Refugee Council of Australia
Michelle Bachelet in front of blue UN logo background

Refugees and international law

Relevant international law

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s Revised Deliberation

Author: Johan Ariff


In 1991, the former UN Commission on Human Rights established the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In 1997, the Commission extended the Group’s mandate to include investigating arbitrary detention of migrants and people seeking asylum. Accordingly, the Group created a list of criteria to determine which cases of immigration detention count as ‘arbitrary’. These criteria were adopted in 1999 as Deliberation No. 5.

In light of the increase in global immigration detention, in 2017 the Group decided to publish a revised version of Deliberation No. 5. Based on existing jurisprudence, the new version will guide future courts and tribunals in determining the legality of detention. It will also serve as a reference for immigration officers as they make decisions on the ground. Released on 7 February 2018, this revised version coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Two ‘overarching rights’

The Revised Deliberation is governed by two key rights:

  • The right to personal liberty. This is an absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention. The Deliberation emphasises that popular justifications – including national emergency and public security – do not in any way alter this prohibition.
  • The right to seek and enjoy asylum. Criminalization of migration is prohibited by Deliberation No. 5. This extends to all forms of migration, whether irregular or regular.

When is immigration detention arbitrary?

The revised document stresses that detention during migration proceedings must only be applied as an exceptional measure of last resort.
In order for immigration detention to be permitted, the authorities must meet the following requirements:

  • Due process must be followed at all stages. Proceedings must occur before a judicial authority, according to a process prescribed by law. Detained persons must have access to avenues to challenge their detention.
  • Reasonableness must dictate the decision to detain. To be reasonable, detention must be in pursuance of a legitimate aim – for example, identification of a person at risk of flight. A list of legitimate aims must be included in a piece of legislation.
  • Detention must be absolutely necessary to achieving the intended purpose.
  • The inherent seriousness of detention must be proportionate to the situation in question. Immigration officers should consider alternatives when making a decision about whether to detain a person.
  • Detention must be for the shortest period possible, with a maximum period prescribed by legislation. Indefinite detention is always arbitrary, and where a detained person’s release is complicated by issues out of their own control – e.g. unavailability of transportation – they must be released.

What rights do people in immigration detention have?

The Deliberation gives detained migrants extensive protections. These protections include:

  • the same rights given to those in criminal detention
  • freedom from any discrimination
  • the right to be informed in writing of the grounds for their detention, its duration, and their ability to challenge its legality; and
  • the right to be informed of their right to seek asylum and ways in which to do so; and
  • the right to be informed of their right to contact their consulate, which must be facilitated by the detaining authorities.

Detaining authorities should ensure essential services are available, including:

  • legal representation
  • medical care, including mental health care; and
  • telephone and email services for communicating with the outside world.

Essentially, people in immigration detention must be treated with humanity, respect and dignity. Governments should not use detention as a tool to discourage asylum applications.

Dealing with vulnerable migrants

The Revised Deliberation is clear that immigration detention of children is never permitted. Nor may children be separated from their parents because their parents are in immigration detention. In such instances, an alternative to detention must be used for the entire family.

Detention of other vulnerable migrants – for example, pregnant women and transgender individuals – must not take place. Women must also be separated from men within detention facilities, unless as a family unit.

Detention facilities

Immigration detainees must not be mixed with criminal detainees. Detention facilities run by private companies are still the complete responsibility of the detaining State.
Importantly, immigration detention centres must be open to relevant organisations, including the UNHCR.

What the Revised Deliberation means for Australia

The publication of this document reflects a global shift away from detention as a means of coping with migrant inflows.

In contrast to the original, the revised version portrays detention as a last resort in the resolution of immigration issues. It introduces standards of necessity, reasonableness and proportionality, which also impose on detaining authorities a stricter obligation to consider the appropriateness of detention.

With specific articles relating to transparency and vulnerable detainees, this Revised Deliberation represents the lessons learnt from inappropriate use of detention in the migration context. Far more extensive than the 10 Principles contained in the original, this Revised Deliberation calls into question Australia’s decades-long reliance on immigration detention.
Read the Revised Deliberation

Guidelines to protect migrants in countries experiencing conflict or natural disaster


In 2015, more than 244 million people were migrants in another country. When conflicts or natural disasters strike, migrants may be more vulnerable than others. They may not speak the language, not be able to move easily, may not have legal status or social networks, and may be discriminated against. For these reasons, they may find it more difficult to leave dangerous areas, get help, and stay safe and well.

To help these people, an initiative called Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) has been set up. The Initiative is chaired both by the Philippines and the United States governments. During 2015 and early 2016, consultations were held across the world under the MCIC Initiative. The aim of the consultations was to develop guidelines for planning for, and responding to, the needs of migrants when there is a crisis.

What do the Guidelines do?

In June 2016, the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster, were released. Under the Guidelines, States are mostly responsible for protecting migrants within their territory, regardless of their immigration status or duration of stay. States are also responsible for their own citizens who are overseas. The Guidelines also cover the role of people in the private sector, humanitarian organisations, and civil society in helping migrants and protecting their rights and dignity.

The framework that was developed by the Initiative includes principles, guidelines and practices for protecting migrants. The Principles are fundamental precepts, informed by international law. The Guidelines identify the actions required to protect migrants. The Practices describe real examples of how to use the Guidelines. People and organisations can also share practices through the MICIC Initiative website.

The Guidelines cover all stages of a conflict or natural disaster. They include advice on the structures and policies that should be put in place before a crisis. They cover the humanitarian needs of migrants during the emergency. They also cover how to deal with the period after the emergency, when migrants may lose jobs, struggle with poverty, health and protection, and find it difficult to integrate with a community,

A core theme of the Guidelines is that States and others are responsible for helping to protect migrants during and after serious crises. The introduction states that ‘at all times, our collective aim must be to save lives, increase protection, decrease vulnerability, and improve responses.’ The MICIC Initiative is a significant step in making migrants less vulnerable, and improving responses to their needs in conflicts and natural disasters.

Read the Guidelines

Be a champion for refugee rights

Join our mailing list and be the first to receive active resources. We need you to show Australia cares about refugees.


  • Category

  • Topic