21 October 2021
On 18 October 2021, refugees and asylum seekers detained at Melbourne’s Park Hotel held a protest against their detention at the hotel during a COVID-19 outbreak. The detained decried their shared sleeping quarters, cramped eating and recreation spaces, and the fact that many of them are medically vulnerable. Three positive cases had been confirmed and at least 40 men were awaiting test results.
By 22 October 2021, it was confirmed that nearly one-third of immigration detainees held at the Park Hotel had tested positive for COVID-19. Fifteen of 46 men were infected, one person had been taken to the hospital, 28 had tested negative, and three were awaiting results.
At a Court hearing brought by a refugee - known as FSG20 in Court - requesting orders to allow him to be assessed by paramedics, the Court heard that an ambulance was turned away from the hotel. According to the evidence presented, an ambulance was called by a friend of FSG20 after concerns about his deteriorating health condition. In a statement to the Court, his friend said: “I called the ambulance. They attended the hotel but were not permitted to enter. He was told by the nurse never to call the ambulance again.” The government rejected this and told the court that while several ambulances had been called for detainees, this ambulance or FGS20 had not arrived. Further hearings on the case were scheduled for late October..
According to figures released by the government, vaccination rates among immigration detainees are roughly a quarter as that of the general population. On 6 September, 52 percent of immigration detainees had had at least one dose and 17 percent were fully vaccinated, in contrast to 63.2 percent of Australians with one dose and 38.4 percent fully vaccinated. The Australian Border Force has claimed that all detainees have been offered COVID-19 vaccinations, stating that “the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program to consenting detainees commenced in early August 2021 and has taken place at all immigration detention facilities across the immigration detention network.”
On the other hand, the Refugee Action Coalition argues that the Australian government has “failed to implement the most basic Covid protocols” at the Park Hotel, stating that the hotel was circulating air-conditioned air between floors with confirmed cases and floors where refugees and asylum seekers are held, while windows were sealed when refugees and asylum seekers were moved into the hotel.
According to information provided during Senate deliberations on 18 October 2021, there appears to be a large disparity in the vaccination rates for refugees and asylum seekers held at Australia offshore centres. On Nauru, 88 percent of the 107 detainees had received a first dose by 6 September 2021 and 84 percent were fully vaccinated. Yet, in Papua New Guinea, where the health system has been overrun by outbreaks, the vaccination rate for the 121 detainees was at just 20 percent for first doses and 11 percent fully vaccinated.
The outbreak within the Park Hotel comes more than a year after more than 1,100 health professionals co-signed a letter to the Home Affairs Minister, calling for all refugees and asylum seekers to be released from immigration detention as “failure to take action to release people seeking asylum and refugees from detention will (...) put them at risk of infection and possibly death” as well as “placing a greater burden on Australian society and the health care system.” (see 2 April and 26 April 2020 Australia updates on this platform).
The Australian government announced on 6 October 2021 that they would stop processing asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea at the end of 2021 and that around 124 men who remained in the country were being given the option to settle in Papua New Guinea, with a pathway to citizenship and financial support. Alternatively, they may request a transfer to Nauru where they would remain in Australia’s offshore processing system. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that staying in Papua New Guinea would not be a safe option for the refugees due to the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Yet, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs stated that there was “zero chance of settlement in Australia for those who come illegally by boat.”
- B. Doherty, "A COVID Incubator: Outbreak in Melbourne Refugee Detention Hotel Grows as Vaccination Rate Lags," The Guardian, 18 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/19/a-covid-incubator-outbreak-in-melbourne-refugee-detention-hotel-grows-as-vaccination-rates-lag
- B. Doherty, "Nearly One-Third of Refugees at Melbourne Detention Hotel Test Positive for COVID and One Hospitalised," The Guardian, 22 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/22/nearly-one-third-of-refugees-at-melbourne-detention-hotel-test-positive-for-covid-with-one-hospitalised
- M. Faa, “Australian Government Urged to Act as PNG’s COVID-19 Outbreak Spreads Among Refugees,” ABC News, 20 October 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-21/png-refugee-family-covid-calls-for-evacuation/100548240
- M. Faa, “Australia To Stop Processing Asylum Seekers in PNG But Government’s Refugee Policy Unchanged,” ABC News, 6 October 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-10-06/australia-stop-processing-asylum-seekers-in-png-manus/100517926
- The Hon Karen Andrews MP (Minister for Home Affairs), “Joint Media Release with the Hon. Westly Nukundj MP - Finalisation of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement,” 6 October 2021, https://minister.homeaffairs.gov.au/KarenAndrews/Pages/finalisation-of-the-regional-resettlement-arrangement.aspx
- Asylum Seekers and Refugees Protesting Their Detention at Melbourne's Park Hotel on 18 October 2021, (The Guardian, "A COVID Incubator: Outbreak in Melbourne Refugee Detention Hotel Grows as Vaccination Rate Lags," The Guardian, 18 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/19/a-covid-incubator-outbreak-in-melbourne-refugee-detention-hotel-grows-as-vaccination-rates-lag)
17 September 2021
Previously one of the countries in the world least affected by COVID-19, Australia has been struggling to contain outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta variant across the country over recent months. The States of New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra have all experienced extended periods of lockdown over the past weeks. Immigration detention centres have not been spared, raising serious concerns once again about the conditions for the 1,400 people held in mandatory and sometimes indefinite immigration detention in Australia, including in "alternative places of detention," such as hotels and hostels.
