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Responses to irregular migration vary, and views are as
passionate as they are disparate. It is no secret that this inquiry unfolded
within a highly contested political space, for which reason the Committee's
conclusions had little chance of being unanimous. Accepting this, the
Committee nevertheless sought to proceed openly and consultatively, with a view
to taking an honest, no-holds-barred look at Australia's immigration detention
network. Because in the midst of this bitterly contested political debate we
find human beings: men, women and children whose lives should not be political
fodder, people who have to live with the consequences of government decisions.
At its heart, this inquiry poses fundamental questions about
our national identity. How does Australia treat people seeking asylum? What
weight do we ascribe to human rights on our own borders? Is there a standard
for how a civilised, humane society responds when people arrive uninvited
asking for protection, irrespective of who they may be, their mode of arrival,
or the challenges they pose? Whether discussing policy in Parliament or around
the kitchen table, we each have to ask ourselves: does Australia pass this
It is a credit to the parliamentary process that so many
different responses to these questions have been represented in over 3500
submissions to the inquiry, and through 15 separate hearings and site visits
conducted by the Committee.
Much of the evidence received, both written and oral, was
not easy or pleasant to engage with. The Committee was frequently reminded of
the great human misery and suffering that is part and parcel of life for
millions of people fleeing extreme conditions in countries around the world, of
whom Australia sees only a tiny proportion. The Committee's particular focus
was on the experiences of such people once they engage with the Australian
polity, and become subject to conditions over which Australia has control.
The Committee has taken pains to comprehensively address its
terms of reference, thus fulfilling the task it was given by the Parliament,
but at the same time has tried to focus its attention on detention centre
management, and health, security and assessment processes. It is these
cornerstones of the immigration detention system that most profoundly impact on
the experience of detainees.
The Committee's most fundamental conclusion is that asylum
seekers should reside in held detention for as short a time as practicable.
Evidence overwhelmingly indicates that prolonged detention exacts a heavy toll
on people, most particularly on their mental health and wellbeing. While
academics and psychologists tell us that mental health begins to erode after
three months in detention, there are people with adverse security assessments
in Australia's immigration system who have been detained for well over two
Looking inside Australia's detention network, what the
Committee found were well-intentioned policies causing unintended harm. We
found people who had spent months, and in many cases years, locked up without
committing any crime. A branch of the immigration system premised on temporary
detention for the purposes of processing, but in practice a system which had
become synonymous with prolonged, and in a number of vexed cases, indefinite,
Unsurprisingly, rates of mental illness among detainees are
very high, as are rates of self harm and attempted suicide. Committee members
witnessed firsthand the aftermath of such desperation during visits to
As well as the immeasurable human cost, however, the
financial resources required to maintain such a disparate, isolated and heavily
populated detention network cannot be ignored. Last financial year the
Australian Government spent over $772 million on running detention facilities.
The estimated cost of running detention facilities in 2011-12 approaches $629
million. As more people are transitioned out of facilities and into community
detention, the projected cost of operating the community detention program in
2011-12 is $150 million. This is a better, more cost-effective alternative.
The Committee therefore applauds the very substantial
efforts already underway to reduce the number of people in held detention. To
date, over 3700 people have been placed in community detention or on bridging
visas under new initiatives announced in late 2011. Every one of these people
is one fewer requiring harmful and expensive accommodation in a detention
Accordingly, the Committee is keen to ensure, without
compromising the safety of the community, that not one person is held in
detention longer than necessary. A number of the recommendations contained in
this report are grounded in the desire to build on the successes of the
community detention and bridging visa programs already underway.
To this end, the Committee recommends that all reasonable
steps be taken to limit detention to 90 days, and that where people are held
any longer, the reasons for their prolonged detention be made public. In
associated recommendations, the Committee advocates use be made of community
detention wherever possible, while any necessary assessments are conducted.
At the same time, the Committee takes the view that more can
be done for those who remain, for whatever reason, in held detention. The
Committee has recommended that, as a matter of policy, detainees be
accommodated in metropolitan areas wherever possible, particularly children,
families and those with special needs or complex medical conditions. There can
be little doubt that, while the use of remote facilities has at times been
necessary, they should be used only as a last resort. This will not only better
serve the needs of detainees, but save on some of the vast expense required to
run large-scale facilities in extremely remote locations.
