Watchdog details concerns about treatment of detainees in Australia’s immigration system

Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe said he remains concerned over the use of force and prolonged detention of detainees in Australia’s immigration system.

Asylum seeker watch from the balcony of the Kangaroo Point Cental Hotel.

Asylum seeker watch from the balcony of the Kangaroo Point Cental Hotel. Source: AAP

A government watchdog has again raised concerns over the treatment of detainees within Australia's immigration detention network.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman on Wednesday released its latest report into the operation of the immigration centres, having reviewed a six-month period from January to July last year.  

In the document, ombudsman Michael Manthorpe said the detention system continues to be plagued by shortfalls in its handling of detainees.

“I remain concerned about the reasonableness of the use of force within the immigration detention network, the way complaints are handled and how vulnerable detainees are managed,” Mr Manthorpe said. 


He has also expressed concern about delays in progressing people's cases, leading to them facing long term detention. 

‘Given the long and undefined periods for which people can be held, and notwithstanding the legitimate national security and other risks that might be at play in some cases, it is crucial that each person’s case be kept under review, with an eye to fairness and compassion,” he said.

The ombudsman conducted on-site inspections of the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), Mantra Bell City APOD, and the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre during the reporting period. 

In March, on-site visits were suspended as a precautionary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, after which ongoing assessments were conducted remotely. 

Mr Manthorpe identified several issues during the immigration system review that built on issues raised in previous reports. 

He said there were concerns about the way force is used in detention, including instances of excessive use of force to resolve conflict or respond to non-compliant behaviour. 

The watchdog identified two occasions where it appeared force may have been excessive or inappropriate, out of 20 reports over the reporting period.  

The ombudsman also remains worried about detainees being mechanically restrained to attend medical appointments when alternatives such as increased escorts are available, the report said.

The report recommended the department track and assess the reasonableness of force used within the detention network and provide training to support staff in alternative responses. 

The Department of Home Affairs agreed with the recommendation, saying the appropriateness of such responses are regularly reviewed through mandatory reporting mechanisms. 

Concerns over 'alternative places of detention'

The watchdog's report also discussed the suitability of hotel APODS for long-term accommodation of people in the detention network, raising concern over whether they met human rights standards.  

During an inspection to the Mantra Bell City APOD in January 2020, the ombudsman identified 56 people that had been detained there - most of them since August 2019. 

It has called for the provision of programs and activities, and access to medical and welfare services, to be standard across all detention facilities, including APODs.

In relation to the handling of complaints, the watchdog has also warned about inconsistency in the quality of complaint records across the detention centres monitored. 

“Complaint records at the Mantra Bell City APOD were particularly poor and, in most cases, did not demonstrate how the complaint had been managed and investigated, or how the outcome was decided,” the report said. 

This ombudsman could not be satisfied that several “particularly serious” incidents were appropriately investigated. 

He has recommended the government improve the quality and consistency of records to ensure complaints are appropriately assessed.

In response, the Department of Home Affairs recognised the ombudsman’s concern regarding inconsistency in the quality of complaints records, and the recommendation.

Treatment of vulnerable detainees

The ombudsman made a third recommendation that the department should take responsibility for the effective and appropriate use of available mechanisms to manage individual detainees’ vulnerabilities or risks.  

The report raised a concern that detainee management plans appeared to be generic in nature, with little or no evidence of the supports available to empower detainees to manage their own welfare or behaviour, 

The Department of Home Affairs has agreed with the recommendation, saying it does take responsibility for the effective and appropriate use of available mechanisms to manage individual detainees. 

In its response to the report, the department said it valued the ombudsman's oversight of immigration and agreed with most of the report's recommendations.

The department noted the watchdog’s “broad satisfaction” with its response to COVID-19 across detention facilities, after the ombudsman conducted visits in 2020 to assess its handling of the coronavirus threat.

4 min read
Published 30 June 2021 at 6:28pm
By Tom Stayner