It comes as a high court hearing looms to determine the fate of 153 asylum seekers believed to be still at sea.
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell was unable to tell a hearing on Friday whether customs vessels had adequate provisions for children or what their capacity, communications capabilities and supplies were.
There are 153 asylum seekers are thought to be on board an Australian customs vessel. The government gave an undertaking in the high court on Wednesday not to hand the asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities without 72 hours’ notice.
The Senate inquiry relates to the unrest on Manus Island in February, but Campbell gave a broad opening statement in which he discussed Operation Sovereign Borders more broadly and made significant references to asylum-seeker boat arrivals and “on-water” operations. The Greens senator Penny Wright, chairing the inquiry, allowed questions on the asylum-seeker operations under way and said they were relevant to the committee.
Asked where the 153 asylum seekers were, Campbell said: “In regard to that issue and the venture that you speak of, that is a matter under consideration by the high court so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”
Guardian Australia understands that on Friday lawyers acting for 50 asylum seekers on board the vessel had negotiated access to their clients but had not been informed of their whereabouts by government.
At a hearing on Tuesday, Ron Merkel QC told the high court that if the government attempted to move the asylum seekers straight to one of Australia’s offshore detention centres, it would be argued as unlawful.
Campbell was later questioned about the capabilities of vessels involved in asylum-seeker operations. Asked by the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young what the capacity of the Ocean Protector was, he said: “Again I don’t have the answer to that at hand and if you wish me to take it on notice I will refer that to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.”
Hanson-Young then asked: “And how many people would the Triton hold?”
Campbell: “I’ll have to refer that to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.”
Campbell said he had not had a phone conversation with anyone on board the Ocean Protector or the Triton since taking up his position.
“I have not used a ship-to-shore telephone during my time as the head of the joint agency taskforce,” he said.
Asked about the range of Customs vessels, Campbell said he would have to ask the navy and Customs.
The inquiry also heard evidence from the Manus Island medical provider, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS).
The IHMS regional director, Mark Parrish, said rates of mental illness were “likely to be increased offshore” and he would table statistics about mental illness and psychotropic drug use to the committee.
Parrish said there were “between eight and nine people who continue to have post-traumatic stress and similar conditions” resulting from the unrest in February, which led to dozens of injuries to asylum seekers and the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati.
The immigration department denied in its evidence being in “effective control” of the Manus Island centre, responding to earlier testimony from service providers and guards.
“It is Papua New Guinea which is the owner and administrator of the Manus centre,” the department’s deputy secretary, Mark Cormack, said. “The department does have influence but only in a supportive sense.”
He rebuffed suggestions from service providers that the department had not responded to requests for resources and also security issues.
“The department reiterates that although formal written responses to service providers may not have been provided in all instances that is not indicative of a lack of response to the issues raised,” Cormack said. (The Guardian)