Immigration detention: what are the alternatives?

 Since 1992 when the policy of mandatory detention was introduced in Australia, the detention of asylum seekers arriving unauthorised by boat has received a great deal of public attention. In particular, the duration and conditions of their detention have been controversial issues that have plagued successive governments since the early 1990s when there were several hunger strikes, rooftop demonstrations and suicide attempts at Villawood and Port Hedland immigration detention centres.
Numerous reports on the pros and cons of mandatory detention, from both the government and non-government sectors, have been produced since 1992. The latest Parliamentary committee to conduct an inquiry on this issue is the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention Network. The Committee was established on 16 June 2011 to examine detention management, resourcing, potential expansion, possible alternative solutions and the effect of detention on detainees. The final report was tabled in the House of Representatives out of session on 30 March 2012.

In its report the Committee noted that 'prolonged detention exacts a heavy toll on people, most particularly on their mental health and wellbeing', and made over 30 recommendations. The inquiry’s 'most fundamental conclusion' was that asylum seekers should reside in 'held' detention for 'as short a time as practicable'—preferably no longer than 90 days. The Committee also recommended that once initial identity, health, character and security checks were completed asylum seekers should be immediately granted a bridging visa or moved to community detention while a determination of their refugee status is completed.

Increases in asylum seekers arriving by boat since 2009 have placed significant pressure on immigration detention facilities in Australia. In response, the Government has introduced several significant initiatives and policy changes. Of particular note are the alternatives to 'held' detention (in detention centres) that the Government is pursuing:
  • Community detention: on 18 October 2010 the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, announced that the Australian Government would expand its existing residence determination program and begin moving children and vulnerable family groups out of immigration detention facilities and into community-based accommodation.
  •  Bridging visas for boat arrivals: in October 2011 the Gillard Government proposed that some asylum seekers who arrive unauthorised by boat would be issued with bridging visas (just like most air arrivals) and released from detention into the community while their claims are processed.
  • Community placement: on 26 March 2012, a new initiative, the Community Placement Network (CPN), commenced to support asylum seekers released from detention on bridging visas. Administered through the Australian Homestay Network (AHN), community placement allows short term (6 week) homestay accommodation to assist asylum seekers exiting detention while they establish themselves in the community.
According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), these measures are beginning to have an effect in easing the pressure on the detention network. In his opening statement to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee (Immigration Portfolio) Budget Estimates hearings on 21 May 2012, DIAC’s acting secretary, Martin Bowles, noted the progress made so far:
  • Community detention: since the expansion of the program in October 2010, just over 4000 people have been placed in community detention, comprised of over 2000 adults and 1800 children. Almost 2000 of this group have transitioned out of community detention following the grant of a protection visa.
  • Bridging visas for boat arrivals: since November 2011 when the program commenced, approximately 1780 asylum seekers who had arrived unauthorised by boat (otherwise known as Irregular Maritime Arrivals or IMAs) have been issued with a Bridging Visa E (BVE) and released into the community. The Secretary stated that this arrangement was expected ‘to increase further over the next 12 months’.
  • Community placement: over 1400 applications have been received to date from people registering to host an asylum seeker in their homes. A further 1110 people have expressed interest in registering in response to promotion of the program by GetUp. The first eight clients were placed in the community placement network with hosts on 8 May 2012, a further 12 clients were due to be placed on 22 May 2012 and another 20 in early June. To date clients have been placed in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide.
Mr Bowles also noted that these measures have contributed to a reduction in detention costs and a significant reduction (46 per cent) in self-harm rates by detainees in the last 5 months:
The impact of introducing bridging visas and community detention into our program settings has had two significant positive impacts. Firstly, the potential costs of held detention have been significantly reduced by moving people into the community quicker; and secondly, self-harm rates for the population in detention over the last five months since the introduction of Bridging Visas have significantly reduced by 46 per cent over the previous five months.
On 21 May 2012 the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention Network inquiry chair, Daryl Melham, made a statement in Parliament commending the recent progress made in terms of reducing the number of people and time spent in detention. However, he noted the Committee’s continuing concerns with regard to adverse security assessments conducted by ASIO:
As a committee we grappled with the vexed issue of security assessments. The current system does not allow refugees to access the existing avenues for a merits review of adverse decisions. This results in practically indefinite detention for detainees with adverse assessments. It is necessary to provide procedural fairness in a system where a person's liberty is at stake, while being mindful of the need to keep security sources and procedures confidential. The committee believes the current system does not strike an appropriate balance.
It remains to be seen what additional reforms may be required to further ease the pressure on Australia’s immigration detention network, but many advocates encourage the use of detention alternatives and have indicated their willingness to cooperate with their implementation. The UNHCR also encourages the use of detention alternatives, arguing that while they are often not a key priority for destination countries, 'asylum seekers very rarely need to be detained, or indeed restricted in their movements'.

For further background on mandatory detention in Australia since its introduction in 1992 see J Phillips and H Spinks, Immigration detention in Australia, 2012.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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