Australia’s onshore immigration detention ‘unlike any other liberal democracy’

The Australian onshore immigration detention system is becoming “more and more like prison” and unlike similar operations any other liberal democracy, the Human Rights Commission has said.

It is also now holding people for an average of about 500 days – far longer than any comparable jurisdiction, and is increasingly using restraints.

The commission urged the Australian government to “take very seriously” its latest report, which examined risk management in detention and was released on Tuesday.

“Australia’s system of mandatory immigration detention – combined with ministerial guidelines that preclude the consideration of community alternatives to detention for certain groups – continues to result in people being detained when there is no valid justification for their ongoing detention under international law,” it said.

The report found that amid a growing proportion of people being detained on “character grounds” and corresponding structural changes to make centres more secure, all detainees, including young female asylum seekers, were being subject to harsher and harsher treatment.

It makes 34 recommendations to the Australian government to reduce the severity of restrictions on detainees, to provide more social and education services, improve staff training and review processes, and release more people into community detention

“Australia really is unlike any other liberal democracy in the immigration detention system, it is especially restrictive and especially harsh,” said commissioner Edward Santow.

“Particularly over the last 12-18 months it’s certainly the case that a lot of refurbishment have been done that make them more like prisons,” he said, citing higher fences and other prison-like design features. “And the conditions themselves are consistent with that.”

Guardian Australia has previously reported on arbitrary rule changes around visitors and gifts, including “farcical” drug tests blocking visitor access and the alleged refusal to allow gifts of baby food to detained mothers.

There have been multiple incidents, alleged acts of violence, and deaths inside the network of onshore detention centres.

The report found Australia is also now holding people for longer – an average of around 500 days, which Santow said “should not be considered acceptable”.

The report said risks to human rights increased the longer a person was held in immigration detention, and Australia was holding people for periods “many orders of magnitude greater than almost any other developed country”.

Canada’s average length of closed immigration detention didn’t exceed one month between 2012-13 and 2017-18, and 80% of the people leaving UK detention between 2012 and 2017 had been held for two months or less.

The commission’s report, based on extensive interviews with detainees and staff last year, found the use of restraints during escorts – including for medical appointments – had become routine and potentially disproportionate.

“There was one example where a [mobile] dental van … drove into the detention centre itself. It was within the walls or fences, and even then detainees were reporting to us they were still being required to wear handcuffs to see the dentist.”

Santow said there were multiple reports of medical practitioners requesting restraints be removed from the detainees they were treating, and officers would usually comply.

“But it shouldn’t be something left to the medical practitioner to intervene.”

It reiterated calls for a review into the use of restraints “to ensure people in detention are not subject to more restrictive measures than are necessary in their individual circumstances”, the report said.

“Home Affairs has indicated that its ‘position in relation to its use of force settings remains unchanged’.”

The report also found transfers between centres often occurred without notice and took people away from family. While there were exceptional circumstances that warranted sudden transfers, they did not appear to be justified in all cases and detainees often felt they were being punished.

There were also somer fears among other detainees, including asylum seekers and visa overstayers, about being held in the same facility as people with criminal histories.

Several people reported acts of violence, which the commission passed on to authorities – however there have been previous concerns that assaults and other incidents are not properly investigated.

“A lot of people said they trusted the staff and that staff did what they could to protect and investigate,” Santow said. “There were a number of others who essentially said the opposite – that if they made a complaint they had no confidence it would be properly investigated.”

The report also called for a review of staff’s response to an incident at the Yongah Hill detention centre last year, where several buildings were burned down after a young detainee attempted to take his own life at the centre. He later died in hospital.

The commission said while such a disturbance was a significant challenge and the lack of injury to staff or detainees was a “commendable” outcome” there were several concerns including the lack of any bedding or alternative shelter for detainees afterwards, and confusion during the incident about whether people were in danger.

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