Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Harsh Treatment of Immigrants Slammed

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Jan 20 2008 (IPS) - A new report by Australia’s human rights commission on the country’s immigration detention centres has slammed conditions inside the largest facility as “prison-like” while repeating calls for an end to the policy of mandatory detention.

“Though improvements have been made for many people held in detention in Australia, the conditions in stage one of the Villawood immigration centre, where many long-term detainees are held, remain a disgrace,” said Commissioner Graeme Innes in a statement accompanying the Jan. 9 release of the annual inspection report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), a statutory body.

The Summary of Observations following the Inspection of Mainland Immigration Detention Facilities, 2007 reports the findings of visits to detention centres by HREOC officials between August and November last year. There are currently around 400 immigration detainees held in detention centres in Australia, along with another 107 housed in residential or community facilities.

While acknowledging that improvements at detention centres have been made – including refurbishments “which create a much brighter and more pleasant environment” at the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre in Melbourne; the “good” quality of accommodation at immigration housing in Sydney and Perth; and the continued standard of attitude and approach of staff at the centres – the HREOC report takes aim at Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC), which it describes as “the most prison-like of all facilities.”

Villawood holds the largest number of detainees and “has a large number of long-term detainees with ever-worsening mental health problems,” says the report.

HREOC reports that the atmosphere at VIDC’s most secure section, stage one, is “security-driven and tense, compared to the smaller centres.” HREOC calls – for the second year in succession – for this section to be demolished and replaced as a matter of priority.

HREOC describes the visitors’ facilities in stage one as “bleak” and is concerned with the lack of natural light or decoration in the dining room. The report also takes note of dormitory number one, “which is dark, depressing and lacks privacy.”

“Stage one has the atmosphere of a prison,” says the report, labelling the area harsh and inhospitable.

Mark Goudkamp, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition New South Wales (RACNSW) – which describes itself as a grassroots coalition whose members come from a broad section of the community – told IPS that conditions at Villawood are “worse than a prison.”

“I think it’s not only stage one, where they keep the so-called security risk detainees, but I think the whole of mandatory detention has got to go,” says Goudkamp, echoing the sentiments made in the HREOC report.

Australia’s mandatory detention laws require that people entering Australia without a valid visa be detained, subject to successful or unsuccessful claims for asylum. Since their inception, immigration detention centres have been controversial.

Just last week, a joint statement by Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Charandev Singh from the Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre reported the Jan.13 death of a 62-year-old Iranian national and Villawood detainee who had suffered a heart attack while attending St Georges Hospital two days earlier.

According to the statement, fellow detainees had been requesting care for the man, who was reportedly too sick to fly and was therefore unable to be deported. “Fellow detainees say that he had to walk 100 metres uphill to the dining room using an umbrella to assist him to walk (and was) often too exhausted to eat,” reported Curr.

“When was it the role of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to issue death sentences to people by putting them in these kinds of conditions?” asks Goudkamp. “There is obviously something wrong with the detention centre system when that kind of thing happens.”

That there is something wrong has been apparent for some time. Singh says that since December 2000 there have been at least 18 deaths in “all forms of immigration detention” in Australia and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, where until recently asylum seekers who were apprehended outside Australia’s migration zone were sent while their applications were processed.

Villawood itself has also had problems. Detainees have at times resorted to self-harm, hunger strikes and even threatened to commit suicide. These problems follow those at immigration detention centres at Woomera and Baxter – both of which are now closed – where protests and riots occurred over allegations of human rights abuses.

As it has done in the past, HREOC recommends that the government repeal the mandatory detention laws. The human rights body says that while detention for a short period -enabling security, identity and health checks – may be acceptable, long-term, indefinite detention is not.

Among the alternatives to detention noted by HREOC are Immigration Residential Housing (IRH) where detainees are allowed greater autonomy in “family-style” housing; private houses; correctional facilities; watch houses; and foster care.

“We need to get people out of detention faster in order to reduce the risk of causing long-term mental health damage,” said Commissioner Innes. HREOC reports that long-term detention continues to have an adverse effect on detainees’ mental health.

While acknowledging that the provision of mental health services has improved over the last few years, most detainees’ mental health issues are unable to be treated properly as “the main way to treat a mental health concern is to remove the primary cause of the problem,” says the report. In the detainees’ cases, detention and the resulting uncertainty are among the main causes of mental health problems.

“I think it’s wonderful that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has come out and made such a strong statement saying that mandatory detention has to go and must be repealed,” Goudkamp told IPS.

But Goudkamp argues that it is now up to the Labor government to improve the plight of detainees. “We in the refugee movement want to make sure we put the maximum pressure on the current government to see a fundamental break from the Howard years, the vilification of asylum seekers, and the mandatory detentions,” he says.

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