On 7 October, Australia’s Commonwealth Ombudsman (CO) and Human Rights Commissioner (HRC) published a joint statement expressing concern regarding the country’s use of hotels for detaining refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers–in some cases for years on end.
Drawing on observations gathered by the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman in its role as Australia’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), the statement makes various important recommendations to improve detention conditions. These include the need to ensure that hotels are used for short-term detention only; that detainees have access to at least one hour of outdoor exercise each day and meaningful activity programmes; that medical and welfare services are the same standard as those provided in other detention facilities; and that detainees’ privacy rights are respected.
As well as its formal immigration detention estate (comprising Immigration Detention Centres and Immigrant Transit Accommodation), Australia operates “Alternative Places of Detention” (APODs), which include hotels repurposed for detention. Although APODs are intended to be used for short-term detention only, many immigration detainees have been confined in these facilities for lengthy periods of time. For example, large numbers of people transferred from offshore detention facilities to the mainland under now-repealed Medevac legislation were held in hotel APODs for several years. Last year, a Kurdish refugee detained in two Melbourne hotels for more than 14 months announced that he would sue the federal government for damages, arguing that his detention was illegal: “The government locked me up illegally in a hotel that they used as a prison. I want my rights back.”
According to the joint CO-HRC statement, as of 31 July 2022 there were 77 hotels approved for use as APODs, with a total of seven in operation, and the average length of detention in hotel APODs was 69 days–although the longest detention lasted a staggering 634 days. While there has been a reduction in the number of people detained in APODs in recent times, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Human Rights Commissioner’s statement is intended to ensure that those who continue to be detained in such facilities are held in appropriate conditions and that their human rights are respected.
In November, Australia will appear before the UN Committee against Torture for its sixth periodic review. In a recent submission to the committee, the Australian Human Rights Commission highlighted additional concerns–including the country’s support of regional processing arrangements in Nauru; the continued use of mandatory immigration detention, which risks detention becoming arbitrary; and restrictions on detainees’ basic rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. (These concerns, along with many others, were also discussed in the GDP’s 2022 report on Australia’s immigration detention practices.)
- Commonwealth Ombudsman and Australian Human Rights Commission, “Joint Statement on the Use of Hotels as Alternative Places of Detention,” 7 October 2022, https://www.ombudsman.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/115280/Joint-Statement-on-hotel-APODs.pdf
- B. Doherty, “Kurdish Refugee Sues Australian Government for Alleged Unlawful Imprisonment in Melbourne Hotels,” The Guardian, 29 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jul/30/kurdish-refugee-sues-australian-government-for-alleged-unlawful-imprisonment-in-melbourne-hotels
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Australia: Turning Arbitrary Detention into a Global Brand,” February 2022, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/australia#country-report
- Australian Human Rights Commission, “Submission to the Committee against Torture,” October 2022, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/legal/submission/submission-committee-against-torture-2022
- Global Detention Project, “Australia,” https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/australia