Concerns at detention centres were heightened when it was confirmed that at least one guard at a center in Melbourne - Australia's second largest city - had tested positive for COVID-19 on 5 September. The guard is a contracted service provider at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP). Detainees in the facility expressed fears about their health and safety after confirming that five to six people were expected to share a room in bunk beds. A detainee told Al Jazeera: “They don’t test us for COVID unless we show symptoms. This means they would not actually know if it is spreading until a lot of people are sick. It could travel fast. Guards are free to come and go.”
In a separate incident, seven detainees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney--one of Australia's largest detention facilities, which holds 500 people--were reported to be in isolation after a guard at the centre tested positive for COVID-19 on 12 September.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has described COVID-19 as a "serious threat" for the 1,492 people held in immigration detention in Australia, raising concerns about a high density of people being held in enclosed, confined spaces where a significant proportion of them have pre-existing health conditions which can worsen the outcomes of contracting COVID-19. In a report in June 2021, the AHRC said the government should "follow expert health advice by placing people who present a low security risk in community-based alternatives to closed detention" as other countries have done with success. The AHRC recommended reducing the numbers being held in immigration detention facilities, improving physical distancing, especially in overcrowded bedrooms, paying special attention to detainees with underlying health conditions, and ensuring that any resort to quarantine must be "reasonable, necessary and proportionate to addressing COVID-19 risks." People should not be held in "harsh, prison-like" conditions during their quarantine and should have access to necessary support. Vaccines should be readily available for all immigration detainees, without discrimination.
Observers in Australia have been warning for months about the high risks of COVID-19 outbreaks for refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention. They say that mitigation measures in detention centers have been inadequate throughout the pandemic and that the slow implementation of the country’s vaccination campaign has left detainees extremely vulnerable, especially in centres’ unsafe, overcrowded conditions. They urge that asylum seekers should be released immediately as they have not committed a crime and their continued detention in the midst of a pandemic can not be justified. Marie Hapke from the Australian Refugee Action Network said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic the risks of closed detention have been well documented, and experts have called for the release of all those who do not need to be held in detention. There is no justification for continuing to hold refugees in detention – now is the time to release these people into the community. It is only a matter of time before there is a major outbreak in immigration detention centres.”
Observers have noted that while the Australian government has judiciously followed the advice of epidemiologists and health care professionals in its overall management of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has consistently refused to include refugees, asylum seekers and other non-citizens in its national public health response. The government, it is argued, has continued to view this population from a perspective of national security, criminality and border control and the pandemic has reinforced Australia's regime of mandatory immigration detention. Indeed, unlike other countries in the world where the number of people being held in immigration detention dropped in the months after onset of the pandemic, in Australia the numbers increased by 12 percent in the first six months of the pandemic putting enormous strain on facilities that were already operating close to capacity.
The Australian Border Force has responded to these concerns by confirming that all immigration detainees have full access to medical professionals and the same range of health care services as Australian citizens. “The priority for the Australian Border Force is the health and safety of detainees and staff in immigration detention facilities,” a spokesperson from Australian Border Force said. “To date, no detainee has tested positive to COVID-19.“
- M. Davey, "Australia on Track to Live with COVID from Early 2022, Leading Epidemiologist Says", The Guardian, 7 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/08/australia-on-track-to-live-with-covid-from-early-2022-leading-epidemiologist-says
- Z. Osborne, "Refugees Fear COVID Risk in Australian Immigration Detention," Al Jazeera, 11 September 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/11/refugees-fear-covid-risk-in-australian-immigration-detention
- L. Carroll, "Villawood Detention Centre Staff Member Tests Positive for COVID," Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-news-live-foreign-airlines-at-risk-of-pulling-out-as-victorian-outbreak-accelerates-20210912-p58qv6.html
- Australian Human Rights Commission, "Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention (2021)," 16 June 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- J. Taylor, "Calls for Asylum Seekers to be Freed from Detention after Melbourne Guard Tests Positive for COVID," The Guardian, 6 September 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), "People must be Immediately Released from Immigration Detention as another Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19," 13 September 2021, https://www.racs.org.au/news-old/people-must-be-immediately-released-from-immigration-detention-as-another-worker-tests-positive-for-covid-19
- Asylum Seeker Resource Center, "Morrison Government must act urgently to avoid COVID catastrophe in immigration Detention," Media Release, 3 August, 2021, https://asrc.org.au/2021/08/03/morrison-government-must-act-urgently-to-avoid-covid-catastrophe-in-immigration-detention/
- A. Vogl et al, "COVID-19 and the Relentless Harms of Australia’s Punitive Immigration Detention Regime," Crime, Media, Culture, 2021 Vol, 17 (1), 43-51, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741659020946178
- Asylum Seekers Protest Inside the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne, Australia on 16 May 2020 (Michael Dodge/AAP/PA Images, "COVID-19 Reveals the Inherent Vindictiveness of Migration Detention," Open Democracy, 26 May 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/26/covid-19-reveals-inherent-vindictiveness-migration-detention)
06 July 2021
As COVID-19 cases rise again in areas of Australia - including New South Wales - prompting fresh lockdowns, a new report from the Australian Human Rights Commission has highlighted the serious risks that COVID-19 poses to people in the country’s immigration detention network. Although no immigration detainees have, to-date, tested positive in the country (although several staff members have contracted the virus), the commission urged Australian authorities to adopt various measures to better protect detainees.
