Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Time for detention reform

  • 24 September 2010

The recent tragic death of a man in Villawood Detention Centre has again raised questions about the need for Australia's harmful detention policy. It is not appropriate to discuss the particular case as it will likely be subject to a coronial inquest. However these events again remind us that immigration detention is still in need of urgent reform. Deprivation of liberty should be the last resort, not the first.

There are many reports about the harmful effects of detention on mental health. Governments have known this for many years yet still we have laws requiring detention in a number of circumstances. New centres are built and old ones expanded. Some people will only be mildly affected by detention, but for others, even a short period in detention could be very harmful, irrespective of age or gender.

Prolonged detention has been shown to be the most harmful. Asylum seekers are already traumatised and detention can make this trauma worse.

Those who have experienced it report that the worst part is the uncertainty that comes from significant delays in processing, or from the perception that the processing is not being done fairly, due to an unfair case officer, poor interpreter or an inadequate or unresponsive lawyer. Freezing processing, as occurred in April for Afghans and Sri Lankans, adds to the uncertainty and unfairness while also prolonging detention.

There are three different systems used by Australian Immigration officers for assessing refugee cases. The fairest process provides for a strict legal assessment, an interview, and independent review by the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). There are avenues of appeal to the courts on errors of law. This is the process for protection visa applicants, most of whom are living in the community and are not in detention.

The second process is a less transparent system with no real independent review. People arriving by boat or plane without a visa must be detained. If sent to Christmas Island, they are classified as 'offshore entry persons' which means that they can only make an application for refugee status if the Minister allows them. They will be interviewed but must stay in detention throughout the process.

This system has less accountability than the onshore