One of the key matters of contention emerging from this
inquiry was whether the number of staff on duty in detention facilities is
always sufficient. Consistent with the findings of the Hawke-Williams Review
and Comcare, and given the quantum of its contract with Serco, the Committee
considers that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship ought to audit the
staffing levels in detention facilities more robustly. The appropriate
qualifications for Serco officers also requires deeper examination.
The level of provision of health services needs to reflect
the fact that people in detention, by virtue of their particular circumstances,
typically require a higher level of mental health care than the community at
large. In addition, the Committee believes that the Department and Serco's
mental health policies need to be synthesised, and that Serco's policy must be
Leaving aside the moral obligation to provide assistance to
people in need of mental health care, its ready availability would also help to
reduce the level of self harm and suicide, and enable improved medical
responses when incidents do occur. Where acute care is not immediately
available near a detention facility, the Committee has recommended the
provision of such care within the facility on a 24-hour basis.
Children in detention was another area of particular concern
to the Committee. Responding to evidence received on the subject, the Committee
has recommended that the Minister for Immigration be replaced as guardian of
unaccompanied minors in detention, and that a uniform child protection code be
implemented across the immigration system for children seeking asylum. This
should be complemented by formalised relationships between DIAC and all state
and territory children's commissions.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship needs also to
improve on the provision of recreation facilities for detainees, and ensure
that visits to its facilities are consistently managed across the network.
Finally, the Committee grappled with the question of
security assessments, and the fact that the current system bars refugees from
accessing existing avenues for a merits review of adverse decisions, resulting
in practically indefinite detention for detainees with adverse assessments.
While it is necessary to be mindful of the need to keep security sources and
procedures confidential, the overwhelming imperative to provide procedural
fairness in the system cannot be ignored where a person's liberty is at stake.
The Committee believes the current system does not strike an appropriate
balance. Accordingly, the Committee has recommended that the Australian
Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) legislation be amended to allow the
Security Appeals Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review ASIO
security assessments of asylum seekers and refugees.
The Committee has recommended implementing further
safeguards in the security assessment process, including periodic internal
reviews of adverse ASIO assessments, and the exploration of whether control
orders (currently used in the criminal justice system) could allow for the
release from held detention of those refugees and asylum seekers who are in
indefinite detention or cannot be repatriated.
These recommendations are grounded in the Committee's belief
that the system currently in place to deal with asylum seekers and refugees,
evolved from a system designed to deal with different problems on a different
scale and now needs to be adjusted to reflect contemporary circumstances. In
forming this view, the Committee cites what it believes is a disjoint between
the current system and Australia's obligations under the United Nations
Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, our knowledge about the effect of held
detention on those detained, and the growing recognition that detention on the
scale applied over the past decade is simply not justified nor sustainable.
The truth is, Australia has for many years and under
consecutive governments struggled with the challenge posed by irregular
maritime arrivals. The sobering facts outlined in this report speak for
themselves. Irregular people movement is an unsolicited fact of life faced by
many nations around the world. A considered response mindful of legal and
moral human rights obligations is the mark of a mature and civilised polity.
It is also clear that the situation in Australia's detention
facilities as it was at the outset of this inquiry was, in the long run, simply
unsustainable. The reasons for this are complex, but are all too often
oversimplified and described through the prism of political motives. Given the
enormous human and financial cost of held detention, the Committee has reached
the fundamental conclusion that less harmful, far more cost-effective
alternatives are available and should be pursued. To the best of its ability,
what the Committee has tried to offer within the pages of this report is an
honest assessment of systemic problems, and a proactive blueprint for the
As has been said, the Australian Government is already
making significant progress in reforming the asylum seeker processing and
accommodation system. The Committee is optimistic that the far-reaching
measures recommended in its report will significantly complement the advances
already underway, and help to bring about an immigration system which reflects
our commonly held commitment to human rights, dignity, and fair process.
Mr Daryl Melham MP
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