Following a review of the collective response to the human rights risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of immigration detention, the commission identified three key areas of concern: detainee population size, difficulties in physical distancing, and restriction of individuals’ rights. At the same time however, it commended several areas, including the government’s indication that the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for immigration detainees.
With regards to the detainee population, the commission criticises the fact that unlike other countries that released immigration detainees at the start of the crisis, Australia instead increased its immigration detainee population during the first year of the pandemic (from 1,373 in March 2020 to 1,527 in February 2021). The commission notes, “This population increase has contributed to capacity pressures throughout Australia’s network of immigration detention facilities and increased the concentration of detainees in compounds at various times throughout 2020.” The commission thus encouraged Australia to follow expert health advice and release people who present a low security risk into community-based alternatives to detention.
Although it recognises the government’s attempts to provide capacity relief by re-opening North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island, the commission argues that the centre is ill-equipped to respond to a COVID outbreak--due to the island’s isolation, and its lack of sophisticated health care facilities. (The facility’s inadequate health care provision was highlighted recently, in the case of the Murugappan family--a young family of four detained on the island since 2019--whose youngest child was transferred to Perth for emergency medical care after being hospitalised with a suspected blood infection.) As such, the commission writes: “As a matter of urgency, the Australian Government should decommission the use of all immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island, and implement more appropriate solutions to reduce the number of people in closed immigration detention.”
The commission also noted the need for authorities to improve detainees’ ability to socially distance, highlighting the fact that people often have less than the recommended four square metres of personal space, and that detainees are often required to sleep in bunk beds in shared rooms. The commission thus urged the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the Australian Border Force to limit bedroom occupancy levels to ensure distancing of 1.5 metres between persons at all times, the partition of sanitary facilities from living and sleeping spaces, and the provision of at least four square metres per person in multi-occupancy rooms.
Finally, the commission has urged authorities to ensure that measures restricting individuals’ rights--such as freedom of movement--are reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to addressing COVID-19 risks. For example, the commission points to the conditions in which individuals are held when quarantining, highlighting that centres have tended to use their “high care” accommodation units, which are usually used as isolation areas for behavioural management. “Bedrooms in these units are sparse, with hard, fixed furniture, and contain a toilet and shower, with some separated by partitions (but not doors). They have limited natural light, and any windows are tinted so there is no view outside, and they cannot be opened. Bedrooms are generally monitored using closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, but the Commission does not know if the CCTV is used when a person is in quarantine.”
On 28 May 2021, the commission received a formal response from the DHA to the report’s 20 recommendations. While it agreed to six of these recommendations and agreed in part with two, it noted seven and disagreed with five (including the recommendations that detention centres not exceed their operational capacity and that “high care” accommodation units cease being used for quarantine).
- Australian Human Rights Commission, “Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention,” 16 June 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/management-covid-19-risks-immigration-detention
- N. Mackee and M. McInerney, “As Tamil Family Released, Federal Government Urged to Close Christmas Island and Address Pandemic Detention Risks,” 16 June 2021, https://www.croakey.org/as-tamil-family-released-federal-government-urged-to-close-christmas-island-and-address-pandemic-detention-risks/
- Department of Home Affairs, “Department Response,” 28 May 2021, https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/homeaffairs_response_covid-19_immigration_detention_2021_0.pdf
22 January 2021
After more than a year of detention inside Melbourne hotels, 65 medically vulnerable male asylum seekers have been released. Previously confined in offshore detention facilities, the men were transferred to mainland Australia in 2019 under the now-repealed Medevac laws, so that they could receive urgent medical treatment. Since their arrival however, they have been held in hotels, including the Park Hotel and the Mantra Hotel, where they have been denied sufficient access to open space or appropriate food, subjected to “prison-like conditions” and “mental torture,” confined in rooms without adequate ventilation, and potentially exposed to COVID-19. In July 2020 a staff member working at the Mantra Hotel tested positive for the virus.
One of the detainees said of his release in a tweet: “This is the most beautiful moment of my life and one that I would like to share with you all. After 2,737 days locked up in detention – I am free. Thank you to all of the amazing people who helped me to stay strong. #GameOver.”
