Time for a commonsense detention policy


The ‘flood’ of asylum seekers entering Australian territory illegally has finally dried up. Whether this is as a result of a global downturn in the number of individuals seeking asylum overseas, a crack down on Indonesian people smugglers, or is a result of Australia’s aggressive immigration policies is uncertain. What is certain is that Australia’s present policy of keeping asylum seekers behind bars, sometimes indefinitely, while their claims are being assessed continues to fail the large majority of genuine refugees, as well as taxpayers. Its time we adapt our immigration policies to meet the needs of this changed environment.

In 1999-2000, 4175 unauthorised asylum seekers arrived on Australia’s shores; in 2002-3 there were no unauthorised boat arrivals and one boat carrying fifty three people in 2003-4.

There are now approximately 900 people in Australian Immigration Detention Facilities; 195 of the 900 detainees have active asylum applications.

Thanks to Alan Moir from the SMH

Thanks to Alan Moir from the SMH

According to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DMIA), during 2001-2 the average length of time spent in detention by people who arrived by boat was 155 days (approximately five and a half months). As of 31 December 2004, 18 per cent of those detained in immigration detention had been there for two years or more.

While the overall costs of detention have decreased in recent years (from $300 million p.a. in 2001), the cost of detention per detainee, per day has increased markedly. In 2003, when the number of detainee ‘days’ fell by 49 per cent, the operational costs of detention fell by only 2.6 per cent.

The policy of mandatorily detaining asylum seekers while their claims are being assessed, costs the Australian taxpayer anywhere between $111 and $725 per person per day. Yet the true costs of asylum detention don’t stop there.

For those eventually successful in their asylum cases, the Australian community faces additional costs from the trauma suffered by long-term detention, both in direct medical costs and in difficulties adapting to community living.

The effects of prolonged detention on children are particularly pronounced. Long-term detention often means that they miss out on formative influences in their development. This includes consequences for their health (including mental health), education and ability to develop in a normal environment.

While it is necessary to check the identity, health and security status of new arrivals “ especially those without appropriate documentation – these checks can be completed within thirty days “ as they are in Britain. Beyond the time period required to conduct these checks, ongoing mandatory detention is unnecessary.

There is no evidence that maximum-security detention is an effective strategy for preventing asylum seekers from absconding while their claims are being assessed. Rather, ongoing incarceration provides a motive for asylum seekers to abscond; on the other hand, individuals already residing in the community have nothing to gain and everything to lose by abandoning their claim for asylum to live ‘underground.’

The overseas experience of community assessment is that where participants have an incentive to continue to participate in the assessment process, abscondments are almost zero. Case management, by assisting participants to understand their situation rather than feel punished for a crime they didn’t commit, helps to keep morale high and therefore absconding rates low.

To date, not one asylum seeker has absconded from one of the Department of Immigration’s community trials. In comparison, hundreds have absconded from the maximum-security environments of Australia’s Immigration Review Processing Centres*.

The introduction of several accommodation options for asylum seekers, along with a risk evaluation mechanism early in the assessment process and case management, would help reduce the financial and psychological toll imposed by the current policy.

The results of the Woomera Alternative Detention pilot indicate that community-based assessment is secure. Over a period of six months, forty seven asylum seekers resided in low-security, community accommodation. During that time, there were no escapes or attempted escapes, and nobody was returned to immigration detention.

Community-assessment is also much cheaper. The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, another contemporary example of community-based assessment, costs taxpayers only $44 per person, per day. This program could easily be extended to all low-risk asylum seekers, released after health and security checks.

In 1998 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission developed a more effective community model for assessing and detaining asylum seekers, contained within the report Those who’ve come across the seas: detention of unauthorised arrivals. This model was developed further in 2001 by the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) and another non-governmental organisation, Justice for Asylum Seekers.

The model entails:

1. A period of initial mandatory detention to ensure public health and safety and identification, but only for a limited period of thirty days with two possible extensions of thirty days.

2. Detentions over the thirty days period should only be allowed in cases where:
– identity cannot be verified;
– there are reasonable grounds of a threat to national security, public order, health or safety;
– a person seems likely to abscond;
– a person refuses to undertake health screening; or
– a person has not lodged an application for a Protection Visa.

Those given priority for release are children, the elderly, single women and those requiring medical or trauma attention. The decision on release should be made by departmental officers subject to tribunal and judicial review, or by an assessment panel with both departmental and outside members.

3. Those not denied release on one of the above criteria are given a community release, bridging visa (allowing the visa holder to reside at an approved address as long as he/she reports to the Department at regular intervals). A bond payment may be required of family or sponsors.

4. Asylum seekers who breach the conditions set for release may be returned to detention for another thirty days and reassessment.

5. Any asylum seeker detained beyond the initial period of thirty days may seek review of the decision to continue detention.

The asylum seeker ‘crisis’ has passed. The ‘flood’ has dried up. It is no longer necessary to ‘deter’ potential asylum seekers by detaining those who’ve already arrived for periods of up to six years.

The time has come to mothball the remaining Immigration Reception Processing Centres and shift the remaining asylum seekers into community accommodation.

Let common sense reign. Ending ongoing mandatory detention in favour of the above assessment model represents a more compassionate, cost effective and reliable policy for processing asylum seekers in Australia.

Unauthorised arrivals by air and sea, DIMIA Fact Sheet 74, www.immi.gov.au/facts/pdf/74unauthorised.pdf

Immigration Detention Facilities overview, DIMIA, www.immi.gov.au/detention/facilities.htm

Frequently Asked Questions, DIMIA www.minister.immi.gov.au/faq/asylum.htm

Management of detention Centre Contracts “ Part A, The Auditor-General Audit Report No. 54 2003-04

Additional Estimates hearing: 17 February 2004; DIMIA Situation Reports from GSL site and summaries

A Report on Visits to Immigration Detention Facilities by the Human Rights Commissioner 2001, HREOC, www.hreoc.gov.au/human_rights/idc/#major

Purcell, M and Ward, T Improving Outcomes and reducing Costs, JAS 2003

Australian Red Cross Annual Report 2002, p.13

Those who’ve come across the seas: detention of unauthorised arrivals, HREOC 1998 www.hreoc.gov.au/human_rights/idc/index.html

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.