Did the survivors know that the memorial service was taking place?

Ms Dimasi : I am not sure whether that was communicated to them. I had told some survivors that there was a memorial service taking place. I do not know if that was exactly communicated to them by the department or not.

CHAIR: What was the response of the ones you spoke to? Were they enthusiastic about going to the memorial service?

Ms Dimasi : The people were interested to go—yes.

Mr KEENAN: Can you expand on your comments that the mainland funerals increased stress on the survivors?

Ms Dimasi : When I was approached by one family in the detention centre they came to me for help and they said they had learnt they were being transferred to Sydney for the funeral. They also learnt they were going to be transferred back to Christmas Island after the funeral services. They said that for them Christmas Island reminded them of a place of pain, suffering and trauma and they did not want to come back to this place. They felt they would be better cared for if they had been sent to Sydney. A number of people already had relatives in Sydney and they wanted to spend time with their family members that were based in Sydney in the days that followed the funeral service.

Mr KEENAN: Did you have a discussion with DIAC about the rationale for keeping people on Christmas Island and not moving them to the mainland?

Ms Dimasi : I did not have that conversation with the department only because it happened quite quickly at the time.

Mr KEENAN: Presumably people would have been subject to the same sorts of checks that other arrivals at Christmas Island would be subject to, such as health and security. We can address these questions to the department, but presumably they still would have needed to go through all of those associated checks before being able to be moved to the mainland. We understand they all now have been. That is all I have got.

Mr PERRETT: Could you talk us through your discussions with people in December, January and February before the memorial and their efforts to make contact with the survivors—the Christmas Island locals? You used the term that they felt 'intimidated'. On what basis do you use that term?

Ms Dimasi : Intimidated in the sense that the detention centres are guarded—there are Serco officers. They know that they are not allowed to just turn up and ask to speak to people. In terms of having to visit someone in detention you need to know the names and ID numbers. People did not know the names and definitely did not know identification numbers of people. I think Islanders were waiting for some sort of opportunity for engagement and people did not feel comfortable just arriving at a detention centre because that is a place that is guarded and they thought they would be turned away.

Mr PERRETT: I was interested in specific examples where people had tried to make contact. What did they do to make contact? Were they waiting—

Ms Dimasi : People were waiting. To the best of my knowledge people did not go to the department and say, 'We want to visit survivors'. They were just anticipating that maybe they would get to meet with them when there was a memorial service.

Mr PERRETT: Do you have specific examples of people feeling intimidated? You are surmising that the walls would have been intimidating.

Ms Dimasi : People on the island know they just cannot simply turn up at a detention centre and ask to see people. Of course if they have the knowledge beforehand they are definitely not going to turn up there to see survivors.

Mr PERRETT: I assume there are Serco guards who are around the community—who go to the same pubs. I assume it is not the Berlin Wall between the people that work at the facility and the community. There must be a fair bit of interaction outside of guard duty and the like.

Ms Dimasi : There would be. In saying that, people know that to visit someone in detention they need to fill out request forms, they need names of people to go there and see them. It is questionable how they would know to do that at the time.

Mr PERRETT: But you do not have any specific examples of people you know who made attempts to make contact with survivors in December, January and February leading up to the memorial in March.

Ms Dimasi : That is correct. I do not have specific examples of that, but people had said to me that they just did not know how to contact people in the detention centre.

Mr PERRETT: Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR: You said there was an anticipation of a meeting with the survivors. Where did that anticipation originate from? Are you aware?

Ms Dimasi : People felt that at a memorial service you would surely have survivors present. They were held in a detention centre located next door to where the memorial service was. People thought that because the memorial service was being held at Phosphate Hill in the recreation centre, that logistically survivors would walk across next door into the recreation centre—that is one reason. People thought it goes without saying if you have a memorial service there would be survivors present.

CHAIR: To your knowledge, it was not as if announcements or plans had been made and simply not followed through, it was just simply an anticipation.

Ms Dimasi : Correct, also because of where it was located. On Christmas Island there is another memorial located at Tai Jin House and that is a memorial for the SIEVX. Annually a service is held there. People thought—well if the memorial service is held up in the recreation centre this must be because people from the detention centre would be able to come next door and that is why it was held in that proximity to the detention centre.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Firstly I just wanted to get on the record the work you have done in the local island community up until this event and to build on your understanding of how locals feel about the detention centre because my understanding is you are researching the idea of how the detention facilities and asylum seekers are seen and perceived by locals on the island—is that correct?