According to the Home Affairs Ministry, which justified the releases on a purely financial basis, all those released were granted “final departure bridging visas” which allow “individuals to temporarily reside in the Australian community while they finalise their arrangements to leave Australia.” In a statement, the ministry said: “The individuals residing in the alternative places of detention were brought to Australia temporarily for medical treatment. They are encouraged to finalise their medical treatment so they can continue on their resettlement pathway to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG or return to their home country.”
On 5 January, detainees held in the Christmas Island Detention Centre--which was reopened in August 2020 allegedly due to the pandemic’s impact upon the government’s ability to remove asylum seekers--initiated riots in protest of their detention conditions. According to one detainee who spoke to the Guardian, the facility’s management had denied detainees the opportunity to hold a peaceful protest--prompting some to react violently and set two of the compounds alight. Reportedly, detainees had been in lockdown for 22 hours a day and were denied access to workable wifi, leading to many struggling with both their physical and mental health. Describing the conditions in the facility, one refugee said, “It’s worse than jail. In jail, you know when you can go home, in detention they don’t have a timeframe for you to go home. You wait around, and you don’t know what’s happening.” Additional disturbances were also reported on 10 January.
- A. MC, “Medically Vulnerable Refugees in Australia Hotels Finally Freed,” Al Jazeera, 22 January 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/22/medically-vulnerable-refugees-in-australia-hotels-finally-freed
- J. Taylor, “Nearly All Refugees Held in Melbourne Hotel Detention to be Released, Advocates Say,” The Guardian, 20 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/20/more-than-20-refugees-to-be-released-from-melbourne-hotel-detention-advocates-say
- The Guardian, “Sydney's Star Casino Fined $5,000 for Breaching Public Health Orders – as it Happened,” 13 July 2020, https://bit.ly/3c2G9Nq
- Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, “Australia: Refugees & Asylum Seekers Held in Hotel Detention Facilities are Subjected to Prison-Like Conditions & Risk COVID-19 Exposure,” 6 September 2020, https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/australia-refugees-asylum-seekers-hotel-detention-facilities-are-subjected-prison-conditions-contravention-international-human-rights-standards/
- Moz (Mostafa Azimitabar) (@AzimiMoz), Twitter, https://bit.ly/3sPmUN6
- M. Rachwani, “Christmas Island Detainees Riot and Set Fire to Buildings in Protest Against Conditions,” The Guardian, 6 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/06/christmas-island-detainees-riot-and-set-fire-to-buildings-in-protest-against-conditions
- P. Karp, “Fresh Disturbance at Christmas Island Detention Centre Due to 'Inhumane' Conditions, Advocates Say,” The Guardian, 10 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/10/fresh-disturbance-at-christmas-island-detention-centre-due-to-inhumane-conditions-advocates-say
01 July 2020
Despite recommendations from infectious disease experts, medical professionals, civil society, and international human rights observers to reduce detainee populations (see 26 April update), the numbers of non-nationals detained in Australia have increased during the pandemic. This is according to the country’s Commonwealth Ombudsman, Michael Manthorpe, who warned, “There is a risk that upward pressure on numbers in detention will continue in the medium term. This will make adherence to CDNA Guidelines harder and increase the risk should COVID-19 virus occur in one of the facilities. … It has become apparent in other residential settings that just one mishap can lead to a serious outbreak in facilities where large numbers of people are housed in close proximity to one another. For example, a person without symptoms could innocently bring the virus into a facility without their knowledge. … All this being so, we consider that it would be highly desirable for fewer people to be held in immigration detention.”
This assessment followed the completion of the Ombudsman’s investigation into the management of Covid-19 risks in Australia’s immigration detention estate. Aside from the rising numbers of persons in detention, he noted - amongst other points - that although screening was generally in place in most facilities, in several centres there was no oversight of persons exiting the premises. The Ombudsman also flagged the failure to implement compound separation in at least one facility - a failure which resulted in detainees from different compounds using the same communal facilities at the same time.
Some positive points, however, were also noted. These included the fact that facility staff had clearly messaged to detainees that they are able to access personal effects and entertainment during periods of medical isolation - an important policy to help alleviate any reluctance amongst detainees to self-report, given fears of isolation during testing.
This investigation was prompted by a complaint lodged by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in May on behalf of 14 men held in onshore detention facilities. The men were unable to follow public health advice and practice social distancing in overcrowded detention centres, and their complaint called for an urgent inspection of detention sites in order to assess the adequacy of detention conditions during the crisis.
What this investigation did not refer to, however, was the country’s proposed new law that will see mobile phones banned in onshore detention facilities. According to Australia’s Immigration Minister, who described mobiles as an “unacceptable risk,” this ban is necessary to stop the spread of drugs and contraband items in detention centres. Civil society and NGOs have challenged the proposed policy, arguing that phones are a “lifeline” for detainees - particularly due to their role in helping to support persons’ mental health and wellbeing. With visits suspended during the Covid-19 crisis, mobile phones have played an even greater role for many detainees in the past few months, helping to prevent acute isolation.
