Damning report on Australia’s immigration detention regime finds maggots in food, use of force and spithoods
24 January 2023
The Commonwealth Ombudsman recently released a report on Australia’s immigration detention regime, raising numerous concerns including the need for alternatives to detention, the excessive use of force against people held in detention, inadequate medical care and many more.
In July 2018, as part of its obligations under the Optional Protocol for the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), the Australian Government appointed the Commonwealth Ombudsman as a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) to monitor places of detention under the Commonwealth’s control. The NPMs work in parallel with an international committee, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT).
Between 1 July 2021 and 30 June 2022, the Commonwealth Ombudsman visited 8 immigration detention facilities, which formed the basis for its 18 recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs.
The report highlights that people are being held in detention indefinitely and alternatives to detention must be explored, particularly given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The report noted that as Canada and the UK reduced the number of people held in detention by 66.3% and 39.5% respectively during COVID-19, Australia’s population of people held in detention remained high.
The most recent statistics show there are still 1,315 people held in immigration detention with an average time held of over two years. As of August 2022, 746 people in detention had previously held a protection or humanitarian visa or at one stage applied for a protection visa. The fact that people in detention told the Ombudsman that “they would rather be in prison because at least they would know their date of release” demonstrates the dire need for reform.
The report also showed the violence and lack of care apparent throughout the detention network. Concerningly, the use of spit hoods was reported.
Also, at centres such as Villawood “unplanned use of force appears to be used by default for many routine offsite transport and escort activities” and at Yongah Hill “the default position was to proceed with the use of mechanical restraints”. During a disturbance on Christmas Island, firefighting devices were discharged directly onto people in detention in a “pre-planned and systematic use of force”.
This reflects the experience of many held in detention, with over 500 complaints of assault over the past five years, according to recent Senate Estimates.
The NPM report also reiterated many previous calls from the Commonwealth Ombudsman to stop the use of hotel APODs. The report had a particularly damning section on Park Hotel, where instances of maggot-ridden food, lack of fresh air and widespread use of force were noted. ASRC caseworkers and lawyers have noted similar issues numerous times throughout the immigration detention system.
The unsafe and oppressive conditions in immigration detention have resulted in deaths. The Ombudsman reported that 4 people died in immigration detention during the relevant period.
Given the oppressive conditions in detention, ASRC is concerned regarding the Ombudsman’s recommendation for the Australian Border Force to have increased powers.
The Australian Government has also failed to meet the deadline for implementing its OPCAT obligations, which was extended to 20 January 2023. This follows the SPT being stopped in Queensland and New South Wales, from completing its visits to Australia’s detention network in late 2022.
Rachel Saravanamuthu, Senior Solicitor – Legal Advocacy at ASRC, said: “This report is one of many from the Commonwealth Ombudsman confirming what we already know – immigration detention is harmful and people are dying inside. There are hundreds of refugees and people seeking asylum currently held in detention, prevented from accessing protection and safety to rebuild their lives with their families.
The question is whether the Albanese Government will act. Other countries around the world have implemented safe, humane and efficient alternatives to detention – there is no reason why Australia cannot do the same.”
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