Story transcripts

The Inside Story

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producers: Howard Sacre, Jo Townsend

Our immigration system is at breaking point. Every week it seems another boatload of asylum seekers reaches our shores.

Our immediate response is to lock these people up in detention centres, preferably way across the ocean on Christmas Island.

It is a case of out of sight, out of mind.

But there's no longer any room at the inn.

More and more new arrivals are being housed on the mainland, and that's brought the problem front and centre like never before.

This week, Liam Bartlett brings us the inside story of this debacle.

Story contacts:

Gate Gauthier, from Chilout (Children Out of Detention), can be contacted at

Full transcript

Make no mistake, border control in this country is failing, spectacularly so. Just yesterday a boat carrying 32 asylum seekers was intercepted off the coast of Western Australia. It's a scenario that is repeated every week, sometimes every few days. Our knee-jerk response is to bundle these people off into detention centres. Almost 7000 are now locked away in the country at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Out of mind, out of sight, at least that is how the Government would like it. But tonight an insider breaks her silence and with the help of the latest spy technology, we will show you what is really happening behind the barbed wire.

The forbidding shore of Christmas Island, 2000km across the Indian Ocean, is a long way to go for an appointment. A group of Iranians held at the island's detention centre have agreed to a visit. And to comply with the rules we've supplied our names days in advance.

LIAM BARTLETT: Liam Bartlett, Kate Gauthier here for a scheduled visit please?

GUARD: Not as far as I'm concerned. No comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: What do you mean "no comment"?

GUARD: I'm not allowed to let you in.

LIAM BARTLETT: Why is that, sir?

GUARD: No comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: The visit was arranged by refugee policy advocate Kate Gauthier. Have you been told not to let us in?

GUARD: No comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: But the guard has been told to keep the gate and his mouth shut.

GUARD: No comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: So this sort of pig-headed obstinance is not uncommon?

KATE: No, it's not uncommon. It's pretty standard of what happens at remote centres and that's one of the reasons why they put detention centres in remote locations is it makes it very difficult for individual advocates and the media to be able to come here because they know that everybody's on a tight schedule.

LIAM BARTLETT: Right. It's little wonder immigration officials cancelled our visit. They're in a dreadful mess - endless boat arrivals, fires, riots, sinkings and now even detention centre workers are telling the inconvenient truth.

ANNE: The Department of Immigration don't want the Australian people to know what sort of people they're letting into the country.

LIAM BARTLETT: This woman, Anne, knows exactly what it's like behind the detention centre fence. And they call them clients?

ANNE: They call them clients.

LIAM BARTLETT: She's a client services officer who believes there's a lot we're not being told about asylum seekers and wants to reveal what's really happening.

ANNE: I guess the Government wants the Australian public to believe that they're poor, that ah, you know, we need to help these people out, um, that they are true you know asylum seeking people and most of these people have more money than most Australians.

LIAM BARTLETT: You're not exactly painting a picture of people who come from a war-torn area?

ANNE: No, they're not.

LIAM BARTLETT: Though there must be those mingled in with the rest?

ANNE: There are a few genuine people but the people that aren't genuine far outweigh the tiny amount of genuine people.

LIAM BARTLETT: This is the first glimpse that asylum seekers get of Australia, the rocky coastline of Christmas Island. This is also the exact spot where about five months ago in very stormy conditions a boatload came to grief killing 50 people. You couldn't help but feel sadness and sorrow about that tragic day, but amazingly the tragedy of that day hasn't softened the way most people feel about those who make the treacherous journey.

ANNE: It's a bit like a tourist information bureau. They will also ask you to put by any vacant rooms in the accommodation blocks because they've booked their brother on Tuesday so he'll get here on Friday and then also another room for their mother that's on the Friday boat trip so she'll get here on Monday.

LIAM BARTLETT: While you're standing there they're on the phone dealing with somebody to what be in touch with the people smuggler?

ANNE: Yes. They even gave us the people smuggling phone number.

LIAM BARTLETT: Are you serious?

ANNE: Yes. And we passed it on to the Department of Immigration.

LIAM BARTLETT: And what happened?

ANNE: I believe nothing happened about that.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's extraordinary.

ANNE: Mmm. It's not boat smuggling, it's more a travel bureau.