- Commonwealth Ombudsman, “Statement by the Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe on the Management of COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention Facilities,” 1 July 2020, https://www.ombudsman.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/111235/1-July-2020-Statement-by-the-Commonwealth-Ombudsman-Michael-Manthorpe-on-the-management-of-COVID-19-risks-in-immigration-detention-facilities.pdf
- Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd, “Ombudsman Statement on COVID-19 Risks in Immigration Detention: Department Urged to Reduce Numbers,” 1 July 2020, https://piac.asn.au/2020/07/01/ombudsman-statement-on-covid-19-risks-in-immigration-detention-department-urged-to-reduce-numbers/
- H. Ryan, “Dutton ‘s Bid to Ban Mobile Phones in Immigration Detention Centres Could be Unconstitutional,” The Guardian, 24 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/25/duttons-bid-to-ban-mobile-phones-in-immigration-detention-centres-could-be-unconstitutional
26 April 2020
Despite growing calls from a broad range of actors - including civil society, medical professionals, infectious disease experts, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, and detainees themselves--the Australian government had still not taken steps to release vulnerable detainees as of late April. The government has acknowledged that those in correctional and detention settings are most at risk. However, immigration detention measures continue to be imposed even as some refugees previously detained on Manus Islands and Nauru are now detained in Australian hotels.
Protests are reportedly taking place almost daily in detention facilities. One Afghan refugee held in a Melbourne hotel was quoted as saying, “We should be free, we should be released in the community for self-isolation. This is not self-isolation. They are closing the clubs, the bars, the pubs, the gyms, everything … but what about here? We are like some kind of animals?”
On 22 April, a chronically ill refugee held in Australian immigration detention launched a case in the high court seeking his release into the community in a bid to protect him from the virus. Represented by lawyers from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, the individual is challenging his detention on the grounds that the Australian government is breaching its duty of care by failing to establish conditions that would allow him to comply with public health guidelines on social distancing. Reportedly, this is the first of “many” cases that may be brought forward.
- International Detention Coalition, “Key Developments on Immigration Detention & Alternatives: Covid-19,” accessed on 21 April 2020, https://idcoalition.org/covid-19/key-developments/
- E. Santow, “We Must Combat Covid-19 but Creeping Authoritarianism Could Do More Harm Than Good,” The Guardian, 7 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/08/we-must-combat-covid-19-but-creeping-authoritarianism-could-do-more-harm-than-good
- E. Al-Ghalib, “UN Calls for Release of Refugees in Detention as Risk of Coronavirus Grows,” SBS News, 3 April 2020, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/un-calls-for-release-of-refugees-in-detention-as-risk-of-coronavirus-grows
- B. Robinson-Drawbridge, “This is Not Self-Isolation: Manus Island Refugees Call for Release,” RNZ, 31 March 2020, https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/412987/this-is-not-self-isolation-manus-island-refugees-call-for-release
- Refugees Queue for Food in Brisbane, (Hakeem Kakar, "This is not Self-Isolation: Manus Island Refugees Call for Release," RNZ, 31 March 2020, https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/412987/this-is-not-self-isolation-manus-island-refugees-call-for-release)
02 April 2020
1,100 Australian healthcare professionals have co-signed a letter to the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, calling for all refugees and asylum seekers to immediately be released from immigration detention. “Failure to take action to release people seeking asylum and refugees from detention will not only put them at greater risk of infection and possibly death," it stated. "It also risks placing a greater burden on wider Australian society and the health care system."
29 March 2020
Numerous civil society organisations have issued calls for the release of immigration detainees in Australia, which took on new urgency after a private security guard at an ad hoc detention centre in a hotel in Brisbane tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-March.
On 23 March, asylum seekers in detention across Australia wrote an open letter to the prime minister pleading for their release into the community. The detainees wrote: “It is only a matter of time before it will breach our closed environment … we are sitting ducks for Covid-19 and are extremely exposed to becoming severely ill, with the possibility of death.” A Jordanian refugee detained in Villawood detention centre in Sydney reported that the crowded detention centre made it impossible to keep four square meters apart from one another and that there was a lack of soap and hand sanitiser available to detainees. Another detainee said the situation was similar at the Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane. Although a guard at the hotel tested positive for Covid-19, none of the detainees were tested and the Australian border force told detainees that they “don’t have kits to test everyone.”
On 27 March 2020, the Home Affairs Department rejected calls to release detainees, claiming: “Infection control plans are in place and plans to manage suspected cases of COVID-19 have been developed and tested. Detainees displaying any COVID-19 symptoms may be quarantined and tested in line with advice from health officials and in accordance with the broader Commonwealth response.”