Ms Dimasi : Yes that is correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: When you talk about the impression that people have about the intimidation of the facilities. People not knowing how to engage with asylum seekers within the facilities or know even how to use it—is that based on broader research than just this particular incident?

Ms Dimasi : Yes definitely. North West Point is probably the best example. It is located away from the town centre and people have always perceived that as a place where it is a maximum security detention centre and if people are being placed in a detention centre like that with high security, it must mean they are not allowed to visit them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If you have not been contracted as a support network, what is the process that an individual has to go through to be able to enter the centre? Do you have to have some relationship already with somebody inside?

Ms Dimasi : That is correct. It is difficult for that relationship to evolve if you have never been able to meet asylum seekers. On the day that they arrive at Flying Fish Cove they are put on a bus and taken away to construction camp or North West Point never to be seen again. So it is very difficult for locals to ever form a relationship with people held in detention on Christmas Island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is that something that in your research you have heard consistently, putting aside the specifics of this individual case?

Ms Dimasi : Yes, in some of my own interviews and field work I have asked people, 'Have you ever gone to visit someone in detention?' People have responded, 'Can you visit people in detention?' They do not even know that they are allowed to visit and then they have asked, 'How would I visit someone in detention?'

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That understanding linked to the issue of an individual who has been involved in the rescue operations not knowing how to—or whether they are allowed to, or whether it is a good idea to—try and make connection with a survivor is obviously even a larger hurdle.

Ms Dimasi : Definitely, and it is based on past experience as well.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would just like to go through some of the things that you have indicated in your submission—that is, how the survivors were supported in the days, weeks and months following the crash. How much direct interaction did you have with survivors?

Ms Dimasi : I would have had direct interaction, ranging from when I went to the memorial service that was held several days after the boat crash and I met with survivors on that day, also relatives of people who had lost family members who had already been in detention. I visit the detention centre probably once a week to meet with people. It was weekly that I saw people who were involved in the boat tragedy.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I know there were a number of orphaned children. In the case of the nine-year-old boy, there were many reports following the significant coverage of the families' funerals in Sydney and the plight of this particular boy. Back in December when this event occurred and it was found that this boy had been orphaned, did you at any stage advocate to case workers that he should be able to be sent to the mainland?

Ms Dimasi : No, I did not, only because I came into contact with him during the weeks leading up to the funeral in Sydney. I was approached by his aunty and uncle for help when they learnt that they were going to be sent to Sydney and to be returned back to Christmas Island. So, no, I did not have contact with him prior to that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you know if there were any other advocates who suggested that this might be a good idea?

Ms Dimasi : No, because there were no other advocates on the island.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So no-one quite knew what the state of this boy's plight was until a couple of months after he had already been in detention?

Ms Dimasi : Correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There has been various reports about exactly what you just said, that it took two months for people to recognise the vulnerability of this particular child. Is the report correct that he did not understand that his parents had died?

Ms Dimasi : That is correct. I was told that by other detainees. Other detainee children had spoken with me and said that this boy believed that his parents were still alive and that each time a boat arrived on Christmas Island he was looking out see whether his mum and dad were amongst those arrivals.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What did you think when you heard this?

Ms Dimasi : My thoughts were that it was quite disturbing. The fact that he had not been able to acknowledge that his parents were still alive was very concerning. It raised issues about what sort of counselling and support he was receiving. After that, I also learnt that other survivors thought that family members were still alive—it was the case with one Iranian woman. My belief is that when people think that family members are still living it raises questions as to what type of counselling and support they are being given and how much consultation there has been. Maybe people reach these conclusions when they have not been adequately supported or counselled. Consultation has not taken place adequately.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you raise any of these concerns with his case manager?

Ms Dimasi : No, I did not at the time. As I said earlier, my relationship with him was quite short term; it was only in the lead-up to the transfer to Sydney for the funerals.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In relation to the added stress and distress of the arrangements for sending people to Sydney for the funeral and then bringing them back, was there any opportunity for you or any of the other advocates to appeal directly to the department on behalf of these people?

Ms Dimasi : Through Asylum Seekers Christmas Island, I issued a media release on the day that they had been transferred asking that the department take a more compassionate approach and allow them to stay in Sydney at the time.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you know if anyone was able to directly appeal to the department?

Ms Dimasi : No, I do not know.

Mr HUSIC: I just want to take you to page 3 of your submission, specifically to the first half of the page where you refer to DIAC's lack of consultation. You state, 'DIAC's lack of consultation with the local community has been an ongoing issue on the island.' And, 'In the days that followed the boat tragedy, DIAC did not consult with the community.' In relation to those two sentences, it is clear from your perspective that DIAC can and should do more. What do you think they need to do post events such as this, if they were to occur?

