Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has called for much stronger independent oversight of decisions to keep people in immigration detention, as the average length of time in detention blows out to a record high of 18 months.
In a submission to a Senate Inquiry examining the Prohibited Items in Immigration Detention Facilities Bill, RCOA says the Bill ignores serious systemic issues in Australia’s immigration detention system as it seeks to give even greater powers to Ministers, detention officers and contractors.
RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said the 1373 people held in immigration detention centres at 31 March 2020 had been held for an average of 545 days – the longest average length of time in detention since the Government began publishing this information more than 10 years ago.
“For years, we have been raising concerns that decisions to deny people their liberty by locking them up in immigration detention can occur without any external scrutiny and the agencies involved in the limited external review of detention have no power to compel the Minister to act on any recommendation,” Mr Power said.
“The end result is that people who have committed no crime are held indefinitely in detention for years, with no explanation of why they were detained, no right to appeal their detention and no indication of when they will be released.
“Instead of addressing these systemic rights abuses in Australia’s immigration detention system, the legislation introduced in recent years by the Australian Government seek only to give the Minister more unchecked power, increase restrictions, limit accountability and dismiss the fact that immigration detention facilities accommodate many vulnerable people.
“The 1373 people include 512 who came by boat to seek asylum and 46 stateless people. Among them are many people designated as refugees in PNG and Nauru. Their detention is a clear breach of the Refugee Convention, which Australia signed in 1954, but there is nothing in Australian law to protect refugees from this breach of international law.
“If this Bill is passed, refugees and people seeking asylum in detention can lose their access to mobile phones. We know mobile phones in detention are lifelines. People use them to maintain contact with their families and young children. Because people in detention with mobile phones can avoid communal phones, the risk of people contracting COVID-19 is reduced and people can maintain private and prompt contact with their legal representatives.
“Mobile phones are also significant in maintaining a very basic level of accountability, as they help people to report on what is happening in detention. It is very telling that this Bill has been introduced at a time when mobile phones are being increasingly used by people in detention to directly tell the Australian community about the conditions in which they are held.
“This Bill also seeks to give the detention officers more power, enabling them to search people in detention even without having any grounds for suspicion. This Bill provides no protection relating to search powers. There is no requirement for a warrant, no rules for conducting a search (unless it is a strip search) and no limitation on how often, when or how many times an individual can be searched.
“A report by the Inspector of the Custodial Services in 2019 found that out of 900,000 strip searches conducted over five years in prisons, only 571 contraband items were found – that’s just 0.06% of all strip searches. Prisons are a much more high risk environment than immigration detention but prison monitoring bodies have maintained that strip searches are ineffective, traumatising and humiliating. It is very disturbing that this Bill would authorise detention officers to extend their existing strip search powers to searches for mundane items like mobile phones, creating further humiliation and trauma for vulnerable people who have committed no crime.”
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