- B. Smee and B. Doherty, “Fears for Refugees after Guard at Brisbane Immigration Detention Centre Tests Positive for Coronavirus,” The Guardian, 19 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/19/fears-for-refugees-as-guard-at-brisbane-immigration-detention-centre-tests-positive-for-coronavirus?mc_cid=f703c8e68b&mc_eid=ea525a4cee
- L. Knowles and J. Carter, “Asylum Seekers Plead to be Released from Detention Centres Amid Coronavirus Fears,” ABC, 25 March 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-25/coronavirus-fears-asylum-seekers-plead-for-release-detention/12084604
- J. Blakkarly, “For a Detainee Inside an Australian Immigration Detention Centre, Covid-19 is Terrifying,” SBS News, 25 March 2020, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/for-a-detainee-inside-an-australian-immigration-detention-centre-covid-19-is-terrifying
- R. Holt and S. Vasefi, “We are Sitting Ducks for Covid-19: Asylum Seekers Write to PM After Detainees Tested in Immigration Detention,” The Guardian, 23 March 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/24/we-are-sitting-ducks-for-covid-19-asylum-seekers-write-to-pm-after-detainee-tested-in-immigration-detention
- E. Al-Ghalib, “Home Affairs Rejects Calls to Release Immigration Detainees Fearful of Coronavirus,” SBS News, 27 March 2020, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/home-affairs-rejects-calls-to-release-immigration-detainees-fearful-of-coronavirus
Last updated: February 2022
Immigration Detention in Australia: Turning Arbitrary Detention into a Global Brand
- Read Full Report
- Key Finding
- Australia is one of the few countries in the world with a blanket policy of mandatory, indefinite detention of all people who do not have a visa, including children and asylum seekers.
- Human rights agencies have repeatedly found Australia’s detention system to be arbitrary, discriminatory, and in violation of international law.
- As of January 2022, Australia had failed to establish a National Preventive Mechanism—a critical detention monitoring body—in each of its territories as required by the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, which it ratified in 2017.
- People languish in detention for years: The average length of detention is nearly 700 days and dozens have been detained for more than five years.
- Thousands of children have been subject to prolonged detention, resulting in severe physical and mental harm.
- Prolonged detention has catastrophic impacts on the physical and mental health of detainees, leading to high rates of self-harm, depression, anxiety, and psychological disorders.
- Detention is very expensive: It costs nearly $400,000 per detainee per year compared to less than $50,000 for housing a person in the community.
- Australia has outsourced its entire detention system to a series of private contractors who have been accused of committing grave abuses--including murder--against detainees and cutting corners on the delivery services.
- Monitors have repeatedly criticised the appalling conditions in Australia’s detention facilities, including overcrowding and lack of communal and outdoor spaces, the remote location of many detention centres, and the extreme isolation of detainees, who are prevented from using mobile phones.
- Unlike other countries who released immigration detainees into the community at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia increased its detainee population during the first year of the pandemic.
- The country ceased its overseas detention operations in Papua New Guinea but it maintains offshore processing in Nauru. It also re-opened the detention facility on Christmas Island after the emergence of COVID-19 even though the Australian Human Rights Commission said it was not suitable for confining people during a pandemic.
- Independent observers have faced barriers gaining access to Nauru and Manus Island and Australia has been persistently criticized for the lack of transparency surrounding its offshore operations.
- Detainees in offshore detention facilities must wait years to be transported to Australia for medical treatment, but a 2019 “Medevac Bill” that allowed for such transfers was quickly repealed.
Australia’s migration-related detention system is uniquely severe, arbitrary, and punitive. And that is precisely the message that Australia’s political establishment—with significant public support—appears committed to communicating to the rest of the world. Deplorable and abusive immigration detention conditions and practices abound in many countries in the world; Australia, however, brings together a range of extreme policies in its detention regime, provides them blanket legal cover, aggressively defends them in the face of growing international opprobrium, and spreads them to countries near and far.
Key features of the Australian migration system are its policy of mandatory indefinite detention of undocumented non-citizens, offshore processing of asylum seekers, the inclusion of children in mandatory detention, and extreme lengths of detention (as of 2021 the average length of detention was nearly 700 days and at least 50 people had been in detention for more than eight years). National and international experts, judicial bodies, and human rights advocates have repeatedly denounced these policies as violating fundamental human rights as well as the country’s international legal obligations. Nevertheless, some countries have sought to emulate these polices, most notably in Europe, where Denmark, the United Kingdom, and others have proposed schemes that are similar to Australia’s notorious “Pacific Solution.”
Whereas many migrant detaining countries employ complex and sometimes misleading laws, terminology, and regulations to frame their migration detention systems, Australian law and policy can be blatantly clear in comparison. Thus, for example, although countries in Europe generally provide a broad set of legal norms to define and ground differing migration-related detention measures, Australia’s detention laws seem banal and stark: all non-citizens unlawfully in Australia are mandatorily and indefinitely detained until granted a visa or removed.
