Another 356 pages on the excesses of immigration detention

By Tania Penovic

The federal government’s Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network handed down its long awaited final report last Friday. Its report has added 356 pages to the many thousands of pages already devoted to addressing the excesses of a regime which has for 20 years breached Australia’s international obligations and afflicted vulnerable people and Australian society as a whole with the burden of preventable mental illness.

The committee’s recommendations include the following:

  • That all reasonable steps be taken to limit detention to a maximum of 90 days
  • That asylum seekers who pass identity, health and security checks be released immediately on a bridging visa or ‘community detention.’
  • That the Immigration Minister ceases to be the legal guardian of unaccompanied minors in the immigration detention system.
  • That the government take further steps to adhere to its policy values by only detaining asylum seekers as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time, subject to an assessment of non-compliance and risk factors
  • The Department of Immigration and Citizenship accommodate detainees in metropolitan facilities wherever possible
  • That the ASIO Act be amended to allow appeals of adverse security assessments.

The committee also found that private detention services provider Serco ‘is being paid a very large sum of money to provide these services to the Commonwealth, and that payments are based on a contracted level of service. It is therefore disappointing and disturbing to learn of numerous shortcomings in service delivery. Staffing levels are inadequate, and place detainees and staff at serious risk….’

The committee concluded that Serco has ‘not performed to the standard expected’ and  that a significant proportion of Serco staff are ‘not adequately trained to perform the roles expected of them, in spite of the clear widespread existence of complex mental health issues, and high rates of self harm.’ The committee recommended that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship ensure that Serco has appropriate procedures and training in place and that Serco local managers are required to apply a consistent practice and procedure protocol to visits across the network.

The report makes reference to numerous studies which link the experience of prolonged restrictive detention with mental illness. A study by Physicians for Human Rights is cited which identified significant symptoms of depression in 86% of detainees, with around 25% reporting suicidal thoughts. Poor mental health outcomes were caused or contributed to by the length of time spent in detention and by isolation, a sense of injustice and inhumanity and  isolation. The committee made a range of recommendations towards improvements in mental health services. Its key recommendation with respect to mental health was the recommendation that all reasonable steps be taken to limit detention to a maximum of 90 days.

The government has not yet released its response to the enquiry while the Coalition committee members provided a dissenting report which recommended a return to the ‘proven measures of the Howard government’, namely the restoration of temporary protection visas for irregular maritime arrivals, the resumption of processing on Nauru and the return to the measures of turning around asylum seeker boats which were previously adopted under the naval interdiction strategy dubbed Operation Relex as part of the Pacific Strategy.

The committee’s report adds to the successive federal government enquiries which have focussed on Australia’s longstanding immigration detention regime. Less than 3 years ago, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration concluded a comprehensive enquiry into immigration detention. The committee expressed support for the government’s largely unimplemented key immigration detention values and recommended that in light of their absence from the Migration Act both in spirit and substance, they should be reflected in Commonwealth law as a priority.  A Bill which sought to enact the values into law was never passed despite the recommendation of a senate committee that it be passed subject to amendments which more closely correspond with the government’s values. In addition to a range of government enquiries, a wide range of human rights bodies have called on the government to abandon the mandatory immigration detention regime. These include the Australian Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and Committee against Torture. These calls have been largely unheeded.

Labor’s key immigration detention values and recent moves to remove people from detention facilities through the grant of residence determinations and bridging visas have represented significant policy reforms. But neither policy has been embedded in law. On the introduction of the detention values, Petro Georgiou sounded a warning as to the dangers inherent in this approach:  it appears the reforms will be carried out by administrative fiat. Improvements of any sort are to be welcomed, but the lack of legislative mandate means the reforms are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the political winds, which, as we know, can shift abruptly.

If the report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network is to not to be consigned to the oblivion of previous reports in this area, the government will need to depart from its previous practice and embrace the possibilities afforded by law reform.

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