‘Grave concern’ for immigration detainees

People are spending longer periods in immigration detention than ever before and are held for far longer than in similar countries, Australia’s human rights watchdog says.

But the Australian government has rejected 26 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 44 recommendations for improving human rights in immigration detention.

The commission outlined its concerns in a lengthy report published on Thursday, based on visits to detention centres last year and interviews with 280 detainees.

The average length of detention in September 2020 was 581 days – more than 18 months. It’s the highest figure ever recorded in the history of Australian immigration detention. In 2019, the figure was around 500 days.

Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow said in the report that the length of detention was “orders of magnitude greater than any comparable jurisdiction” like the United Kingdom or Canada.

More than one-in-five detainees had been held for longer than two years.

The commission says there should be a maximum time limit on detention and a person’s detention should be periodically assessed by a court or tribunal.

Mr Santow said the commission’s concerns for those in detention are increasing.

There were five children in detention at the time of the inspections. Two of them, the young children who are part of the so-called “Biloela family” from Sri Lanka are now on Christmas Island and have spent more than 1000 days in detention, their supporters say.

Two other young children were held with their mothers at a detention centre in Melbourne, one of whom has since been released. An unaccompanied 17-year-old was at the same centre and had been held for two years.

The commission wants all parents with dependent children to be released.

The report is also highly critical of the government’s use of hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane as detention centres. 

The hotels are labelled “alternative places of detention” (APODs), and were established in response to a high volume of refugees being brought to Australia from Nauru and Papua New Guinea for medical treatment.

The commission says the hotels are unsuitable to be used as detention facilities on a semi-permanent basis. Some people have been held in the hotels for more than a year.

The APODs are “extremely restrictive” and lack sufficient outdoor space and facilities for exercise, recreation and activities, the report says.

The “inadequate” conditions appear to be contributing to a decline in detainees’ physical and mental health.

The watchdog has “grave concern” for the physical and mental health of the 196 people who were held in detention after being transferred from Nauru or PNG for medical reasons, Mr Santow said.

It was “of significant concern” that many of them had not received the health care they came to Australia for in a timely manner.

The commission recommended that the government fund immediate access to health care under the private system if they were not able to get it in the public system.

Those refugees should also be released from detention unless they pose a particular risk, the commission says. 

The government has rejected this recommendation, and 25 others. It fully agreed with seven, partly agreed with two, and agreed in principle with another nine. 

The commission completed its visits before the pandemic. It is doing a specific review of management of COVID-19 risks in detention facilities. 

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