Detention a ‘psychiatric hospital’, but report ignores alternatives

The joint parliamentary inquiry into detention brought down its report on March 30—but it was remarkable only for its timidity. Its recommendations leave mandatory detention in place.

In many ways, the report covers the same ground and offers similar recommendations as the 2001 parliamentary detention report that proposed detention be limited to 14 weeks (98 days). This report recommends 90 days.

But even the cautious Refugee Council of Australia argues that asylum seekers should be detained for no longer than 30 days. Worse, rather than requiring the immediate release of people after 90 days, the report only proposes that the government then make public their reasons for prolonged detention. It does not propose any legal requirement to release asylum seekers.

This is despite the report’s own admission that “acute mental illness is widespread across the detention network” and witness statements such as that of one pscyhologist who said, “immigration detention … is not a psychiatric hospital, but has some of the characteristics of one.”

This May marks 20 years of mandatory detention—before 1992, mandatory detention was not law. The big numbers of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s were not detained.
But in this report there is not even a proposal to legislate to ensure families and children are kept out of detention.

Too many of the recommendations are simply posed as considerations for the Department of Immigration, rather than legislative changes.

Rather than proposing the notorious remote detention facilities be closed, the report suggests detainees be accommodated in metropolitan centres “wherever possible.” If it was not going to go as far as demand that all detention centres be closed, why not insist that Christmas Island, Curtin and Scherger be closed?

It fails to address the excision of territories from the Migration Act that allows offshore processing. And astonishingly, there is no recommendation for the immediate release of so many long term detainees—the Iranians, Iraqis and stateless asylum seekers (such as the Faili Kurds and Bidoons). Rather than humanitarian visas, it suggests control orders for those in indefinite detention.


One positive note is that the report addresses those condemned to indefinite detention because of negative ASIO security findings, and proposes that a system of review be introduced (see here).
The report suggests Immigration Minister Chris Bowen consider the proposals by September—not exactly a hurry!

The government’s announcement that it will fund a “homestay” program for asylum seekers released from detention on bridging visas points to the alternative.

Sadly, the plan does not indicate a shift in policy or rhetoric from Labor, but that the government is looking for a solution to the numbers in detention, boosted by their slow and arbitrary determination system. Bowen would certainly prefer to have the Malaysia solution in place.

But the plan shows that an alternative to detention is easily possible and would be welcomed. Nearly 1000 people volunteered to host refugees in the 24 hours after the media announced the plan. We could house all asylum seekers this way while their claims are processed.


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