Asylum Seekers and Mandatory Detention: NGO Statement to UN Human Rights Council

On 30 May 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, delivered her report on the global state of human rights to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.  The report deals with a wide range of international human rights issues, including Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention and the ongoing issue of Indigenous disadvantage and disempowerment. The Human Rights Law Centre was pleased to make an oral statement to the Council in response to the High Commissioner's report, calling on Australia to urgently redress the incompatibility of mandatory immigration detention with our international human rights obligations.

The High Commissioner's report contained the following statement on Australia:

"While in Australia last week, I visited immigration detention centres and met with representatives of migrant, refugee and asylum seeker communities. The urgent need for Australia to develop alternatives to the current hardline and unsustainable immigration detention policies, as well as to effectively counter new forms of racism and Islamophobia emerging in this multicultural society, is striking. I should add that while in Australia, I also had the priviledge of visiting Aboriginal communities in Northern Territory and Queensland, where I learned first hand about the discrimination and disadvantages facing indigenous peoples, as well as about policy challenges for the Government in addressing them. The unique identify of Aboriginal people deserves Constitutional recognition, and with it better protection in law and practice would follow.

The Ambassador for Australia then took floor to make a statement on the High Commissioner's report, particularly as it relates to Australia's practice of mandatory immigration detention.

The Human Rights Law Centre subsequently made an oral statement to the UN Human Rights Council in response to the High Commissioner's report and Australia's statement as follows:

Mr President,

The National Association of Community Legal Centres and the Human Rights Law Centre welcome the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and strongly support the work of her office.

We were pleased to meet with the High Commissioner during her recent mission to Australia.  We welcome those parts of her report dealing with Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention and Indigenous disadvantage and disempowerment.

Overall, Australia’s engagement with the UPR and the Human Rights Council, including the Government’s engagement with civil society, has been very constructive.  We record our concern, however, that statements made by Australia regarding immigration detention during the UPR and repeated by the Ambassador today do not reflect Australian law, policy or practice.  The facts are as follows.

  1. Australian law provides for mandatory detention of “unlawful non-citizens” and does not allow for judicial consideration of the need for detention in individual cases.  Immigration detention is not, as Australia asserted, a measure of last resort.  Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia informally are detained as a matter of course before other options have been exhausted.  The law does not impose time limits on detention and the Government may and does detain people in immigration detention indefinitely.
  2. Detention is not only used as a last resort or for the shortest practicable time.  As of 15 April 2011 there were 6872 people in immigration detention.  More than 4200 of those people had been detained for longer than six months, and 1222 people had been detained for longer than 12 months.  
  3. As at 15 April 2011, there were 1048 children in immigration detention.  Since the Australian Government’s announcement in October 2010 that it would move unaccompanied minors and vulnerable family groups out of immigration detention facilities, the number of children in detention has increased by more than 300. 

Australia does have a strong commitment to and record on the promotion and protection of human rights.  Immigration detention practices, however, remain a significant blight.

We look forward to working candidly and constructively with the Australian Government and the Council to redress this situation.

Thank you Mr President.