Amnesty International rips into Australian detention policies

The report was written after an extensive tour of immigration facilities, during which hundreds of detainees, administrators and officials were interviewed. A comprehensive report will be issued later this year.

The federal government appears to have expected only minor criticism. However, they and the Liberal/National opposition parties, who also endorse mandatory detention and off-shore processing policies, must have got a rude shock on receipt of the report, which states unequivocally:
“…the indefinite and prolonged detention of asylum seekers is a failed policy that contravenes human rights standards. The most serious and damaging conditions … are the length of time and the indefinite nature of their imprisonment.”
Detention equivalent to imprisonment
Use of the term “imprisonment” highlights the misuse of the term “illegal immigrants” by this and previous governments in describing asylum seekers.
There is, in fact, no law against asylum seekers arriving by boat. In fact, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the “UN Refugee Convention”) declares that regardless of their mode of arrival Australia must permit them to apply for asylum, and to detain them in humane conditions for minimum periods for identity, health and security checks.
Continuing use of the term “illegal immigrants” will inevitably encourage the effective punishment of asylum seekers for a criminal offence.
The report notes: “The Christmas Island Northwest Point Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) is overwhelmingly and unacceptably prison-like. (It) is too harsh to house people who have not committed a crime. … The Curtin IDC in Western Australia should be immediately closed for immigration detention purposes. … The remote and isolated location …, as well as the extremely hot and dusty physical conditions, exacerbated the existing problems with detaining asylum seekers.”
Government crimes against human rights
Rather than asylum seekers having committed a crime, it appears that successive Australian governments have in effect committed a crime by detaining them in a manner that violates the Refugee Convention.
Among the detainees Amnesty questioned, the maximum detention period was 831 days, i.e. two years plus three and a half months, served by a detainee at the Curtin Centre. Under common law, a custodial sentence this long would be imposed for a major theft or an assault causing serious injuries.
Within the centres visited the minimum period of detention served varied between 831 and 90 days. In one centre the period was “more than a year” and in another “between 600 and 700” days. Taking the lower figures, the average was about 608 days, or a year and eight months.
The maximum detention period served in the centres visited exceeded Amnesty’s recommended 30 days maximum.
The report also highlighted possible violations of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the Darwin Airport Lodge centre, Amnesty interviewed an unaccompanied minor who had been detained for 314 days, i.e. about 11 months.
The report notes: “ It is a positive step that children are being taken off (Christmas) island within a few months. However, … many are transferred to other remote facilities where they risk serious harm due to prolonged detention and inadequate access to services.
“…Vietnamese children …recently transferred to Darwin … have now spent over nine months in detention. With children as young as six now being held in an environment with a large number of adults they repeatedly told us how fearful they felt…”
Mental torment
The report makes clear that regardless of the intentions of the government or detention centre managers, the effect of detention on the mental health of inmates is devastating. The report noted:
“…self-harm and attempted suicide were talked about as a fact of life. The use of sleeping pills and other medication was also widespread … many asylum seekers reported feeling like they needed medication to make it through each day, while at the same time anxious about their usage.”
“… It was overwhelmingly evident that the lack of an endpoint to … internment, coupled with the constant uncertainty, fear and monotony, is more than most people are able to cope with for an extended period – let alone people who are already survivors of torture and trauma.
“The impact of detention was further exacerbated by confusion and frustration with the processing of refugee claims. Many people … had little idea about their rights under this system, and were extremely worried that it was being implemented unfairly.
“It is unclear whether this confusion stems from the system itself, not being given enough information by staff, limited access to lawyers, or whether after months in detention and/or earlier trauma their mental state was such that they were unable to properly process information about their case.
“What is clear is that the environment of detention makes it incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to properly engage with a system that may have life or death consequences for them.”
The report was highly critical of the Christmas Island “behaviour management” system, under which prisoners are moved from one compound to another, depending on whether they are considered a danger to others, or to themselves, or are relatively stable.
It stated: “Northwest Point IDC is overwhelmingly and unacceptably prison-like. The facility is surrounded by high heavy fencing, and the six compounds .... are also totally enclosed … To leave their compound (for medical appointments, interviews, visit another compound etc) asylum seekers must sign out with an officer, and then pass through a locked security cage.
“The White compound places people at risk of violent behaviour to themselves or others in a highly confined, guarded and isolated environment. Many asylum seekers reported feeling scared of being sent to the White compound and … for many detainees there was no clear understanding of why a person would be placed there.
“… In White 1 men are confined to their ‘block’ for most of the day for three weeks. … it is a serious concern that placing vulnerable men in an even more restrictive environment will increase their mental health problems, especially as the behaviour this program aims to manage is largely a product of detention in the first place.
“The men … who had gone through this program stated that it led to more trouble sleeping and increased anxiety levels.”
The testimony of detainees in the report is shocking. One interviewee stated: “In Iran I have been tortured and … threatened, but I have never been in prison before Australia. When I came to this country I was strong and healthy, now I am ill. I take sleeping pills. I am weak.
“The pain and frustration here is unlimited. The only way to release it is to hurt ourselves. They do not allow us to end our lives, but they don’t let us save our lives either. We are so stuck, we have no options. … It is the politicians who play with our lives like a ball in a soccer game.”
Recommendations and outcomes
The report recommends:
  1. A maximum thirty day limit … on the detention of asylum seekers, so that all … are moved into the community once health, character and identity checks are complete.
  2. Immigration centres that are remote and isolated be shut down as soon as possible.
  3. The shift towards processing asylum seekers in the community is expedited, with long-term detainees, families and unaccompanied minors moved out as a priority.
  4. In all detention centres, but particularly remote ones, asylum seekers ability to communicate with the outside world must be significantly improved. Specifically, increases in access to both outbound and inbound telephones, internet, external activities, and visits from the Australian community.
The Amnesty report is of major importance because it provides reliable statistics and first hand evidence from a wide range of detainees and other stakeholders, in making its case.
Its conclusions reinforce the arguments of detainee support groups and others that the mandatory detention and off-shore processing policies endorsed by both major parties, are unjust, cruel and opportunist, and violate Australia’s obligations under international law.
Until recently the government ignored or trivialised these arguments. However, release of the report, and publication late last year of a joint statement of opposition by legal experts and other notable public figures, will make it difficult for them to do so.
The government has frequently enthusiastically endorsed Amnesty International’s criticism of other nations. But now the boot is on the other foot.
The government could use the report as justification for a major immigration policy change. However, there’s no guarantee it will. Despite its dispute with the opposition over the ‘best” site for off-shore asylum seeker processing, its policies are still essentially the same as those of the Liberal/National coalition.
So which way will they jump? Watch this space.
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