Advocating for an end to detention

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) has spent over 20 years advocating for the rights of people in detention in collaboration with sector partners and refugee advocates.

The ASRC’s Detention Advocacy program was formed as a response to Australia’s horrific detention policies, and has existed in a range of formats for close to 20 years, as one of the ASRC’s earliest programs to meet the needs of people in the community.

What began with social visits to people detained in Maribyrnong Detention Centre has now evolved to providing advocacy support to people in detention through the work of the ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocacy Program, fighting for justice through our Human Rights Law Program and mobilising the Australian people to share their voice to help us lobby for an end to punitive asylum policies.

Today there are still more than 1,000 people stuck in limbo in offshore processing and detention facilities across Australia. Many for as long as eight years.

Detention is immoral, brutal and harmful and it’s why we, along with sector partners and people with lived experience of seeking asylum are fighting to end it.

From between 2002 – 2017, the Program operated with a single staff member working tirelessly as an advocate and case manager for people in detention and working with the wider sector. In 2017, in response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding for people in offshore detention and the need to provide critical casework care, and successive campaigns to end offshore detention, the ASRC expanded the scope of this Program, and its resourcing.

To date, since 2017, the ASRC, through its audited accounts, has invested $3,316,228 in the following areas of work:

  • Casework Staff, working with people in onshore and offshore detention centers
  • Ongoing individual and sector wide advocacy, including campaigning
  • Legal support and case management
  • Direct needs response, including basic needs and housing supports
  • The management and facilitation of the Medevac process

This includes a commitment of $1,140,000 towards direct response needs and housing supports since people began being released in 2019 – 20.

The ASRC is grateful to the support of the wider community and philanthropy, which since 2017, has provided direct funding support of $1.85 million in grants, gifts and public donations.

We’re proud of the role we have played, alongside sector partners, community advocates and most importantly, the resilience of people who have been denied their freedom and their rights through the detention process in Australia.

We’ve taken a look back at the campaigns that have helped make incremental positive change in harmful policies and how we’re continuing to fight for people in detention and ultimately secure their freedom.

Providing legal and emotional support at Maribyrnong detention centre – 2002

In 2002 ASRC founder and CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis was visiting people in Maribyrnong Detention Centre, providing friendship and social connection to people who were isolated from the community.

After a few visits it became evident that people were not being referred to the services that they needed.

“I found a lot of people were not being linked up to legal assistance. People who had become undocumented or had fallen through the cracks due to mental health issues or homelessness and had disengaged from the legal process had been detained and had no idea how to access legal help to know what their options were. Some were facing deportation and had no one to help them stop it,” said Kon.

So a makeshift legal clinic run during the centre’s visiting hours was born. The ASRC’s Human Rights Law Program has been helping to uphold people’s human rights since 2002 and continues to support clients in detention, fighting for their release.
Releasing people from detention into the community – 2004
In the early 2000s community detention did not yet exist. All people seeking asylum were being held in detention centres until their application for asylum was processed.

Outraged by the incarceration of individuals, families and children simply for seeking asylum, the ASRC began developing possible alternatives to put forward to the Government for people awaiting their refugee determination.

In 2004 the ASRC joined forces with local church and community groups to lobby the Federal Government to release detained people seeking asylum into the community. This led to the group creating community care plans to show that upon release, people seeking asylum would be provided with legal assistance, food, access to medical care, casework support and help with housing. The proposed support would be provided by the ASRC and members of the local community.

This advocacy resulted in the beginning of Australia’s community detention program in 2005 and the release of hundreds of people from detention into community settings.

Pamela Curr: the person who ‘found’ Cornelia Rau – 2004

The hiring of Detention Rights Advocate Pamela Curr echoed in the formalisation of the ASRC’s work in detention. In her over 13 years with the ASRC Pamela worked tirelessly to not only provide personal support to people seeking asylum in detention but was also instrumental in shining a spotlight on the awful conditions and destabilising effects of indefinite detention.

It was through the persistence and actions of the ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocate Pamela Curr as the ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocate that was instrumental in identifying the unlawful detention of Cornelia Rau. Cornelia Rau is a German and Australian citizen who was unlawfully detained for a period of ten months in 2004 as part of the Australian Government’s mandatory detention program.

Despite numerous pleas to the Department of Immigration (then known as DIMA), the Department ignored Pamela’s advocacy and requests for medical attention for Cornelia Rau. Pamela sought assistance from Andra Jackson at The Age to put pressure on the department to get medical help for Cornelia. This led to the Rau family finding/identifying Cornelia and to her immediate transfer to hospital for treatment and a series of recommendations regarding transparency and accountability in immigration detention centres.

