Serco fined for covering up use of fire extinguishers against detainees in Christmas Island riots

<span>A CCTV image of firefighting equipment being used at the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, managed by Serco.</span><span>Photograph: commonwealth ombudsman</span>
A CCTV image of firefighting equipment being used at the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, managed by Serco.Photograph: commonwealth ombudsman

The services company Serco was fined for having “concealed” the “inappropriate” use of firefighting equipment for crowd control at the Christmas Island detention centre – including on people not involved in riots.

The commonwealth ombudsman revealed two incidents that occurred in early 2022 in reports raising its concerns about “apparent pre-planned and systematic use of firefighting equipment against people held in detention”.

The Department of Home Affairs confirmed that the use of firefighting equipment on detainees was “unauthorised” and claimed it was “restricted to the two disturbances” identified by the ombudsman. In July 2023 it promised “further investigation” of what the ombudsman described as “serious findings”.

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During the first quarter of 2022, significant disturbances occurred at the North West Point immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, managed by Serco.

According to a 2021-22 ombudsman report “fire extinguishers and other firefighting equipment were used against people in detention during two of these disturbances” including to “clear people from particular areas”.

Still images from CCTV from one disturbance on 24 March 2022 appear to show fire extinguishers being used on detainees, including in a semi-enclosed area.

“Firefighting devices were discharged directly on to people in detention and, in one disturbance, into enclosed areas where people had retreated, including people who had not been involved in the disturbances,” the ombudsman said.

The ombudsman said incident reports “appeared incomplete” because they “failed to mention the use of firefighting equipment in this manner”.

In its 2022-23 preventive mechanism report into detention, released on Tuesday, the ombudsman said that “although mention was made to firefighting equipment in some reporting, it appeared that the fact it had been used for crowd control, against departmental policy, had been concealed”.

The ombudsman appears to have inadvertently revealed that alleged concealment is being considered by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nacc). It published the department’s request that it redact its draft report “as it is inappropriate to refer to matters as having been referred to, or being under consideration by the Nacc in a public document”.

The ombudsman had asked the department in September 2022 to launch an independent investigation. The department “advised that actions had been taken to prevent a recurrence of these acts” and commissioned an internal review instead.

On 25 July 2023, the ombudsman received the review report, which concluded that although the use was “not in line with approved practices and procedures” these did not “explicitly detail” how to respond to incidents in detention.

Recommendations to address the “root causes” were not included in the report because the incidents were “referred for further investigation by the department”, according to the review.

“Although the review intended to interview stakeholders involved in these incidents, interviews did not go ahead due to ‘sensitivities’ involved,” the ombudsman said. It called on the department to “fully investigate this matter”.

On 3 April 2024 the department responded to the ombudsman’s draft report ahead of public release, including that it “accepts and has already addressed” recommendations in relation to the North West Point immigration detention centre incidents.

“On 21 October 2022 the department wrote to the FDSP [facility and detainee services provider] and instructed all FDSP staff to discontinue the use of firefighting equipment against detainees,” the response said.

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On 28 October 2022 Serco told the department that “a review of other critical incidents has been conducted and no other incidents have been identified where fire extinguishers have been used against detainees”.

Training is “reinforcing with all trainees that firefighting equipment are not approved use of force tools”, it said.

“The department confirms that the FDSP was financially abated under the performance management framework for the March 2023 reporting period, for non-compliance with reporting requirements.”

A spokesperson for Serco said: “The safety of all detainees in our care is of paramount importance to Serco.

“Our priority is always to treat people in our care with dignity and respect in a safe and secure environment.

“Serco are constantly reviewing processes and procedures across all immigration detention sites with a focus on continuous improvement.”

Guardian Australia contacted the Australian Border Force and the department for response.