I do not normally post other people’s writing on my blog.  But this is important, and Max Costello agreed to let me publish this here. It’s worth reading:

Asylum seeker mistreatment – the criminal law perspective by Max Costello*

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s November 2014 Forgotten Children report, about Australia’s mistreatment of asylum seeker children in detention, exposed the international human rights law and “duty of care” breaches involved. The report’s focus was on breaches of civil law – that people can be sued for.

But, as this article explains, mistreatment of asylum seeker children (and adults) also involves the apparent commission of criminal law offences – that people can be prosecuted for – under Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) (“the WHS Act” or “the Act”).

The Act’s definition of a Commonwealth “workplace” (section 8) applies to each detention centre, offshore or onshore. Section 19 imposes a duty on all workplace operators to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable,” that not only “workers” (s.19(1)) but also “other persons” (s.19(2)) are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. At detention centres, those “other persons” are asylum seekers and their children. Section 4 defines “health” to include “psychological health”.

Comcare is the regulator that must ensure compliance with Act, including the s.19(2) duty. Non-compliance is a criminal offence, prosecutable by Comcare – with fines up to $3 million and jail for up to 5 years (sections 31–33). The Minster for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz, has responsibility for the Act and Comcare.

The systemic criminality of detention centre operation – that is, the ongoing failure to take practicable, effective risk-prevention measures to protect “other persons” – is almost self-evident from the following:

• The AHRC’s Forgotten Children report found that:–

(a) by March 2014, the children’s average time in detention was 231 days (p.20); and

(b) the longer the detention, the more harm to psychological health (pp.177, 211).

• There were 49 reported sexual assaults involving detention centre children during the two years ending 31 January 2015 – that’s almost one per fortnight. (Department of Immigration and Border Protection evidence, Senate Estimates Committee hearing, 23 February 2015: The Age, 24/2/2015.)

• The 2013–14 Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (“the Department”) states at p.280 that 449 incidents of danger, serious illness/injury or (in 8 cases) death occurred at the Department’s workplaces Australia-wide – and, as required by the Act, Comcare was notified of all of them. Further, 374 of them (83 per cent) occurred at detention centres, but “did not directly involve workers”. In other words, they all did directly involve “other persons” – asylum seekers and their children.

• Who operates detention centres? The Commonwealth of Australia, via the Department. What sanctions has the Commonwealth faced? None.

According to Comcare’s 2012–13 Annual Report (at pp.182–3), seven detention centres were inspected but no breaches of the WHS Act were found, and so inspectors commenced no prosecutions. The 2013–14 Report likewise records (at pp.180–1) no detention centre prosecutions.

Contractors engaged by the Department provide most of the services at detention centres – but read the following sections of the Act.

10 Act binds the Commonwealth
(1) This Act binds the Commonwealth.
(2) The Commonwealth is liable for an offence against this Act.
14 Duties not transferrable
A duty cannot be transferred to another person.
272 No contracting out
A term of any agreement or contract that purports to exclude, limit or modify the operation of this Act or any duty owed under this Act or to transfer to another person any duty owed under this Act is void.

So much for the Act, and the Commonwealth’s record of systemic – and so far unpunished – criminality. Is anything changing? The most recent developments, with explanatory comments, are as follow:

• Reportedly (The Age, 21/2/2015), Philip Moss, former Commonwealth Commissioner for Law Enforcement Integrity, provided to the Department on 9 February 2015 his report on certain allegations of sexual and other assaults at Nauru in 2014.

Does the Moss report recommend that Comcare be required to do its detention centre job properly – and, if so, will the government follow through? Who knows? The report hasn’t been released, and the Department’s Minister, Peter Dutton, told the ABC’s Fran Kelly on 25 February 2015 that he hadn’t yet received it.

• According to The Age (26/2/2015) the Department referred allegations of assault, at Melbourne’s Maribyrnong detention centre, to police (but not Comcare); while the Commonwealth Ombudsman is investigating another case.

With assaults, a potentially relevant WHS Act offence is non-compliance with the duty, under section 19(3)(f), to make sure workers are given all necessary information, training, instruction and supervision, so as to ensure that the health and safety of “all persons” at a workplace is protected. So, did the Commonwealth at Maribyrnong fail to ensure effective supervision, and, if so, will either body charge the Commonwealth with a ‘breach of s.19(3)(f)’ offence? No: police won’t – they focus on individuals, not governments – and the Ombudsman can’t.

• According to the Guardian Australia (4/3/2015), “Child protection whistleblowers who alerted the AHRC to child sexual abuse, violence and self-harm on Nauru are being investigated by the Australian federal police. … [T]he AFP has been asked by the Department … to investigate … a suspected breach of section 70 of the Crimes Act, concerning ‘disclosure of information by commonwealth officers’ … ”.

How malevolent! While the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse treats whistleblowers with respect, the Department treats good people, who blow the whistle on the Commonwealth’s own lamentable institutional responses on Nauru, as if they (the whistleblowers) are the criminals.

In summary, in relation to asylum seekers and their children in detention centres, the Commonwealth government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is at best going soft on – and at worst pro-actively protecting – its own ‘organised crime’ regime. The government should be ashamed of itself.


* Max Costello LLM is a former Victorian WorkCover Authority prosecutions solicitor and a former sessional lecturer in Employment Law at Melbourne’s RMIT University.