The ASRC’s detention work continues to focus on those detained in arbitrary mandatory detention and advocating for their individual needs along with fighting for systemic change to end offshore processing. Work also continues to raise the awareness of the public on issues in detention.

An end to offshore detention – 2007

After years of advocacy work to create community pressure and shine a spotlight on the damage of offshore processing. Finally Australia’s offshore processing regime ended in 2007. This was a monumental win in the fight for the fair and humane treatment of people seeking safety. The ASRC continues to fight for an end to all arbitrary mandatory detention both offshore and onshore.

Ending detention debt – 2009

For many years, when a person seeking asylum was finally released from Australian Immigration Detention they would be served a bill for the cost of their time in detention. People were being released from detention but instead of experiencing the freedom that they dreamt of they were handed crippling debt. To make matters even worse the costs of detention are arbitrary and are determined by the Department of Immigration (DIAC) with some people being served with debts for over $200,000 on their release.

We, along with a coalition of community groups campaigned for an end to detention debt by raising public awareness and lobbying the Department of Immigration for an end to this barbaric practice . After over a year of campaigning we saw an end to detention debts in September 2009.

The transfer of minors and families from immigration detention into community-based detention – 2010

In 2010 we witnessed the transfer of minors and families from immigration detention into community-based detention, after much sector advocacy from advocates and organisations like the ASRC.

A new era of indefinite punishment and displacement – the reintroduction of offshore processing – 2012

In 2012, an ‘Expert panel’ was convened by the Government, despite the ASRC providing submissions, appearances at inquiries and follow up engagement the recommendations of the Panel led to the reopening of offshore processing and the first transfer of people to Nauru and Manus Island in 2012. This was a devastating blow for people seeking asylum and all of those working tirelessly advocating for their rights.

The horrors of offshore detention were well known and there was widespread fear for those transferred. The ASRC continues to put a spotlight on the conditions for those detained, while lobbying for an end to offshore processing and detention.

The ASRC makes submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in Immigration Detention – 2014

On 3 February 2014 Professor Gillian Triggs, launched an inquiry into children in closed immigration detention. The purpose of the Inquiry was to investigate the ways in which life in immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children.

The ASRC’s submission was both heartbreaking and damning.

2014 Human Rights Law Program welcomes specialised detention law team
In recognition of the critical situation facing people in detention, the ASRC self funded a team of dedicated detention lawyers within our Human Rights Law Program. The team of lawyers work closely with individuals in detention to provide individual advocacy and work closely with the wider Advocacy and Campaigns teams within the ASRC to fight for systemic policy change.

The ASRC visits Christmas Island – 2016

In August 2016 the ASRC travelled to Christmas Island to visit men seeking asylum who were being held in indefinite detention. We found an environment of fear and physical violence where men seeking asylum faced ongoing mental trauma and isolation, all while under the direct care of the Australian Government. Christmas Island is isolated and difficult to visit, this visit was vital in continuing to put a spotlight on the atrocious conditions in detention.

The formation of the ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocacy Program (DRAP) – 2016

In response to the reintroduction of offshore processing and the deteriorating condition of the individuals, families and children being held in detention the ASRC established the Detention Rights Advocacy Program (DRAP) to provide specialised support for people in both onshore and offshore detention. The support services provided by the team range from casework management and crisis intervention to individual advocacy for people in detention.

After 13 years of tireless detention advocacy with the ASRC, we farewelled Pamela Curr.

Visit to Manus – 2017

In November 2017 ASRC Founder and CEO Kon Karapangiotidis, joined by our Director of Advocacy and Campaigns Jana Favero and Detention Advocacy Manager Natasha Blucher, visited the people detained in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea. The visit was prompted by the events of 31st October when the Turnbull Government ordered all staff and personnel to abandon 606 men in the detention centre, leaving them without any food, water, power or medicine, including those critically ill.

The ASRC’s visit to the Manus Island detention centre helped shine a light on the medical emergency festering inside a humanitarian crisis that Kon, Jana and Natasha witnessed on the island. Footage and reports from the visit made headlines around the world informing people of Australia’s brutal asylum policies and offshore processing shame.

