Refugee Council of Australia
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Detention Capability Review: a risk-based approach to detention

Author: Johan Ariff

The Detention Capability Review was established in 2015 to evaluate the Australia’s immigration detention system. In its final report, the Review proposes an overhaul of how detention is used within the immigration environment.


The 43 recommendations made by the Review, summarised below, form the basis for a new approach to the use of immigration detention. The report identifies the Department’s core business as immigration status resolution, rather than detention. With this goal in mind, a four-tiered model is proposed, with migrants classed according to risk. The report strongly advocates for people to be placed in the community while their status is resolved. This risk-focused, placement model is intended to foster a presumption that people will be placed in the community, with detention one of many tools available to achieve status resolution.

This will represent a shift in thinking from ‘can we justify releasing this individual into the community?’ to ‘is there any reason that this individual needs to be placed in a detention facility?’

Key findings and recommendations

A new overall approach is needed

The Department should recognise resolution of immigration status as its core business. Furthermore, community placement should be the default placement, with detention used where necessary to support status resolution.

A 4-tiered placement model

This will provide holistic, status-resolution focused options. The majority of applicants will be Tier-1, and will be housed in the community. These people will have been assessed as posing a low to medium risk. They will be granted either bridging visas or residence determinations, subject to conditions.

Tier-2 applicants will undergo transit accommodation. Some people may be detained for a short, mandated period to status resolution. These people will not pose a high or extreme risk – for example, people awaiting initial health checks.

Tier-3 applicants are held in high security detention. People who present a high risk to society will be housed in detention centres similar to those currently operating.

Finally, Tier-4 applicants are held in specialised detention facilities. People who would otherwise be in Tier-3 detention, but pose an extreme risk to themselves or others, will be managed by specialist providers – for example, suicidal detainees.

A risk assessment tool

This will guide placement decisions. The tier someone is placed in, and the conditions which will apply to those placed in the community, will depend on risk. People will be assessed on the risk they pose to the safety of themselves and others, and the risk they pose to timely status resolution. Risk assessments should be regularly reviewed to ensure people can access the services they need.

Services need to be more tailored and appropriate to the core goal of status resolution

In particular, there should be a nationally consistent approach to the provision of services to extreme risk (Tier-4) individuals.

A fit for purpose detention estate to facilitate the new system

Tiers 2 and 3 should be separated. Tier-4 individuals will be held by specialist providers off-site. Importantly, children are never to be detained in a detention centre. There is to be a village-style Tier-1 accommodation near detention centres, for families with a family member in detention.

The right people with the right skills should operate the system’s components

All staff will be empowered to make necessary decisions. An “empowered officer” role should be created. These officers will be responsible for risk assessments, tier placements, and any attached conditions. Empowered officers will work with individuals toward status resolution, and are a key facet of the Review’s proposed system. The Australian Border Force will be responsible for enforcement.

Improved governance and accountability

At each descending level there needs to be a clear owner of each component part, supported by experts and appropriate escalation avenues.

Improved information services need to be made available to staff

Information sharing between businesses in the system should be streamlined. Furthermore, the Department needs to invest in the capability to forecast the impact of policy change on the entire system.

Improved financial management of the system

The Department should adopt a fixed funding model, limiting detention to a certain number allowed by a fixed budget.

The way forward

The Review anticipates that some legislative change will be needed to implement its recommendations. Key areas include necessary amendments to the bridging visa framework to increase flexibility, and the implementation of the ’empowered officer’ role. It also foresees the need for Government to take a more holistic, status resolution-focused view of immigration policy. Improved governance and a focus on status resolution as the Department’s core business are meant to stop complex cases from slipping through the cracks.

To meet the three year implementation time frame, the Review emphasises the importance of intentional and positive change. Leaders across all areas should begin developing detailed implementation plans for their specific areas. The Review holds that meaningful cultural change, supported by a consistent message from the Department, will be essential to the sustainability of the system.

Read the report

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