Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION PORTFOLIO
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
Senator RHIANNON: If a Sri Lankan person has a well-founded fear of persecution in their country in accordance with the refugee convention, what formal pathways are there for them to seek asylum in Australia? And is it possible to seek protection from the Australian High Commission in Colombo?
Mr Bowles : I suppose if anyone does have a well-founded fear of persecution irrespective of where they come from, they have rights. As to whether they can go to Colombo, it is probably a question best asked of foreign affairs department. It is usually something that is handled in the context of the foreign affairs arrangements.
Senator RHIANNON: But I was asking about what the formal pathways are. You would have details about that, wouldn't you?
Mr Bowles : People can go through the UNHCR. Generally that will be outside of the country. We do know that some Sri Lankans have come by boat and claimed asylum. There are many pathways, I suppose, for them to take. If you want information around whether they can or cannot do something in Colombo in the context of Foreign Affairs, it is best to ask Foreign Affairs because we are just not experts in that.
Senator RHIANNON: How many people have sought protection at the Australian high commission since 2009 on the basis that they have a well-founded fear of persecution or for another humanitarian reason, and how many Sri Lankan people have been provided a humanitarian visa through the Australian high commission in Colombo in the last four years?
Mr Bowles : I would have to take that on notice and refer to my colleague in Foreign Affairs to see from their perspective as well as ours.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Thank you, Chair.
Senator RHIANNON: Could the department provide an update of how many unauthorised maritime arrivals have been subject to the enhanced screening policy?
Dr Southern : Between 27 October 2012 and 30 October 2013, there were 2,745 interviews conducted under the enhanced screening process, and those 2,745 interviews were conducted for screening of a total of 3,072 IMAs. Some of them were family groups with young children so they were not independently interviewed.
Senator RHIANNON: What was the final figure-3,000?
Dr Southern : It was 3,072 IMAs.
Senator RHIANNON: Is the department aware of any asylum seekers who have suffered torture or mistreatment after being returned to Sri Lanka as a result of the enhanced screening process?
Dr Southern : No.
Mr Bowles : No.
Senator RHIANNON: Is the department aware of any asylum seekers who have returned to Australia from Sri Lanka after being removed as a consequence of the enhanced screening process?
Mr Bowles : Sorry, can you repeat that-'if they have returned to Australia after being removed'?
Senator RHIANNON: 'Who have returned to Australia from Sri Lanka after being removed as a consequence of the enhanced screening process'. So they have come-
Mr Bowles : And been taken home and then come back again? My recollection is: there is a small number. I will take it on notice, though, to give you an accurate figure.
Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the previous question that I just asked, to which you answered no-that you are not aware of any who have suffered torture or mistreatment-is that based on your own assessment or are you relying on advice from other departments or other quarters?
Ms Larkins : The information that I have in front of me says that we have had four complaints made to Australian government agencies in relation to people's treatment in Sri Lanka, and all of those claims have been investigated and found not to have any particular weight. We have also received-
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry; you said, 'investigated and found to have'?
Ms Larkins : Not to have any substance. We are also aware that there are three complaints to the Human Rights Commission relating to people returned to Sri Lanka under enhanced screening.
Senator RHIANNON: So therefore you have cancelled your earlier answer, which was no, and replaced it with that answer.
Ms Larkins : I thought the question you asked was: were we aware of people being subject to torture?
Mr Bowles : Who have been mistreated.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, and when I asked that question you said no, and now I have come back to it and you have now given those figures.
Ms Larkins : No. I have given you the figures of complaints that we are aware of.
Mr Bowles : Just to make it very clear, you asked if we were aware of anyone who has been tortured and we said no. The next part of the question went to whether there have been any other complaints. There have been four that Ms Larkins has talked about, and those have been proved to be not so. Therefore there is no evidence, in any case that we aware of, of torture.
Senator RHIANNON: And the three complaints?
Mr Bowles : They have been proven to be not true.
Ms Larkins : The three complaints to the Human Rights Commission are still being investigated.
Senator RHIANNON: Still being highlighted.
Mr Bowles : They are separate issues.
Senator RHIANNON: My second question actually was: on what were you basing your very strong answer of no?
Ms Larkins : On the advice that I have in front of me on the complaints that we have had to date.
Senator RHIANNON: So it is based on those four complaints?
Ms Larkins : Yes. Based on the four complaints that we have had raised with Australian government agencies that have been investigated, we do not have any substantiated evidence of torture of anyone we have returned.
CHAIR: How do you substantiate the evidence? Do you have people on the ground in Sri Lanka?
