The Guardian November 7, 2001


Immigration policy under fire

In his annual report for 2000/2001, the Commonwealth Ombudsman Ron 
McLeod issued a strong criticism of the treatment of refugee asylum seekers 
under the Howard Government. The following is an exert from his report.

Increases in the number of people held in immigration detention facilities 
and some disturbances in certain centres focussed considerable public 
attention on immigration detention during the year.

A number of systemic reviews were conducted of aspects of DIMA's 
(Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) practices over the 
past year with particular emphasis on detention.

My report on Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) examined both conditions 
in IDCs and the treatment of detainees. I was particularly concerned about 
the treatment of people at risk during their detention, such as women and 
children.

In this regard, I recommended that DIMA pursue alternatives to detention 
for families, women and children and individuals with special needs.

My investigation found evidence at every IDC of self-harm by detainees, 
damage to property and fights and assaults, which suggested that there were 
systemic deficiencies in the management of detainees.

Although 1999-2000 was a difficult year for DIMA, with large numbers of 
unauthorised arrivals in Australia, my investigation found that the 
facilities provided for detainees were not adequate at the time, especially 
at Woomera, where large numbers were held.

I was particularly concerned to find that at 30 June 2000, nearly 800 women 
and children were in detention and that there was little distinction 
between their treatment and that of the predominantly single male 
population of IDCs.

I found that women and children in particular were at risk in the detention 
environment.

I also expressed the view that immigration detainees have lesser rights 
than convicted criminals held in jails and that they were being held in an 
environment that appeared to have a weaker accountability framework.

I made a number of recommendations to DIMA, including: 

* reassessing the accommodation and conditions in IDCs to avoid 
overcrowding; 

* providing appropriately for families, women, children and individuals 
with special needs, to ensure that they are not exposed to harm; 

* pursuing alternatives to detention for families, women at risk, children 
and individuals with special needs, outside the major detention centres; 

* developing memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with State, Federal and 
Territory police services and other agencies regarding their involvement 
with IDCs and detainees; 

* improving security at IDCs; and 

* improving morale within IDCs by addressing training and the quality of 
management.

DIMA has advised that it is implementing my recommendations. I propose to 
continue to conduct inspections as the need arises.

The investigation examined the administrative detention of individuals in 
State and Territory prisons under the Migration Act 1958. 

The main issues considered were the grounds for holding immigration 
detainees in prisons who are not convicted of criminal offences, and 
whether the policies and procedures established by DIMA, at least partly in 
response to my predecessor's 1995 report concerning the transfer of 
immigration detainees to State and Territory prisons, were being followed 
in practice.

Complaints received by my office suggested that the length of detention 
contributes to the incidence of behaviour problems among the detainees and 
may exacerbate mental health problems.

Difficult behaviour by a detainee, in turn, can lead to a decision to 
transfer the detainee to a State prison.

Although a transfer to prison is a serious decision and is meant to occur 
only as a last resort, evidence showed that when immigration detainees are 
transferred, their welfare and circumstances within the prison system are 
not always monitored closely.

While a prison can be a place of detention under the Migration Act 1958, 
State and Territory prisons are designed to accommodate convicted 
offenders, not immigration detainees.

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