Monthly Archives: November 2011

Detention conditions: degrading, intolerable and inhumane

November 30, 2011

Conditions of detention in Australia have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.

In April, an independent report tabled in Western Australia’s parliament described prison conditions in that state as “degrading, intolerable and inhumane”.

Recent reports from Victoria’s Ombudsman have been similarly critical, variously describing conditions in youth detention facilities, police cells and the Melbourne Custody Centre as “appalling”, “disgraceful” and incompatible with basic human rights.

Inhumane conditions of detention are not confined to correctional facilities. Nor are they confined to the mandatory immigration detention facilities so infamously described by Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry as “factories for mental illness” and by the Australian Medical Association as “a form of child abuse”.

Inhumane conditions also persist in many mental health and disability services. Indeed, investigations reported in The Age newspaper over the last two months have revealed the deaths of at least 36 people in Victorian psychiatric wards in the last three years, together with widespread allegations of physical and sexual abuse of patients.

This is just a snapshot of the developments that make Australia’s implementation of the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Ill-Treatment so imperative, and the two-year delay in ratifying that treaty since Australia signed it in 2009 so galling.

The Optional Protocol is an international treaty which aims to prevent ill treatment and promote humane conditions by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection of all places of detention.

It is not only in the interests of persons deprived of liberty, but also the broader community, that all places of detention – whether prisons, psychiatric hospitals, police cells or disability facilities – promote rehabilitation and reintegration and that all detainees are treated with basic dignity and respect. Independent inspections and oversight are critical in this regard.

At the national level, the Optional Protocol requires that countries establish what is known as a “national preventative mechanism”, or NPM. An NPM is an independent body with a mandate to conduct both announced and unannounced visits to places of detention, to make recommendations to prevent ill treatment and improve conditions, and to report publicly on its findings and views.

At the international level, the Optional Protocol establishes an independent committee of experts – comprising doctors, lawyers, social workers and academics – with a mandate to carry out country missions to monitor deprivations of liberty. The UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, as it is called, is also tasked to work cooperatively with states and NPMs to provide advice and training on the prevention of ill-treatment in places of detention.

The whole system is premised on the evidence and experience that external scrutiny of places of detention can deter and, where necessary, help to redress torture and other forms of ill treatment. By making places of detention more open, transparent and accountable, it helps to ensure that persons deprived of liberty – whether people with psychiatric illness, prisoners, people with disability or asylum seekers – are treated with basic dignity and respect.

Existing systems for transparency and accountability of places of detention are manifestly inadequate in Australia. In Victoria, for example, the Office of Correctional Services Review is an internal business unit within the Department of Justice. It reports to the Secretary of the Department – the very secretary with responsibility for correctional management – and does not make its reports public. The problem of lack of independence is not confined to corrections. The 36 deaths in psychiatric facilities are being investigated by the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, an office which, according to its own website “has responsibility under the Mental Health Act for the medical care and welfare of persons receiving treatment or care for a mental illness”.

Australia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2009. Since that time, progress on ratification and implementation has been slow, with wrangling between the states and the Commonwealth about who is to foot the modest bill for detention monitoring and oversight. This is despite international evidence as to the very high social and economic costs of failing to prevent and redress ill-treatment. On any estimate, the costs of independent monitoring and oversight are absolutely dwarfed by the $23 million paid by the Commonwealth for the unlawful detention and ill-treatment of immigration detainees over the last decade, costs which could have been largely avoided with a functioning and effective NPM.

Despite its name, there should be nothing optional about Australia’s ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol. The prevention of torture and ill treatment is certainly not regarded as optional or negotiable by like-minded countries. The United Kingdom, for example, ratified the treaty almost eight years ago, while New Zealand has no less than five independent, publicly accountable bodies mandated to visit and report on places of detention.

The Commonwealth, state and territory governments should all prioritise and expedite ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Any further delay in the prevention of ill-treatment has intolerable social and economic costs and is simply not an option.



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Overcrowding leads to riots at Australia’s immigration detention centers: report

November 29, 2011

Overcrowding at Australia’s immigration detention centers has contributed to this year’s riots at Christmas Island off Western Australia’s coast and Villawood in Sydney, according to an independent report released on Tuesday by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
The review was launched after the riots broke out on Christmas Island in March.
When another riot broke out in April at Sydney’s Villawood center, razing a number of buildings, Bowen included this incident in the review.
The report, prepared by former public servants Allan Hawke and Helen Williams, found that overcrowding led to the riots.
Bowen said the detention centers were under considerable pressure when the riots occurred there.
“We had a detention network dealing with a very significant increase in the number of people arriving in Australia by boat,” Bowen told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday.
“That put pressure on the detention network, and … combined with the high proportion of people with an outcome that they have not been regarded as genuine refugees … that leads to this sort of pressure and the sort of results we saw in March and April,” he said.
The report also provides 48 recommendations to improve management and security at detention facilities.
“This report has reviewed the preparedness and response, made recommendations going forward as to how these situations can be managed,” Bowen said.
He said the government would accept all of the recommendations in the report to minimize the chance of future riots.