Ms Dimasi : What should have happened in that instance is that a community bulletin should have been put out within 24 hours after that saying, 'The survivors have been moved to this detention centre and this is what has happened'. At the time, no-one really knew what was happening. People were asking the questions like, 'What has happened to the survivors?' If community bulletins had been issued in the days that followed—and daily would have been ideal—as to what was happening, people would have felt less anxious and would have had a better understanding of what had happened during that period.

Mr HUSIC: Page 2 of your submission refers to the work that was undertaken by DIAC post the event in relation to counselling, but what you are referring to is specifically knowing details about what occurred—is that right?

Ms Dimasi : Correct.

Mr HUSIC: Can I take you to page 5 of your submission. Something that stood out to me in the third paragraph on that page. I will read out the sentence, 'In the days that followed the tragedy there was some speculation that survivors and other detainees may have been upset with islanders as they thought that the islanders could have done more.' Where did that speculation arise from?

Ms Dimasi : I prefer not to use names of who said that and where that came from, but it was said to me on two occasions at that time.

Mr HUSIC: But you then have, just finally, the follow-up statement, 'Not once was such a sentiment expressed to me by survivors'. Since the point at which you made that submission, have any other survivors expressed that view to you?

Ms Dimasi : No, never.

Mrs MARKUS: Could you clarify what attempts you understand were made by the department to consult with the community and if you could include in your answer any understanding of the communication possibly between the department in the organisation of the memorial service.

Ms Dimasi : In terms of what was communicated to islanders?

Mrs MARKUS: Yes.

Ms Dimasi : In terms of the memorial service, posters were put around the island that there would be a memorial service and it was also put up on the community blackboard in the settlement area of the island. That was all that was advertised for the memorial service. Other than that, there was not really any other community bulletins that were issued. I think there was one DIAC community update in the Islander at a later date that said that the survivors were being well cared for and they were still on the island. That was the only communication that I know of that was conducted at that time.

Mrs MARKUS: Are you suggesting that your understanding is that communication was one way and to rather than from the community? Is that what you are saying?

Ms Dimasi : Yes, there was inadequate communication.

Mrs MARKUS: Your comments in your submission imply that there was inadequate psychological care, particularly for the survivors. What was provided and what would you describe as adequate psychological care?

Ms Dimasi : To the best of my knowledge, a team of psychologists came to the island. However, it was mentioned to me by one person who had been to see one of the psychologists that they did not feel the counselling they received was helpful enough. Adequate psychological support would have been if they had been moved to mainland and then they could have had the support from their own religious and ethnic groups, their relatives. In the times they were grieving they needed more than just a psychologist on the island; they needed other people through their own support networks to assist them.

Mrs MARKUS: How long was the psychologist available for? Was that a one-off debriefing?

Ms Dimasi : You would have to ask the department that. I cannot answer that.

Mrs MARKUS: Thank you.

Senator CASH: If I could just follow on from the line of questioning of Mr Husic. You state that on 19 December 2010 you wrote to the immigration department's assistant secretary suggesting that a community bulletin needed to be issued by DIAC and this was based on the lack of consultation that was allegedly occurring between DIAC and the local community. Do have you any response at all from the department?

Ms Dimasi : I never received any follow-up emails to that.

Senator CASH: Did you follow it up with the department at all to see why they were not responding to you?

Ms Dimasi : No.

Senator CASH: Okay. You have also state that in the days following the boat tragedy it became evident that local residents wanted to meet with survivors to offer support and that others wanted to know what had happened to the survivors. When you say, 'it became evident', can you just outline to the committee how it became evident to you?

Ms Dimasi : Christmas Island is a small place and a small community. When a tragedy such as this occurs, people were constantly talking, whether it would be at school, at the local supermarket, any of these types of places, because it is quite a tight community. On numerous occasions it was said to me by people who had helped on the day throwing life jackets or who had been involved with emergency services: 'What has happened to the survivors? We would like to see them.' They did not know how to do that.

Senator CASH: Okay. As someone who is writing a PhD thesis at the Institute for Social Research, in your opinion how important is it that the community are provided with the community to meet with the survivors in terms of the healing process?

Ms Dimasi : I think it is extremely important. On the day of the tragedy, the Christmas Island community felt that they could still not do enough, because they had to watch people die before their very eyes as well. But people did do something: they threw life jackets, they got down on rocks and they helped with the emergency services and the ambulance services on the day. It is crucial that they should have had an opportunity to engage with those survivors and see with their own eyes that, 'Yes, this is someone that I was able to help,' and from that they could move forward.