Another remarkable quality of Australia’s system, which figured prominently in the media hype surrounding the decision in January 2022 to revoke the visa of renown professional tennis player Novak Djokovic, is the extraordinary (“God-like”) power of the immigration minister. Under the Migration Act, the minister has the sole authority and discretion to grant a person a visa and thus enable their release from detention, if the minister thinks it is “in the public interest” to do so. This ministerial power is not subject to the same rules as provided elsewhere in the Migration Act, nor is it necessary for the minister to provide information to Parliament explaining the use of this power. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, “the effect of this is to give the Minister virtually complete discretion in deciding whether to release a person from detention.”
The legal foundation of Australia's immigration detention regime—the 1958 Migration Act—has been amended on multiple occasions. The government's responses to changing conditions—including increases in Indo-Chinese arrivals in the 1980s and the onset of refugee flows from Middle Eastern countries in the 1990s—have invariably led to further tightening of restrictions. This has included the adoption of amendments that limit the ability of detainees to enjoy basic human rights and circumvent Australia’s international obligations. A case in point is a provision designating certain Australian islands as “excised” territories in order to prevent asylum seekers detained on them from accessing legal procedures and safeguards.
The severe impact of Australia’s detention practices on the health and well-being of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers has been well documented. The Australian Human Rights Commission has repeatedly expressed serious concerns about the mental health impacts on immigration detainees who are held for prolonged periods in remote immigration detention sites as well as the negative effects of limiting detainees’ ability to have easily accessible communication with family, friends, legal representatives, and others. Commenting on these problems, the Human Rights Commissioner said: “That people are detained for so long in Australia’s immigration detention system is not the necessary consequence of irregular migration, which affects many parts of the world. People are detained for long periods in Australia’s immigration detention network because of Australia’s current legal and policy framework. … As a liberal democracy, Australia takes its human rights obligations seriously. This means we should confront a difficult truth: we can and we must do better to protect the human rights of people subject to immigration detention.”
Given the high cost—roughly 360,000 AUS per person per year in a detention centre versus 47,000 for housing in the community—and severity of Australia’s migration detention system, it would seem that the country is facing extraordinary migration pressures. And yet, this is far from the case. In reality, Australia receives among the lowest number of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in the world, primarily due to its geographic isolation. In 2021, for example more than 190,000 asylum applications were lodged in Germany, 87,000 in France, 67,400 in Spain, and 37,500 in the UK. By comparison, roughly 11,000 people arriving by plane made asylum applications in Australia the same year.
Numerous UN human rights officials have condemned Australia’s policies of mandatory and indefinite detention and the racist narratives that appear to underpin them. Visiting Australia in 2011, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay declared that mandatory, arbitrary detention had "for many years cast a shadow over Australia's human rights record.”
Both Pillay and the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who visited Australia in 2019, raised concerns about racism. “There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences: racial, colour or religions,” said South African-born Pillay in 2011; Bachelet argued that “the public narrative in Australia surrounding migration and asylum … has become weaponised by misinformation and discriminatory and even racist attitudes, including with respect to Islam.” Urging greater compassion and respect for the human rights of migrants and refugees in Australia—itself a country of migrants—Bachelet stressed: “Desperate human beings seeking safety and dignity are victims, not criminals; they are people just like us—tired and in need. And they are moving—many of them—because they have no other choice.”
SOCIO-ECONOMIC DATA & POLLS
B. Attitudes and Perceptions
Detention for deterrence
LEGAL & REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
GROUNDS FOR MIGRATION-RELATED DETENTION
LENGTH OF MIGRATION-RELATED DETENTION
MIGRATION-RELATED DETENTION INSTITUTIONS
Detention Facility Management
PROCEDURAL STANDARDS & SAFEGUARDS
Types of Authorised Detention Monitoring Institutions
International Treaties Ratified
Ratio of relevant international treaties ratified
Individual Complaints Procedures
Relevant Recommendations Issued by Treaty Bodies
§11 [..]The State party should strengthen its efforts to bring the conditions of detention in all places of deprivation of liberty into line with relevant international norms and standards, including the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules), in particular by: [...] (b) ensuring that adequate somatic and mental health care is provided for all persons deprived of their liberty, including those in immigration detention.
§16. [...] The State party should adopt the necessary measures with a view to considering: (a) repealing the provisions establishing the mandatory detention of persons entering its territory irregularly; (b) ensuring that detention should be only applied as a last resort, when determined to be strictly necessary and proportionate in each individual case, and for as short a period as possible; and (c) establishing, in case it is necessary and proportionate that a person should be detained, statutory time limits for detention and access to an effective judicial remedy to review the necessity of the detention. It should also ensure that persons in need of international protection, children and families with children are not detained or, if at all, only as a measure of last resort, after alternatives to detention have been duly examined and exhausted, when determined to be necessary and proportionate in each individual case, and for as short a period as possible. The State party should also continue and redouble its efforts with a view to expanding the use of alternatives to closed immigration detention. It should also adopt all necessary measures to ensure that stateless persons whose asylum claims were refused and refugees with adverse security or character assessments are not held in detention indefinitely, including by resorting to non-custodial measures and alternatives to closed immigration detention.