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After the despair of detention, refugee finds new hope in the community

Michael Gordon

November 28, 2011

Looking forward ... Mohammad Dostizada, left, and his nephew Mohammad Taous, his wife Alia and their children Shandwar and Zulqarnain. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

CALL it culture shock. For 18 months, Mohammad Dostizada was an inmate at the  Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, one of the most isolated, overcrowded and  under-resourced high-security facilities for men who try to come to Australia by  boat.

For many of those months, the 41-year-old Afghan refugee suffered depression  and witnessed suicide attempts by fellow inmates on a daily basis.

Ask him if he contemplated taking his life and the answer is as direct as it  is detached. “I did try a few times, but then I started thinking about my family  and what would happen to them, and I couldn’t do it.”

Now, courtesy of a new approach by the Gillard government, he is living in a  suburban home in Dandenong with his nephew, Mohammad Taous, and dreaming of the  day he can be joined by his wife and children.

Mr Dostizada is one of 27 asylum seekers released on Friday on bridging visas  in what amounts to the beginning of the end of a system mental health experts  say has created a generation of asylum seekers who suffer from mental  disorder.

His claim for refugee status was upheld after he appealed the initial  rejection, but that did not end his time in detention or his suffering. He is  still waiting for a security clearance and knows of others who have waited 10  months or more for it to come through.  His priority is to attend English  classes and get work.

Mr Taous, 30, fled from the Taliban and arrived by boat in late 1999. He  spent three months in the Woomera detention centre before being granted  temporary protection by the Howard government.

He studied English at night, and soon found work as a security guard and now  provides for his wife, Alia, and two small boys.

The   Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, expects at least 100 bridging visas  will be issued each month to those in detention. With almost 4000 still in  detention, it will take time.

He predicts that those who come by boat will be put on the same footing early  next year as those who come by plane.

That will mean their release into the community on bridging visas after  health, identity and security checks in detention on Christmas Island.

Mr Dostizada is eligible to apply for financial assistance of up to $215 a  week until he finds work. He is not eligible for public housing or any of the  settlement support that will come with a protection visa.

“This not a Rolls-Royce model of release from detention –  it’s the  clapped-out ute,” says Pamela Curr, of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.  “People will need support, for sure, but the simple fact is that no matter how  sick they are, they are better off in the community than they would be in a  detention centre.”


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Detainees held in ‘de facto’ Guantanamo


November 24, 2011

Former ACT and Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher has launched a stinging attack on Australia’s border protection policies, likening immigration detention facilities to Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Asher told The Canberra Times yesterday he had warned the Government, ”week after week”, to find urgent alternatives to keeping people indefinitely detained.

”There’s no plan, there’s no answer, it’s an example where this minister and the Government are avoiding both their ethical and moral responsibilities to vulnerable people,” Mr Asher said.

”We can’t just continue to build up, as Australia is, a de facto Guantanamo Bay and that’s what we’re doing.”

Mr Asher resigned as ACT and Commonwealth ombudsman last month after it emerged he had scripted questions for Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to ask him at a committee hearing.

As Commonwealth ombudsman, Mr Asher also had responsibility for immigration matters.

His final report to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, on people kept in detention for more than two years, was  tabled yesterday.

It urgently recommended the Government find an alternative to indefinitely detaining people who have been denied security clearance, despite being accepted as genuine refugees.

Asylum-seekers given negative security assessments from intelligence authorities are not eligible for release into community detention.

If they refuse to return to their home countries, or a third country cannot be found, they risk being indefinitely detained in Australia.

Negative ASIO security assessments cannot be appealed and can only be reviewed by ASIO or the Immigration Minister.

”The Ombudsman notes an increase in the number of people detained in an [immigration detention centre] for two years or more who have been found to be owed protection but who have received a negative security assessment,” Mr Asher’s final report, signed on October 7 but tabled yesterday, stated.

”It appears likely that the number of people in this category will continue to grow … unless the Minister intervenes to grant a visa or approve community detention, these people will remain in a restrictive immigration detention centre indefinitely.”

ASIO director-general David Irvine told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that any move to give people the automatic right to appeal could raise questions about national security.

He said, ”our assessment tends to come towards the very end of the [assessment] process”.

Mr Bowen’s spokesman said the Government made no apologies for its careful stance on security assessments.

”People who have been found to be refugees but have also received adverse security assessments, by law, cannot be granted permanent visas to remain in Australia,” the spokesman said.

”The Government cannot and will not compromise on matters of national security.”