Senator CASH: You state in your written submission that you wrote to DIAC about the concerns that had been raised with you by the residents on the island on 19 September 2010 and you actually suggested that an event needed to be held where islanders and survivors could engage. Again, you say you never received a response from DIAC. Have you received a response to date from DIAC to that letter?

Ms Dimasi : No.

Senator CASH: Okay. Can I confirm that no opportunities were ever provided for islanders and survivors to meet in the aftermath of the boat tragedy?

Ms Dimasi : That is correct.

Senator CASH: Have you provided the committee with a copy of the email dated 19 December and the letter dated 19 December? If you have not, are you able to provide the committee with those documents?

Ms Dimasi : Yes, that is no problem.

Senator CASH: Thank you very much.

Mr PERRETT: Ms Dimasi, you mentioned that there should have been a bulletin put out by DIAC. I was wondering if you have broader experience of this. I note your PhD is on the Christmas Island community response to asylum seekers, but are there other communities where DIAC notifies on a daily basis of what is happening with survivors or similar arrivals?

Ms Dimasi : Well, there are two processes. One is through a fortnightly DIAC community update that is published in the Islander, the local newspaper on Christmas Island. And there is also a community liaison officer available on Christmas Island if people would like to speak with him about some of the issues they may have or about asylum seekers.

Mr PERRETT: Okay. I was just wondering if your expertise is particularly on Christmas Island. Are there other communities that have detention centres where DIAC communicates with the local media about what is going on in those centres?

Ms Dimasi : No, I am not aware of that, to be honest.

Mr PERRETT: Okay. Your expertise is on Christmas Island?

Ms Dimasi : It is purely on Christmas Island, yes.

Mr PERRETT: And you made the point that Christmas Island is a very small place and a small community. Is your PhD observing what goes on as well as interacting? I noticed that you said that you are putting out media releases about the community response to asylum seekers, so is it observing and interacting with the community at the same time?

Ms Dimasi : It is both of those things. Since 2008, I have been conducting fieldwork on Christmas Island and I have also been involved with asylum seekers through my own organisation, Asylum Seekers Christmas Island.

Mr PERRETT: Thank you.

Senator FIELDING: I want to follow-up the issue about the meeting between survivors and those who helped with the rescue. Have any conclusions been drawn by any of the experts, the psychologists themselves, in regard to that that you have heard of? Obviously psychologists have been involved with both survivors and with rescuers. Have you heard anything at all about whether that is a good or a bad idea from those people who have actually been talking to those people?

Ms Dimasi : No, I cannot answer that. I do not have any knowledge of what has evolved since that.

Senator FIELDING: Thank you.

Senator CASH: Could I ask a follow up question to Mr Perrett's line of questioning?

CHAIR: Yes, Senator Cash.

Senator CASH: In relation to my questions regarding your correspondence with DIAC and then Mr Perrett's questions to you, can I just confirm that what you are saying is that there were opportunities at the time for the department to take the types of steps that you had written to them and advise them to take?

Ms Dimasi : There would be opportunities for that to take place.

Senator CASH: What opportunities would they have been?

Ms Dimasi : Well, there could have been a community bulletin stating, 'If people would like to meet with survivors, this is the phone number to call or they can contact the department or they could contact the community liaison officer.' Obviously that was the first step in acknowledging it, that you can meet with them, if the department agreed to it. But that was not even open for discussion.

Senator CASH: What would have been the impediments to the department facilitating a meeting between the survivors and the rescuers, if any?

Ms Dimasi : Well, that is something that you would have to ask the department. The only reason I could give is that they had their own psychological assessments given and thought that maybe it was inappropriate for the survivors to be meeting. I think that is something that you need to raise with the department.

Senator CASH: From your perspective, were there any impediments?

Ms Dimasi : No, I do not think so.

Senator CASH: Okay. In terms of actually facilitating such a meeting, how difficult would this have been?

Ms Dimasi : I do not think it would have been too difficult. The department could have put out a bulletin that said, 'If people would like to meet with the survivors, they can contact the department on this number or by this email.' From that the department could have seen who it was exactly who wanted to meet with the survivors. Most of those people would have been people involved with emergency services or ambulance services. From that they could have facilitated some type of meeting between the two groups.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I want to ask about your observations of how the department has consulted with survivors since the tragedy. We understand that you are not sure exactly if there was any formal communication to any of the survivors around the memorial service. We, of course, will put that question to the department. I am concerned about the evidence you have given about the confusion that people have around their own cases, what they are entitled to and even for people being moved now into community detention in other parts on the mainland how much interaction and support they have. Could you expand on that for us please?

