Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Locking them up

Locking them up

Australia is a country which has allowed people to languish in detention facilities for years without access to legal advice or judicial review. Australia’s detention policies have been found on many occasions to breach obligations under human rights treaties.

There have been some positive changes in the past two years, with more people being released into the community; and the number of children in detention in Australia reducing to almost zero by the end of 2016.

The release of children in detention has followed some high-profile campaigning and the release of a damning report by the Australian Human Rights Commission into children in detention— a report which led to some extraordinarily vicious personal attacks from Australian Government representatives on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

A particularly welcome aspect has been the quiet release of most of those who had been detained because of adverse security assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Although people have been released into the community, many have complex mental health issues and completely inadequate support.

However welcome these changes, much else has deteriorated inside the centres. People are staying in locked detention for longer and longer, with the average length of detention in Australia now at 487 days. Despite the reduction of populations in the centres, since the current government was elected, the average length of detention has more than doubled.

New laws introduced in 2014 make detention automatic for many people who have been convicted of offences and also make it much easier for the government to detain people even if they are only charged with offences. These laws punish people twice for the same conduct and unjustly discriminate against non-citizens who may have committed offences, even if they are merely driving offences.

People affected include those who came here as refugees and people seeking asylum. Since Australia cannot return them to another country, we have effectively created a new class of people who could be detained indefinitely. Even if we include those who can be removed to another country, the average length of the detention for people in this category was 274 days at 17 October 2016. People included in this group have no right or any access to legal representation and the law means that for many, the only possibility is a personal appeal to the Minister. Waiting for the Minister even to consider their appeal, however, takes most of the year: of the cases finalised in 2016, the average time taken was 259 days.

The introduction of the Australian Border Force, together with a change in the composition of those being detained, has resulted in immigration detention facilities becoming more and more like jails. Detention visitors are reporting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to visit detainees, and even nuns are being dusted for explosives and stopped from entering. It is important to remember that the people being visited have committed no crime and are in what is technically known as administrative detention. Yet it is those who have come by boat seeking our protection who have been stripped of their mobile phones, stopped from going on supervised excursions and put in handcuffs while being escorted to torture and trauma counselling and medical appointments. Detention facilities have been reconfigured to separate people in detention from each other, creating further isolation.

Her son [is not able to] hang and play with his friends because he was in the family camp because all of his friends were in the single zone, he was the only male in the family camp for a while. They stopped the excursions and home visits as well so he had nothing to look forward to.

-Margaret, Community member in Melbourne

Far too often RCOA hears of people being intimidated by staff wearing riot gear, of people being woken up to be transferred between detention centres immediately, of people turning up to visit someone only to find they have been whisked away to another centre, with no one who can tell them where they have gone. Increasingly, we are also hearing reports of inhumane conditions on Christmas Island, where people are isolated from visitors and support, as well as from effective legal representation.

Many who have been in detention and are now in the community live in fear of being detained again. Under the Code of Behaviour that people seeking asylum have had to sign, even the most minor breach of a law could lead to a person being detained again. This makes life precarious, makes people reluctant to get help, leading to isolation. It also places those who support people seeking asylum in difficult situations, particularly where domestic violence is involved, because any report may lead to prolonged detention.

The effect of prolonged detention on people’s health — physical and mental — has been demonstrated again and again. Yet, despite this, people are still reporting that they receive inadequate medical attention in detention centres, and are instead supplied with Panadol, regardless of their problem. People are released from detention with significant mental health concerns and inadequate support. The Australian National Audit Office in 2016 reported that:

From February to November 2015, 239 detainees were assessed as being at ‘high imminent’ risk of suicide or self-harm. 47% of these instances persisted for more than 72 hours, even though the Department’s program states that people at this risk level have needs which “cannot or should not be managed” in immigration detention.

What does this inhumane system of detention do to people? As one person seeking asylum told us:

Detention had a lot of impact on my life and negative impact. … I have been diagnosed with trauma, anxiety and depression. They asked me to take tablets which I didn’t. I try to treat it better but I wish your Government could understand that we paid a very big price for our freedom and … they call us illegal immigrants and what they are teaching me now which is really bad thing to have in your society is someone think like this, at the moment the mindset I have is if you are not a wolf you have to be eaten by wolves and I learnt it from your government because the wolves have eaten me. The … wolves have eaten me in detention in Australia. So I learnt that if I am not a wolf I will be eaten by wolves so that’s the impact and that’s really bad.

-Person seeking asylum

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