Onshore Immigration Detention Centres are Rife With Abuses, Ombudsman Finds
During riots at Christmas Island’s Northwest Point Immigration Detention Center early last year, staff were found to have been involved in using fire extinguishers and other firefighting equipment on detainees.
This use was unauthorized but appears to have been planned and was not mentioned in incident reports.
Over the year 2021-22, Australia’s onshore immigration detention regime employed the use of potentially lethal spit hoods and it continued to lock up detainees long-term in alternative places of detention (APODs) such as hotels, a recently released Commonwealth Ombudsman said report found.
Melbourne’s Park Hotel continued to operate as an APOD over that period as it housed prisoners transferred from the coast, and on one occasion a man held there was served a maggot-infested dinner , which was not replaced, as staff found the fly larvae were “only on the vegetables”.
The 2021-22 report of the Commonwealth National Prevention Mechanism further identifies a practice that took place at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, which involved using property rooms as holding cells, so that those involved in incidents could cool down inside them.
And under the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the NPM inspection team found that these cells consisted of nothing more than a mattress on a concrete slab with a CCTV camera installed. There were no toilets, sinks or running water. And guidelines, restrictions on time use and records kept were non-existent.
Prevention of rights abuse
Released on 20 January, the Monitoring Commonwealth Places of Detention report contains the findings of Ombudsman-supervised inspections of ten federal institutions where people are deprived of their liberty.
These inspections were carried out under the auspices of the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture), which is an international human rights instrument aimed at preventing abuses against those held in places of detention or closed environments.
Adopted by the United Nations in 2002 and ratified by this country in 2017, the OPCAT requires state parties to implement the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), which consists of independent local inspection bodies that monitor detention facilities to curb future human rights violations .
OPCAT, praised in the nations that have implemented the protocol, is also monitored by the Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT), which is a UN body made up of 25 independent experts, who visit countries that are a party to the treaty is to randomly inspect its centers and give advice.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman manages the NPM which is charged with monitoring federal detention facilities. And its report was released on an odd date, as it coincided with the Australian nation missing its second official NPM implementation deadline, as no state or territory NPMs are in place.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman Report 2021-22 is the first such comprehensive investigation to be publicly released by the Commonwealth NPM, which is the only OPCAT inspection body operating in the country, despite the fact that the country has had five years to implement the UN controlled system.
Due to the restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic during the reporting period, the Commonwealth NPM was only able to visit one AFP detention centre, as well as one Australian Defense Force detention facility, along with eight immigration locations, including the Park Hotel.
“The Commonwealth Ombudsman remains concerned about delays in progressing the case of people in long-term detention, including delays in administrative processes,” the report says, as it addresses the ever-growing issue of immigration detainees held in indefinite detention. emphasizes.
The report states that in June 2019, the average number of days an individual was detained for was 485, while this has steadily grown to the point that the average number of days in June last year was 742.
And Home Affairs figures show that in October, 156 immigration detainees had been held in the Australian land immigration system for more than 5 years.
The NPM noted that long-term detention “increases the likelihood of systemic harm”, that many detainees would prefer to be in prison as they would then have a release date and that facilities used to house detainees were not built is to accommodate individuals for a long time. periods.
A revolutionary approach
In his submission to the report, Commonwealth Ombudsman Iain Anderson explains that the OPCAT is unique as it is the “only exclusively preventive international human rights instrument”, and it is also the first to rely on national bodies to monitor international human rights law.
While the senior adviser to the Society for the Prevention of Torture, Ben Buckland, says in his introduction to the report that OPCAT was “revolutionary” in its approach when it was initially implemented two decades ago.
Aspects of OPCAT that Buckland singled out as game-changers include its questioning of practices, its focus on the vulnerable, its prevention of serious rights violations, its engagement with civil society groups, opening the way for new places to monitor and the improvement it brings. staff.
“By creating an international system of visiting bodies, including the SPT at the international level and national preventive mechanisms domestically, the OPCAT gave birth to a world in which no place where people are deprived of liberty should remain closed to outside eyes ,” Buckland sketched.
But, to the shame of our nation, when the SPT made its first visit to Australia last October, the team of international experts had to cut its trip short as authorities in NSW and Queensland both refused it access to certain places of detention to which they searched for. to investigate.
Away from prying eyes
The Commonwealth Ombudsman made 18 recommendations to Home Affairs as part of its 2021-22 OPCAT review. And the federal department agreed to thirteen of the measures, rejected two and noted only three of them.
Home Affairs agreed to look at alternatives for long-term detainees, for Australian Border Force staff to record reasons for their use of mechanical restraints on detainees and to have a contingency plan for alternative food sources if meals served are unfit for consumption be found.
However, the department merely noted a recommendation to lower the number of land immigration detainees and rejected a suggestion that it introduce strategies to allow family visits regardless of whether a detainee or their family member has been vaccinated for COVID.
The report also notes that most states and territories – the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania – have appointed a body responsible for local NPM at the time of publication, but NSW, Victoria and Queensland did not.
And while the Commonwealth NPM has gone smoothly, all other jurisdictions have failed to establish their own and, given the attitude of some states to the visit of the SPT last year, it does not appear that several Australian governments in any rush to implement OPCAT.