LIAM BARTLETT: People smuggling ground almost to halt under the Howard Government's "Pacific Solution". Under Labor, all arrivals come instead to Christmas Island, and the trickle turned into a flood. When Christmas Island was filled to overflowing, something had to give. The island itself was just too small. The only alternative was the Mainland and to best explain what's happened here, let's take a virtual tour around the country. Around 1400 are now living in an RAAF Base up there in the middle of nowhere at Curtin. 497 are up in Darwin and 562 over in another RAAF Base at Scherger in Cape York. There are 392 in Sydney held in the infamous Villawood, 92 are now detained in Melbourne, up to 400 are coming soon to Tasmania and 46 in Perth with another 750 planned. And to top it off, another 2,500 in community housing, seedy motels, foster care and so on - at last count, 6,872 people detained here in Australia.

LIAM BARTLETT: What has this shemozzle cost the taxpayer in the past 12 months?

CHRIS BOWEN: Are you talking about detention costs?

LIAM BARTLETT: The whole cost.

CHRIS BOWEN: Detention is expensive. It costs, you know well over $600 million over the last 12 months. It is expensive, but it underlines the need…

LIAM BARTLETT: Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is the man with the most unenviable job in Australia. How much do we spend on each and every detainee?

CHRIS BOWEN: Ah look as an average cost it is expensive …


CHRIS BOWEN: About $80,000 a head each year …

LIAM BARTLETT: $80,000 each?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, and that goes but that's the total cost. That includes all the security costs, um, all the um, maintenance. That's our total cost across the board.

KATE: And I did have my visit approved.

LIAM BARTLETT: On Christmas Island where a lot of that money is spent, Kate Gauthier's attempts to get our visit approved were ignored.

KATE: Hello? Hello? She's just hung up on me.

LIAM BARTLETT: Clearly they're not going to let us anywhere near this place so let's go and find another way of having a look. We'd tried the front door without success, so this was the only way to show how and where asylum seekers are detained – a bird's eye view from an unmanned camera drone. It's unconventional but I think it's the only chance we've got of being able to see inside. At least this way we could see over those high fences. It's a big wide area isn't it?

KATE: It's a big wide area if you're not being kept there for 12 months at a time. If you've got 2000 people trying to use that area it's not a lot of space using there.

LIAM BARTLETT: The centre was designed for 400 - right now it houses about three times that number.

KATE: They've had to fit out extra areas some of the recreation space in order to put camp beds and things in there so they can expand it because it was only supposed to be for 400 people.

LIAM BARTLETT: The pressure valve finally exploded two months ago - whether they were traumatised or just trouble-makers - they torched the place. Those buildings have been badly fire-damaged, why should people feel sorry for people who have come to this country and done that sort of damage?

KATE: What happens when you keep people who've um, experienced torture and trauma in their homeland and you put them in this kind of environment and you deny them access to lawyers and you deny them access to proper medical care or to know what's happening with their case, um they're going to respond in ways like this.

LIAM BARTLETT: Kate, why do you think most Australian take a hard line stance against these people?

KATE: I think there's a lot of misinformation that is provided to people and people think of this as a national security issue as a border control issue and it's not. It's a humanitarian issue. If your kids' lives were in danger, what would you do? What do we all do? We make sure that our children are protected and we do whatever it is that we can in order to ensure that their life is in safety.

ANNE: We had three or four riots when I was there.

LIAM BARTLETT: But our insider paints a vastly different picture. She says the riots are far more frequent than we know about. One occurred in February and the fracas was recorded on a resident's mobile phone. When you say a bad riot, how many people are you talking about?

ANNE: About 300 detainees.

LIAM BARTLETT: What sort of weapons?

ANNE: You're talking about fence posts, um the iron bars off the tables and the chairs that are in their rooms and huge rocks. The camp is based on a huge rock base. They've smashed all the windows, they pulled the Afghani boys out of their rooms, they beat them up, they um . . .

LIAM BARTLETT: And yet it was all hushed up?

ANNE: Yes. We had ah half a dozen of the Afghani boys with bad head injuries. One in particular bleeding from both ears um, and his nose, big gash to the head.

LIAM BARTLETT: You still remember it vividly? Are the boys okay?

ANNE: I believe so.

LIAM BARTLETT: Was that that bad? You you're still emotionally scarred by it? And yet the people who are capable of doing that harm to that boy and others no punishment whatsoever?