Ms Larkins : Again, these will not be investigations that we will have undertaken. They will have been undertaken by other agencies, so I would need to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you take on notice who the other agencies are, in general, and, with regard to the four complaints, who supplied you with that information?
Ms Larkins : Certainly.
Senator RHIANNON: Just going back to the first question I asked: you gave me the response about 2,745 interviews out of 3,072 people. Of that number, how many have been screened in and how many have been screened out?
Ms Larkins : I do not have the details of screen in and screen out. I do have the number of removals. Of that 3,072 people, 1,191 have been removed up to 31 October.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice the number who have been screened in and screened out, please?
Ms Larkins : Sure.
Senator RHIANNON: As a result of the enhanced screening policy, how many people have been returned to Sri Lanka?
Ms Larkins : That is the number I just gave you, 1,191.
Senator RHIANNON: How many people have been returned to Sri Lanka voluntarily?
Dr Southern : In this financial year, 12 IMAs have returned voluntarily to Sri Lanka.
Senator RHIANNON: And how many have returned involuntarily-take away 12 from 1,191?
Dr Southern : No. That figure was from October 2012 to October this year. The 12 voluntary returns is just in this financial year, from July 2013 to the present.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you give us figures so I can compare it?
Dr Southern : Perhaps I will give you two financial year figures. For 2012-13 there were 1,056 involuntary returns and 159 voluntary returns. To date this financial year there have been 12 voluntary returns and 140 involuntary.
Senator RHIANNON: For both those sets of figures, could you give me the figures on how many were unaccompanied minors, for the voluntary and involuntary in those financial years?
Dr Southern : Certainly. We can take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Have any unauthorised maritime arrivals been returned to Sri Lanka as a result of the enhanced screening policy without having personalised items, including identity papers, returned to them?
Mr Bowles : They would be returned with the goods they came with, and they would travel on an international travel authority document to go home if they had destroyed their paperwork.
Senator RHIANNON: My question actually was: have any UMAs been returned to Sri Lanka as a result of the policy without having their personal items returned to them? Are you confident in your reply?
Mr Bowles : My understanding is, absolutely yes, they go home with what they come with, unless there is a particular issue with it. Property is gathered, tagged and does go back with them.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you sure you do not want to take it on notice to check, because it is a pretty strong statement you are making.
Mr Bowles : It is, but I have also been there during different operations and they have a very rigorous process. We do, from time to time, get allegations that they do not get their gear with them, but it is tagged, listed and goes with the individual.
Senator RHIANNON: So there have been no cases where detainees' property has not been returned?
Mr Bowles : That is what I am saying. What I am not saying is that there have been no complaints. Some individuals will say certain things have not been returned, but our strong view is: the items are listed, tagged and they go home with the individuals.
Senator RHIANNON: Have there been any cases where the property has been returned to another person by mistake?
Mr Bowles : I would have to take that on notice, Senator. Again, it is tagged in front of them and if there were things got confused in the process it is usually confused amongst individuals at a point in time when this exercise happens, but I can take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: I think there are those incidents where your people get confused about who they are dealing with. Thank you for taking it on notice, and can you also take on notice whether that person has then been returned to Sri Lanka as a result of the enhanced screening process, so that the person has gone back with the wrong documentation.
Mr Bowles : Again, Senator, if you are talking about the wrong person going back, I would reject that statement. We have a rigorous process of who is screened, how that process works and who then goes on that manifest to be returned to Sri Lanka.
Senator RHIANNON: Does the database where enhanced screenings are stored always list the outcomes of all screening decisions by DIAC officers?
Ms Larkins : I am not sure whether the database does, but we keep a record of all decisions by DIAC officers.
Senator RHIANNON: How do you keep those records, please?
Ms Larkins : I am not sure of the form in which we keep them but we record all the decisions made in relation to each case.
Senator RHIANNON: So, it could be on a piece of paper in a manila folder?
Ms Larkins : No, in a file.
Senator RHIANNON: But it could be hard copy?
Ms Larkins : It could be hard copy, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you keep records of reviews, as well?
Ms Larkins : Yes, there will be a complete record of decisions for each case.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you please take on notice whether it is kept on a database or hard copy or both and what the breakdown is?
Ms Larkins : Sure.
Senator RHIANNON: Have any of the detainees been screened out but moved to a mainland facility and then deported at a later date as a result of their screening outcome?
Mr Bowles : We would take that on notice, Senator. There are too many variables there to come up with an answer now, so we will take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, and as part of taking that on notice, could you also take on notice whether any detainees have been screened out, moved to a community centre and then deported as a result of their screening outcome? It is pretty similar, but I want to cover all bases.
Mr Bowles : We will take it on notice. I do not understand that question, but we will analyse that.