ASRC Detention Advocacy Manager Natasha Blucher on her visit to the Manus Island detention centre said “In understanding the horrific maze that is the system of offshore processing, there is no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes. To meet the men that I have spoken with over the phone countless times, to see the accommodation in Port Moresby where people are located when we advocate for their medical care, to see the camp in which countless horrors have occurred was invaluable. I’m committed to translating this new knowledge into searing advocacy for these men.”

The ASRC’s Detention Advocacy Program continues to support the men left behind in Papua New Guinea and connect them to relevant counselors, psychiatrists and lawyers. Our Legal and Campaigns and Advocacy teams continue to advocate for the immediate evacuation of all the men through lobbying, public campaigning, sector collaboration and media commentary.

Kids off Nauru – 2017/18

After living much of their lives in offshore detention the situation for children on Nauru reached a crisis point. Many children were exhibiting signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and some were even developing the extremely rare and life threatening Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome.

In response, the refugee sector and children’s charities in Australia banded together to form the Kids Off Nauru #EvacuateNow coalition.

As a leading contributor to the Kids Off Nauru #EvacuateNow coalition the ASRC’s advocacy team worked closely with sector partners to inform the public of the worsening crisis for children in detention while our Detention Advocacy team was also providing direct support to children and their families who were trapped in the horror of detention on Nauru.

The ASRC’s then Detention Advocacy Manager Natasha Blucher and her team, were working directly with children who were severely affected by the conditions in detention. The ASRC advocated for the immediate release and resettlement of the children and their families so that they could get the medical care that they so desperately needed.

ASRC Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Jana Favero, travelled to Canberra with Getup’s Human Rights Director, Refugee Council of Australia representatives and supporting doctors to deliver an open letter and petition of more than 170,000 signatures to members of Parliament and meet with MPs to push for Parliament to respond adequately to the medical emergency on Nauru.

The ASRC played a pivotal role in helping the evacuation of 349 individuals, families and children from Nauru to safety in Australia in 2018.

Lobbying for the creation of Medevac – 2019

Prior to the passing of the Medevac Bill the road for refugees in offshore detention to receive appropriate medical treatment was often years long and a battle that was fought in the courts.

The ASRC, working side by side with the refugee and community advocates, lobbied in Canberra and met with Members of Parliament to help the bill become law.

The Medevac Bill was passed by the Australian Government and became law in March 2019 provided critically ill refugees and people seeking asylum held in offshore detention a new pathway to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical treatment.

The law gave doctors the power to decide whether people seeking asylum were receiving the medical care that they needed, instead of politicians.

For the first time, the bill provided a clear pathway for refugees to be evacuated to Australia for urgent medical treatment.

The passing of the Bill led to the creation of the Medical Evacuation Response Group (MERG) and the ASRC’ played a leading role in coordinating the transfers.

Medical Evacuation Response Group – 2019

After the passing of the Medevac legislation in February 2019, a partnership of specialist refugee support organisations formed the Medical Evacuation Response Group.

The Medical Evacuation Response Group helped facilitate the safe, orderly and effective implementation of applications for transfer under the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act, known as the Medevac legislation.

Working as part of MERG, the ASRC’s Detention Advocacy Team of seven helped manage the medical evacuation process, providing comprehensive case management support to sick refugees, including:

  • Triaging the formal request for medical assessment of sick refugees
  • Suicide intervention and critical care support
  • Collating and managing medical and legal records to support and strengthen their request for medical transfer
  • Linking them to doctors and lawyers to help them obtain medical treatment

The ASRC was well placed to provide the intensive casework support needed for medical transfers due to the years of expertise, relationships, and systems required.

As a part of MERG the ASRC helped facilitate the approval of urgent medical transfer of 270 sick refugees in offshore detention with 197 people successfully transferred before the legislation was cruelly repealed.

Fighting to keep Medevac – 2019

In September 2019 the Government’s Medevac repeal legislation was passed in the House of Representatives and if passed in the Senate in November, politicians and bureaucrats take back the power to delay or block medical evacuation of sick people in offshore detention.

In August 2019 the ASRC along with doctors, community groups and other refugee organisations lodged submissions to the Senate Inquiry investigating the Medevac repeal legislation.

The ASRC along with these groups lobbied against the repeal in Canberra, meeting with members of parliament to save the legislation. The ASRC also worked with sector partners to mobilise the public to call and write to politicians to vote to uphold the human rights of people in offshore detention to receive appropriate medical care.

Ultimately the vote lay in the hands of Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie.

On the 3rd December 2019 the Medevac repeal legislation was passed in the Senate, stripping away sick refugee’s only pathway for medical evacuation.

