Frequently asked questions: detention centres

What is mandatory detention? . . .

Australia has one of the strictest immigration detention systems in the world. Mandatory detention has been in place since 1992. This means that any non-citizen who is in Australia without a valid visa must be detained and can only be released from detention if they are granted a visa or if they are removed from Australia. The detention is not time limited and people are not told how long they will be in detention.

The Australian Human Rights Commission as well as many groups campaigning for the rights of people seeking asylum have called on the Government to end the system of mandatory detention because it violates basic human rights and negatively affects the health and well being of those being detained. The Commission says that a person should only be in a detention facility if they have been assessed as being an unacceptable risk to the Australian community and that this risk cannot be met in a less restrictive way. Otherwise, they should be permitted to reside in the community while their immigration status is resolved with appropriate conditions to cover any identified risks.

How many detention centres are there? . . .

There are 13 detention centres located around Australia and on Christmas Island. There are four types of facilities; 5 detention centres which have the highest level of security, 2 residential housing facilities, 3 transit accommodation and 4 alternative places of detention which have lower levels of security.

Alternative places of detention can include places such as correctional centres, hospitals, hotels, psychiatric facilities, foster care arrangements, or with a designated person at a private residence. For people detained in an alternative place of detention, the conditions and restrictions that apply to them will depend on where they are held, and what arrangements are made for them to be supervised while detained there.
People detained in these facilities remain under supervision and are not free to come and go.
People can also be detained in the community and are generally not under physical supervision. There are also two offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea).

What are offshore detention centres? . . .

The Australian Government has agreements in place with Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to pay those countries large amounts of money to host Australian offshore detention centres and provide resettlement opportunities for people who are recognised as refugees.

The Government also has an agreement with Cambodia to resettle refugees from Nauru. Only two of five refugees who accepted an offer to go to Cambodia remain in the country. The other three have taken the risk of returning to their home countries as Cambodia was unable to offer education, work opportunities, language training or the potential for family reunion.

The PNG Supreme Court recently ruled that the detention centre on Manus Island is illegal and breaches basic human liberty. The PNG Government has announced that the centre on Manus Island will close as a result of the ruling. The future of the men detained there is now uncertain pending the Australian Government's response to the PNG Government's decision. Nauru was declared an ‘open' centre in October 2015 (see question: "What is an 'open’ detention centre?" in section 'Women Seeking Asylum').

It isn't so bad in detention is it?. . .

It is well documented that long term detention destroys the mental, emotional and often physical health of people seeking asylum. Dr Peter Young, former chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers in Australia and offshore detention for the past three years has accused the Immigration Department of deliberately inflicting harm on vulnerable people, harm that cannot be remedied by medical care.

Are there alternatives to mandatory detention? . . .

Australia is unique in its use of mandatory detention.

People seeking asylum in other countries are free to live in the community once identity, health and security checks have been carried out. This is known as community processing. There is overwhelming evidence that keeping women, men and children locked up in mandatory detention causes serious mental health issues and exacerbates the trauma they have already experienced in fleeing dangerous situations in their home country.

If people seeking asylum are supported to live, work or study in the community while waiting for their claims to be processed, they are empowered to take care of themselves and their families and can contribute to Australian society. The Australian Human Rights Commission website has more information on alternatives to closed immigration detention.

Isn’t it dangerous to have people seeking asylum living in the community?. . .

Community processing is an existing, workable alternative to keeping people locked up in detention centres while their claims for refugee status are processed. Community processing means that people seeking asylum are free to live in the community on bridging visas once identity, health and security checks have been carried out.

In fact, people seeking asylum who arrive in Australia by plane are permitted to live freely in the community while their claims are assessed. Those who claim asylum after entering the country on a valid visa, such as a tourist or student/work visa, are not taken into detention. They can then apply for other types of visas after their existing visa expires to permit them to live in the community while their claims are being processed.

The existing community processing system could be improved so that all people seeking asylum are treated in the same way through a community processing system regardless of whether they come by sea or air. There are currently around 28,000 people who are seeking asylum living in the community waiting for their claims to be processed.

How much does it cost to keep people seeking asylum in detention? . . .

The Commission of Audit has revealed that it costs more than $400,000 a year to keep one person in offshore detention compared to around $50,000 to allow a person seeking asylum to live in the community while waiting for their claims to be processed.