§17 [...] The State party should adopt the necessary measures to guarantee that all asylum seekers or persons in need of international protection who are under its effective control are afforded the same standards of protection against violations of the Convention regardless of their mode and/or date of arrival. The transfers to the regional processing centres in Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and Nauru, which in 2013 were deemed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees not to provide “humane conditions of treatment in detention”, do not release the State party from its obligations under the Convention, including prompt, thorough and individual examination of the applicability of article 3 in each case and redress and rehabilitation when appropriate.2014
§32 [...] pay particular attention to ensuring that its policies and procedures for children in asylum seeking, refugee and/or immigration detention give due primacy to the principle of the best interests of the child.
§81 [...] (a) Reconsider its policy of detaining children who are asylum-seeking, refugees and/or irregular migrants; and, ensure that if immigration detention is imposed, it is subject to time limits and judicial review; [...] (d) Adhere to its High Court ruling in Plaintiff M70/2011 v. Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and, inter alia, ensure adequate legal protections for asylum seekers and conclusively abandon its attempted policy of so-called “offshore processing” of asylum claims and “refugee swaps”; and evaluate reports of hardship suffered by children returned to Afghanistan without a best interests determination.2012
§24 [...] (a) Review its mandatory detention regime for asylum-seekers with a view to finding an alternative to detention, ensuring that the detention of asylum-seekers is always a measure of last resort and is limited by statute to the shortest time reasonably necessary, and that all forms of arbitrary detention are avoided;2010
526. The Committee considers that the mandatory detention under the Migration Act of“unlawful non-citizens”, including asylum seekers, raises questions of compliance with article 9, paragraph 1, ofthe Covenant, which provides that no person shall be subjected to arbitrary detention. The Committee is concerned at the State party’s policy, in this context of mandatory detention, of not informing the detainees oftheir right to seek legal adviceand of not allowing access of non-governmental human rights organizations to the detainees in order to inform them of this right.
527. The Committee urges the State party to reconsider its policy of mandatory detention of“unlawful non-citizens”with a view to instituting alternative mechanisms of maintaining an orderly immigration process. The Committee recommends that the State party inform all detainees oft heir legal rights, including their right to seek legal counsel.2000
§ 23[...] (a)consider abolishing the remaining elements of its mandatory immigration detention policy; (b) implement the recommendations of the HumanRights andEquality Commissionmade in its ImmigrationDetention Report of 2008; (c)considerclosing down the Christmas Island detention centre; and (d)enact in legislation a comprehensive immigration framework in compliance with the Covenant.
§ 24 [...] ensure thatchildren in conflict with the law, including those in detention, are treated in consistence with the Covenant and the UnitedNations Rules forthe Protection of Juveniles Deprived of theirLiberty. The State party should implement the recommendations of the HumanRights andEqualOpportunity Commission in this regard. The situation ofchildren in detention should be addressedwithin the State party’s proposed newchild protection framework.2009
64. The Committee recommends that the State party implement the recommendations contained in the HREOC report “A Last Resort?”, and bring its immigration and asylum laws fully into conformity with the Convention and other relevant international standards, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 6 (2005) on the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin. In particular, the State party should: (a) Ensure that children are nota utomatically detained in the context of immigration and that detention is only used as a measure ofl ast resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; (b) Seek an assessment by a court or an independent tribunal within 48 hours of the detention of a child in the context of immigration of whether there is a real need to detain that child; (c) Improve considerably the conditions of children in immigration detention when such detention is considered necessary and in the best interests of the child, and bring them into line with international standards; (d) Guarantee periodic review of the detention of children detained in the context of immigration;2005
§ 11[...] a) Consider abolishing its policy of mandatory immigration detention for those entering irregularly the State party’s territory. Detention should be used as a measure of last resort only and a reasonable time limit for detention should be set; furthermore, non-custodial measures and alternatives to detention should be made available to persons in immigration detention; (b) Take urgent measures to avoid the indefinite character of detention of stateless persons.
§12 [...] The State party should end the use of “excised” offshore locations for visa processing purposes in order allowall asylum-seekers an equal opportunity to apply for a visa.§17 The State party should ensure that effective remedies are available to challenge the decision not to grant asylum or to deny or cancel a visa. Such remedies should have the effect of suspending the execution of the above decision, i.e. the expulsion or removal.
§ 22 [...] The State party should ensure thateducation and training of all immigration officials and personnel, including health service providers,employed at immigration detention centres, are conducted on a regular basis. The State party should also regularly evaluate the training provided.§25 [...] the State party should; (a) Abide by the commitment that children no longer be held in immigration detention centres under any circumstances. Furthermore, it should ensure that any kind of detention of children is always used as a measure of lastresort and for a minimum period of time; (b) As a matter of priority, ensure that asylum-seekers who have been detained are provided with adequate physical and mental health care, including routine assessments.
§ 26 [...] With the objective of improving protection of asylum-seekers, the State party should ensure that the Immigration Detention Standards be codified into legislation and provide for an independent monitoring mechanism.2008