Mandatory detention is the problem

March 26, 2011
Christmas Island breakout, March 12.

The situation inside every one of Australia’s refugee detention centres has grown dangerously volatile.

Just days after the Christmas Island breakout and subsequent protests, nine refugees climbed on the roof of a detention centre in Darwin after watching the assault of another refugee on March 15.

Two days later, a 20-year-old Afghan man hanged himself with a bedsheet at the Scherger detention centre after his refugee application was rejected.

Eighty men involved in the Christmas Island protests were moved to the far-north Queensland facility, despite warnings that more suicides were imminent.

A sit-down protest of about 100 refugees in the Curtin detention centre also began that day, sparked when an Afghan refugee was restrained and beaten by Serco guards for trying to see his case manager.

The next day, a boy in Broadmeadows detention centre refused to climb down from a tree for six hours. About 125 unaccompanied minors are held in the Melbourne facility.

These events followed a “fast to death” hunger strike that three Tamil refugees held in the Villawood detention centre in Sydney over March 1-13.

But the federal Labor government’s only policy response to the crisis has been to build yet another detention centre in Darwin, set to hold 1500 refugees.

These horrors and tragedies are only the latest in a constant deterioration of conditions for refugees. Christmas Island has been full beyond capacity for more than a year and mainland centres are filling up.

The immigration department said 6659 people were held in immigration detention in February. It said the average stay in immigration detention 218 days, though it can be much longer for appeals or when ASIO “security checks” are delayed.

Hunger strikes are commonplace. Refugee protesters have faced violent crackdowns by Serco guards and federal police.

The obvious reasons for the protests are overcrowding and prolonged delays. Refugees are exasperated and distressed over the uncertainty of their future.

But it is the detention system itself, not simply the appalling state it is now in, that is to blame.

Australia’s policy of mandatory detention must end. It is essentially a policy of detention without trial when no crime has been committed. It is imposed on people with a well-founded fear for their lives, escaping war and state-sanctioned violence.

It must end because mandatory detention destroys and kills people.

Prolonged detention inflicts serious psychological, physical and emotional harm on people already damaged by the horror they have fled.

A parliamentary committee from 2001 revealed extensive evidence of the suffering caused by indefinite detention.

It said consequences of detention included a rise in aggression and conflict and also “substantial character changes” in individuals.

Detainees who had been in jails in the past told the committee that the “stress in detention was worse than stress in jail”. One said detainees were not “refugees in here; we are prisoners in this country, being bashed up and beaten”.

This was 10 years ago under a Liberal government, but mandatory detention continues today under Labor.

Refugees in detention are also denied almost every basic legal right. The Christmas Island detention centre is excised Australian territory. Innocent people are locked up and denied any access to Australia’s courts.

An inquiry into police use of tear gas against unarmed protesters is supposedly underway, but reports emerged that people were “disappearing” from the main compound and being taken away by federal police.

The Refugee Action Coalition Sydney said on March 23 that about 150 refugees were being held in isolation for interrogation.

It said there were no lawyers on the island to represent them, even though the federal police had warned it would bring charges against detainees for damaging property and threatening staff.

The brave men who broke out and protested on Christmas Island face an uncertain future. The government said it could revoke or block their protection visas or deport them.

It is important to defend them, because the government will not show an ounce of sympathy. Instead it will punish the protesters to show how “tough” it is on refugees.

We need a refugee policy that acknowledges that refugees fleeing persecution, wars and Western military occupations have a right to seek safety in Australia. Instead, the ALP and Liberal support for mandatory detention is meant to cultivate racism and xenophobia.

Australia’s detention system will provoke more protests by refugees. It will lead to more deaths and more tragedies.

But it will not stop people from boarding boats, because it does nothing to stop the violence and conflict they flee.


The SA Supreme court decided way back in 2002 that escaping a detention centre was not a crime and refused to convict people.

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