Prohibited items bill – 2020

In 2020 the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 which would give Australian Border Force officials additional powers to search detainees was put in front of Parliament.

The proposed changes would have allowed Peter Dutton the ability to declare certain items, including mobile phones and sim cards, prohibited and give Australian Border Force officials additional powers to search detainees.

The proposed bill would have heavily impacted on the transparency and accountability of the Department’s conduct inside detention centres, where more than 4,000 assaults and incidents of excessive use of force have been perpetrated by guards in five years.

The ASRC spent months lobbying against the bill, making a submission to the Senate Committee and circulating a petition with sector partners calling for a vote of no on the bill.

The ASRC’s submission to the Senate Committee was based on our longstanding and comprehensive work with people in immigration detention and intensive one-on-one work with more than fifty immigration detainees at any given time.

The bill was voted down thanks to the community voting no in Jacqui Lambie’s online poll to determine her deciding vote.

Time for a home campaign to end detention – 2020

The ASRC worked in partnership with our movement as a part of the #TimeForAHome campaign to end the cruel detention regime and secure peoples’ freedom and long-term safety.

People seeking asylum and refugees in detention have lived too long without a home, many for as long as eight years, deprived of their freedom and their futures.

We’re calling on the Government to immediately release people seeking asylum and refugees from immigration detention facilities, and commit to their resettlement in a safe, permanent home.

You can join the #TimeForAHome campaign and add your voice to thousands of others calling for an end to detention today.

You can find out more about the Time for a home campaign.

By late 2020, a number of people began to be released into the community.

Detention release begin – 2020 & 2021

In early 2021, two refugees recently released from detention in Melbourne and The Time for a Home alliance of 160 organisations and community networks, handed a petition to Labor, Greens and crossbench MPs with 36,923 signatures.

The petition calls on the Government to release all people transferred from Offshore Processing from detention and resettle them in a safe, permanent home by World Refugee Day, 20 June 2021. While overwhelming public pressure has led to the release of 68 people from detention since December last year, over 100 people remained detained at this time.

At the start of COVID and again in December 2020, we provided prepaid Eftpos cards to our clients in detention to ensure that they can stay connected to their support networks with phone credit and can purchase other basic things they need based on their personal situation.

By March, 2021, as further people were released, it became evident that enduring support would be needed

Areas such as employment pathways and food aid were consistently mentioned. But what came out of these discussions was that the most pressing concern was the need for secure and safe housing when Government-funded support comes to an end.

In response to the emerging situation, the ASRC created the Preventing Homelessness Fund to support people transferred under Medevac when released from detention facilities. An initial investment of $500,000 in housing solutions to support people who are the most vulnerable and at risk of homelessness was supported by a $1,000 Eftpos card per person commitment to help people get back on their feet. You can read more about the Fund and the progress of its spending.

A continued end to detention – 2022

Around 26 refugees were released from onshore detention on 7-8 April 2022, joining around 250 people released since December 2020. This will leave around 6 people transferred to Australia from offshore detention for medical treatment still in detention centres after nine years. The Morrison Government has provided no reason as to why the remaining 6 people are held against their will, while 250 others in almost identical situations are in the community.

The severe mental and physical health risk endured in immigration detention as well as the trauma experienced under this system will continue and will necessitate ongoing expert support for those released. Previously releases have shown a completely inadequate support system that has prevented refugees from accessing mainstream social services and keeps them on precarious temporary visas.

The Time for a Home alliance, of 140 organisations and community networks, is also deeply concerned about the remaining 6 people in detention.

The ASRC, during this time, announced an increase to the Homelessess Fund, to ensure people recently released had fair and equitable access to housing supports via partner agencies through all of 2022, taking this investment to $750,000.

About the ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocacy Program (DRAP)

This blog does not encapsulate all that the sector and those seeking asylum have achieved in their fight for freedom – we also recognise that arbitrary policies continue to impact many people in the community and those who continue to be in detention, offshore and onshore.

The ASRC’s Detention Rights Advocacy program continues to work directly with people seeking asylum in onshore and offshore detention.

The DRAP team’s work ranges from advocacy for medical treatment for people with serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses, to providing legal support and connecting them to services that exist to support them in that environment.

Often most importantly, our DRAP team is there to support people seeking asylum when they are afraid. The program is currently providing support to over 600 clients in detention centers across Australia, and in offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The ASRC will continue to fight for an end to Australia’s punitive asylum policies and immigration detention. We will not stop advocating for people in detention until they are free.


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