But Mr Asher said the fact that two-thirds of the Department of Immigration’s assessments that people were not genuine refugees were overturned on appeal raised serious questions about the integrity of security assessments.

”It stands to reason that in this security area, these [appealable assessments] would be the same,” he said.


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Indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers harmful

Thu, 11/24/2011

A vignette of a short film started the night.
Two women, both who fled their home countries to avoid political persecution, were on the screen: a Chilean, Maria Fernanda Gonzales, who flew to Sydney in 1985, and an Iraqi, Zahoor Askari, who flew to the country a little over a decade later.
Maria stayed in the Villawood hostel in Sydney for refugees with her three boys and a baby on its way for seven months. The staff treated her kindly and she and her family were able to walk around outside the compound.
In Zahoor’s time, the place had turned into a detention center with two big wire fences surrounding the complex. “I woke up in the morning and thought to myself  ‘Where am I? I am in jail!’ I left Iraq because it was like a jail, only to be put in prison,” Zahoor said in the film.
The film started a public talk on Tuesday on Australia’s policy in the treatment of asylum seekers. Speaking at the talk, human rights advocate and lawyer Julian Burnside said Australia’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention was inhumane and unnecessary. Burnside also added that Australia’s tough measures on people smugglers was cutting the last chance of refugees to seek escape.
Organized by State MP from the Greens Party Jamie Parker, the talk also featured a Hazara Afghan refugee and Francis Milne from the Uniting Balmain Church.
“Indefinite mandatory detention is completely unacceptable and it must end. This is an opportunity to begin a practical debate about the genuine alternatives,” Parker said.
In Australia, more than 4,000 asylum seekers are kept in detention centers. Since 1992 under the John Howard administration these incarcerations were mandatory and indefinite for people who came to Australia by boat without papers.
The detentions could last from six months to two years before the asylum seekers found out whether they would be granted protection visas or not.
Indefinite periods of detention have caused serious mental problems for detainees. The ABC Four Corners recent report showed that detainees harm themselves by cutting and many have attempted suicide. The frustration among asylum seekers being locked up for months have caused riots in detention centers on Christmas Island, with detainees setting ablaze the compound in March of this year. A month later, asylum seekers set fire to the Villawood detention center.
Burnside said that health and security checks should be limited to 30 days. Asylum seekers should be allowed in the community while immigration assessed their eligibility for protection visas.
Burnside said that asylum seekers who arrive by plane using tourist or student visas are allowed in the community through bridging visas. The percentage of people coming in by plane to be granted protection visas were a mere 20 percent, compared to 82 percent of the boat people who eventually receive asylum after spending time in detention. Hence, he questioned the need for indefinite periods of incarceration for people who are potentially granted refugee status as many end up having mental health problems after detention.
Burnside retold the story of Abdul Hamidi, an Iranian man who was detained at the Curtin detention center. He was granted asylum four years ago, but is now unable to work due to mental health problems. He was imprisoned in a small room and tortured in Iran. In Curtin, he tried to harm himself and attempted suicide. During times when Abdul has his bouts of frustration, detention center security guards place him in solitary confinement.
When the Labor government took power in 2008, the Immigration Department released seven new directives on detention centers. Among them were “detention in immigration detention centers is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time” and “conditions of detention will ensure the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Burnside said if these directives were followed and more asylum seekers were allowed in the community awaiting their visas, the government would decrease their spending on detention centers and solve the problem of overcrowding in detention centers.
Burnside also commented on the government’s tough policies on people smuggling. Both leaders of the Liberal and Labor Parties have vilified people smugglers as evil people who make profits over the misfortune of others. In 2009 after a boat explosion that killed three asylum seekers, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was quoted by ABC lambasting people smugglers as the “absolute scum of the Earth”. Burnside said that while Rudd lashed out at people smugglers, his own hero, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a people smuggler who evacuated German Jews to Switzerland. “Oscar Schindler is a people smuggler,” Burnside added, saying that he too did it as a business. And to make his point clear, Burnside said that the nuns in The Sound of Music, who helped evacuate the Von Trap family, were also people smugglers.
A recent report from ABC Radio National shows that the problem of fishermen-turn-people smugglers in Indonesia has a connection to Australia’s tough maritime border security. The Australian government burned some of the fishermen’s boats considered to be trespassing Australian waters. Having no means of livelihood, the fishermen who knew the way to Australia become people smugglers instead. Some are only teenagers.
For asylum seekers who ended up in Indonesia, their refugee granting process through the UNHCR might take 10 to 30 years. Burnside said he was sure that Australian leaders, if they were in the same position as the refugees, they would choose to go on a boat rather than languish for decades in uncertainty. Yet these leaders are cutting the refugees last chance to freedom by punishing people smugglers, he concluded

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