Inquiry told of hunger strike flight

Sydney Morning Herald
November 21, 2005

By Lee Glendinning

The Department of Immigration flew detainees on private aircraft from one detention centre to another, where they were to be punished, and chartered international flights to deport people, an inquiry into mandatory detention was told yesterday.

Allegations that a group of detainees on a hunger strike were removed from Villawood detention centre in July 2000 and flown to Port Hedland, where they were kept in isolation, were detailed to the first day of the People's Inquiry into Detention. The inquiry was set up by the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work.

A detainee advocate, the former ABC journalist John Highfield, told the panel that he knew of a detained man with an infant son who remained in isolation at Port Hedland for 13 days, with one visit to a toilet allowed each day. The father was forced to let the little boy defecate on their clothes, which he washed during the toilet visit every 24 hours.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has since found that Australian authorities breached the civil and political rights in this case under a covenant to which it is a signatory.

The inquiry's president, the former Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld, pondered aloud why the chartering of aircraft, which other speakers confirmed happened regularly, was not itemised in Immigration Department budgets.

"If this is done on a regular basis, one wonders who has the authority [to charter a private plane]. Do they ever report the expenditure to anybody?" he asked. "This systematic mistreatment of people, especially children, is mind-blowing. It's beyond my understanding why this has not been revealed in the media the way it should be."

The People's Inquiry into Detention is being held after demands for a broader investigation into immigration department practices, following a report by a former federal police commissioner, Mick Palmer, on the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau.

It will also examine the privatisation of detention centres, the cost of detention and the decision-making process of the Immigration Department.

The three-day inquiry, at the University of NSW, is being conducted through hearings and written submissions that have been completed in Port Augusta, Melbourne, Perth, Launceston, Swan Hill and Shepparton. The final report is expected to be published next September.

Trish Highfield told the hearing yesterday that mandatory detention had been "a shocking chapter in our country's history". Ms Highfield, an early-childhood professional who has been a detainee advocate for seven years, said that if she saw the same level of trauma in children not in detention as she had seen behind the razor wire and did not make a mandatory report, she could be prosecuted.

"These children have been emotionally murdered in our own country in detention we have wrought the most shocking damage to these children."

John and Trish Highfield told how their home was raided by immigration officials after 13 detainees had escaped from Villawood detention centre.

Justice Einfeld said it was reasonable to have rules and safeguards about who entered Australia. However, he said: "This is Australia. If this was done by Nazi Germany we'd be writing a book about it."


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