Ms Dimasi : In terms of how much knowledge they have? Can you be a little more specific?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In your submission you criticise the level of consultation between DIAC and the survivors. I would like you to expand on why you believe those criticisms are valid.

Ms Dimasi : That came about because people were not entirely sure what was going on. People who had family members still missing felt that they were still alive. That was one reason. They said to me that they had asked the department for a list of the names of those who were deceased and missing, and this was not provided to them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Survivors themselves had asked for a list of who had survived and who had not, and that was denied?

Ms Dimasi : Yes. In terms of other consultation—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What level of consultation are you aware of in relation to the moving of people to the mainland and what level of service would be provided to them in general?

Ms Dimasi : People do not know what will happen to them. In terms of the general detainee population, people are being transferred, they do not know when they are going to be transferred and people are being moved around to different detention centres. People are very unaware of what the future holds for them while they are in detention.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am quite interested in the fact that survivors asked the department who else survived and who did not and they were not given that information.

Ms Dimasi : As relayed to me by one survivor, they also asked for the names of the people who were held in the Perth hospital. This person said to me that that was not provided to them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am interested in this because this issue was reported in the newspaper and the department of immigration rejected it. Did you or any other advocates on the island raise this with DIAC and ask for yourselves a list of survivors and those who were deceased?

Ms Dimasi : I did not raise it with the department because I knew there would have been issues around confidentiality. I knew they would not give me a list of the names of who was deceased and was missing. This came to my attention probably in the days leading up to the Sydney funerals. People who were upset about being sent to Sydney only to be returned to Christmas Island also raised with me that they did not know who was missing and who was deceased. They had asked for that to be clarified and it was never given to them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you.

Mr HUSIC: At the risk of raising the chairman's ire, I want to ask about your organisation. Asylum Seekers Christmas Island was set up in November 2009—is that right?

Ms Dimasi : That is correct.

Mr HUSIC: Do you have a management committee?

Ms Dimasi : Yes, we have a management committee.

Mr HUSIC: How many people are on that?

Ms Dimasi : About six.

Mr HUSIC: And about three people, including you, who work for the organisation.

Ms Dimasi : That is correct.

Mr HUSIC: Are you funded through donations only?

Ms Dimasi : Only through donations, yes.

Mr HUSIC: Given that you have been around since November 2009, do you have any formal dialogue mechanisms with the department? Given the focus of your organisation, do you have an arrangement so that at least on a quarterly or a six-monthly basis you sit down with the department to go through issues of concern?

Ms Dimasi : We do not at this point. That is something we are working towards. Asylum Seekers Christmas Island raises issues as they happen. We will bring them up with the department, whether it is through phone conversations or email.

Mr HUSIC: Is that because you have not approached the department on that or you have and they have declined you the opportunity to meet on a regular basis?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In a formal way.

Ms Dimasi : In a formal manner?

Mr HUSIC: Yes.

Ms Dimasi : I have not raised that. I am always in discussion with them, particularly with the staff on Christmas Island. By me being on Christmas Island it has always been that wherever they have needed to be the issues have been raised.

Mr HUSIC: Are there any other organisations that perform a similar function to you, that are funded in a similar way and that are structured in a similar way on Christmas Island?

Ms Dimasi : No.

Mr HUSIC: Thank you.

Mr PERRETT: Do you know the name of DIAC's community liaison officer?

Ms Dimasi : Yes.

Mr PERRETT: Is it a secret on the island, or is he or she well known?

Ms Dimasi : No. The name of the community liaison officer is Chris Su. He has also put updates in the local newspaper as well.

Mr PERRETT: From the incident through December, January, February and March people would have known who the community liaison officer was for DIAC?

Ms Dimasi : Definitely.

Mr PERRETT: They would have been informed in the local media about who the community liaison officer was.

Ms Dimasi : Yes, people are aware of that on Christmas Island.

Mr PERRETT: Is the community liaison officer particularly intimidating?

Ms Dimasi : No.

Mr PERRETT: So there would have been opportunities for people in the community to approach that community liaison officer about the people they had rescued or attempted to rescue?

Ms Dimasi : You would hope so, yes.

Mr PERRETT: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Dimasi, for your submission and for your evidence to the committee today.

Proceedings suspended 10:32 to 10:43