ANNE: No punishment. It's like living in a war zone up there. It's like we're living in the Middle East. This is supposed to be Australia but it's not. We are living in the Middle East up there.

LIAM BARTLETT: Anne told us she was surprised that a lot of refugees come well-dressed and well-off.

ANNE: Some of them have ah quite a lot of money US on them when they come off the boat. Um, some of them have Austrian and Swiss credit cards.

LIAM BARTLETT: And what do they say about that? What's the explanation?

ANNE: Most of these people aren't poor people. They will show you their Facebook photos, they will show you all their world trips around the world. They've all had lovely holidays, they've all got lovely homes. Well not all of them, a lot of them.

LIAM BARTLETT: Do you think there are asylum seekers who come here purely for economic reasons, to make a better life financially?

NAJEEBA: No, I don't believe it, because the journey is too risky. It's too, too risky. You are basically - when we got onto the boat I felt like I'm signing the contract of death.

LIAM BARTLETT: Najeeba Wazefadost and her family, from Afghanistan, are a boat people success story. They've all had stints in detention, and tonight they're celebrating their grandad's release just two months ago. So now he has real freedom?

NAJEEBA: Yes, yahoo.

LIAM BARTLETT: The family say the Taliban was out to kill them so they fled across the border to Pakistan - and that's where they heard about Australia.

NAJEEBA: Like Australia is a multicultural country, Australia is a country that will welcome refugees and asylum seekers, and that's how the decision was made.

LIAM BARTLETT: That was the reputation that we had?


LIAM BARTLETT: Oh, this is very interesting. So you didn't actually choose Australia? NAJEEBA: No, we didn't choose, no.

LIAM BARTLETT: You just wanted to get out of your country?

NAJEEBA: That's it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Najeeba's now studying medicine and her story is at the heart of the immigration debate. It's about humanity, she says, not a head count.

NAJEEBA: Every time we talk about refugees and asylum seekers the only thing that gets emphasised in the community today is about the number because we constantly hear about this many boats arrive in Australia, this many people arrive in Australia, this many people did this. But we never talk about the real stories behind their faces, behind these numbers, that these people are human beings and they have had no other choice than coming by boat, then taking that risky journey and coming to Australia.

LIAM BARTLETT: It won't be long before that risky journey doesn't end on Christmas Island, but in Papua New Guinea or Malaysia.

JULIA GILLARD: It will be a big blow to people smugglers.

LIAM BARTLETT: The Government has agreed on yet another offshore solution - this time it's a refugee swap with Malaysia. We'll exchange our boat people for processed refugees - one of ours for five of theirs.

CHRIS BOWEN: The people smugglers will need to say to people give me your money, risk your life on a boat, get to Australia and Australia will return you to Malaysia. That becomes a very difficult sell for people smugglers.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's only for the first thousand.

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, well, 800 but you've got to find 800 volunteers. 800 volunteers to say "yes, I'll part with my $10 000; I'll get on a boat; I'll go to Australia for the Australian government to return me to Malaysia where I'll join the other 92,000 asylum seekers that are waiting in Malaysia for resettlement." Not a very attractive prospect.

LIAM BARTLETT: Who decides what refugees we get?

CHRIS BOWEN: Australia.

LIAM BARTLETT: Who decides which ones?

CHRIS BOWEN: Australia.

LIAM BARTLETT: Who picks them out in Malaysia?

CHRIS BOWEN: Australia.

LIAM BARTLETT: Back on Christmas Island, we visited the so-called "family camp" - another appointment to meet a family - and another rejection.

WOMAN: The Operations Manager said all visits have been cancelled today.

LIAM BARTLETT: I've had this approved for 7 days.

WOMAN: Seriously, that's not up to me, that's up to the Operations Manager and can you turn that off please, thank you very much.

LIAM BARTLETT: Can you just give me a reason please? There's a lot of heat in this argument and the only thing every one agrees on is the current system hasn't been working.

ANNE: I think the Australian public needs to know that the majority of these people don't deserve to get the free treatment from Australia. They should be turned around. Most of these people should be sent back.

LIAM BARTLETT: It was a different story of course around Najeeba's family dinner table - they were keen to show there is life after detention and that genuine refugees can make a go of it here. Do you all still consider yourself now to be Afghani or Australian?

NAJEEBA: Australian.


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