'We can’t continue living like this'

The desperate cycle for those in 'indefinite' detention in Australia

THERE have been 24 border-related deaths in Australia since February 2014, 19 were the result of self-harm, including four over the past six months up to April 2019, according to a Monash University database.

Iraqi refugee Ali Yousuf tried to end his life inside his cell at the Melbourne Immigration Transit facility in January 2019.

He arrived in Australia with his family in 2010 as part of a resettlement deal between Australia and the UNHCR. However, in 2015 he was convicted for numerous offences and sentenced to 18 months in prison. As a result, his refugee subclass D200 visa was immediately revoked, and he has languished in detention since 2018.

During his time in detention, his family was granted Australian citizenship.

Living in a state of 'indefinite' detention, whereby he's without a valid visa to remain in the country and unable to return to his homeland due to safety concerns, Mr Yousuf thought that ending his life would be a means to “end the suffering”.

“It’s better than living and causing other people pain, my family and friends are in pain because I’m not with them,” he says. “I wanted to relieve them.”

Following the incident and his medical treatment in hospital, Mr Yousuf was returned to detention.

“We can’t continue living like this, there is no privacy, there is nothing,” he says. "The other day my mother tried to send me a pillow case but they refused to let it in. I am not a criminal; this offence doesn’t deserve to be indefinitely detained."

Mr Yousuf's case is not unique. There are currently 1285 people in detention within Australia, including 101 woman and less than five children, according to the Department of Home Affairs. Between January 2013 and  August 2016, there were 1730 recorded incidents of self-harm in detention, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Lawyer Alison Battison, founder and director of legal advocacy group Human Rights for All, tells SBS she has seen numerous appeals approved by the courts for the release of asylum seekers from detention, with little outcome thereafter.

“I have a client who won three times in various review bodies and he is still sitting in detention,” she says.

Mr Yousuf says the "cycle" of court rulings, appeals and rejections has added considerable pressure: “You have all sorts of ideas going through your head."

“There are other people here who talk with me about killing themselves,” he says. “Everyone's mental health is deteriorating and lots of them tried things.

“We are not criminals, we are free, and we served our sentences, why are we detained?

“You are detained in a camp where there is a lot of people, but you don’t see them and they don’t see you.

“It makes you really sad about your situation.”

2014 reforms and the visa cancellation spike

When MP Tony Abbott was elected prime minister in September 2013, the Coalition set upon tightening Australia's migration laws, a move which continued policies introduced by the Labor government.

The laws were passed in late 2014, which proceeded to expand the powers of the navy to intercept and return boats to their countries of origin and to refuse permanent protection visas to refugees.

The implemented Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 removed most references to the 1951 Convention from the Migration Act 1958.

The amendments also expanded the definition of an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’ to include babies born inside Australia.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) and Immigration minister Scott Morrison arrive for House of Representatives Question Time  in Dept 2014.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) and Immigration minister Scott Morrison arrive for House of Representatives Question Time in Sept 2014.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) and Immigration minister Scott Morrison arrive for House of Representatives Question Time in Sept 2014.

Changes to Section 501

The amendments also included changes to the Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill, also known as Section 501 - the most significant was the introduction of mandatory visa cancellations for anyone found guilty of an offence incurring a 12-month prison sentence, replacing to the previous term of 24 months. The move meant that visas could be cancelled for offences such as reckless driving, fighting and possession of an illegal drug.

The amendments also limited parliamentary oversight and handed discretionary powers to one person, the minister for immigration and border protection.

The minister was granted the power to cancel a visa and stop a mandatory cancellation of a visa, as well as the ability to override an appeal tribunal or review body’s decision.

The law changes resulted in a 1400 per cent increase in visa cancellations and rejections on character grounds between 2013-14 and 2016-17, which is illustrated by the graphic below, from the Home Affairs Department.

In the year before the reforms, the total number of cancelled and rejected visas based on character grounds was 159. In 2016-17, the number peaked at 1903 visas, before dropping to 1442 in 2017-18.

Among the 1285 people currently in detention inside Australia, 409 were detained because their visas were cancelled as part of Section 501 changes.

Still from a web page on the Home Affairs website with recent statistics.

'Significant concerns'

The Australian Refugee Council of Australia noted in a 2018 submission that it held "significant concerns" over the "continuing expansion of executive powers under the visa cancellations framework, and the undermining of safeguards and independent scrutiny".

The organisation said it held concerns "that the exponential increase in visa cancellations has resulted in refugees languishing in indefinite detention".

"We have also consistently stated our concern that such legislation undermines the rule of law and the principle of equality of the law."

'I can’t be deported or given a visa'

Palestinian-Syrian refugee Ibrahim* has been a detainee at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney for more than a year and half.

Following his arrival by boat in 2013, he was placed into detention in Darwin before he was released on a bridging visa. He spent two years in Adelaide before moving to Sydney. To extend his stay in Australia, he applied for the Safe Haven Enterprise visa (SHEV), a temporary protection visa introduced by the Abbott government during the 2014 reforms.

However his application was rejected following an interview with the department, he says on the grounds that he didn’t hold the relevant personal documents. “I lost everything in the war, I fled Syria with no papers,” he says.

Former Villawood detainees take to a roof inside the detention centre as a form of protest in Sydney, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007. 

Former Villawood detainees take to a roof inside the detention centre as a form of protest in Sydney, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007. 

Former Villawood detainees take to a roof inside the detention centre as a form of protest in Sydney, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007. 

Ibrahim is now waiting while his appeal is heard. He says the uncertainty and fear around his appeal is taking a heavy toll on his mental health.

“Me and others’ mental health statuses are really bad,” he says.

“If you committed a crime and went to prison, at least you know when you will be released, but in immigration detention, there is no date, it is forever.”

Ibrahim says he’s personally witnessed an "increasing rate of self-harm".

“The last person who committed suicide wasn’t eating, he lost his weight and barely left his room, but no one cared,” he says.

“He should have been in hospital not in a detention centre.”

Ibrahim says detainees "have lost hope in the system, some of them started doing drugs and other became addicts inside the centre".

A report from the Australian Human Rights Commission noted a "strong association" between past detention, especially detention for longer than 180 days, and ongoing poor mental health in people living in the community.

The report said the mental health problems ranged from depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The average detention period in Australia jumped from an average of under 100 days in 2013, to 511 days in 2018.

A snapshot from Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary from the Home Affairs Department.

A snapshot from Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary from the Home Affairs Department.

A Border Force spokesperson says there are mental health services available to all detainees: “All detainees are offered a mental health screening within 72 hours of arriving in immigration detention followed by regular mental health assessments performed at six, 12 and 18 months.”

“At three monthly intervals thereafter or as required. Detainees must undergo an independent psychiatrist assessment if they have been detained for more than 18 months.”

But Ibrahim doesn’t think the services are enough to tackle the mental health issues in the centers, saying “there are doctors you can go to if you want, but people here don’t do this, because they don’t believe anything will change if they did so".

“I don’t know right now what are my options, I can’t travel and I can’t have a visa. I feel that the government is waiting for us to die by suicide one after the other.”

*Not his real name

'Almost impossible' to contest

Human rights lawyer Alison Battison says people in detention are on a “removal pathway,” and have either reached the end of their appeal line, or are in the process of deciding to appeal their detention.

Explaining the process, she says detainees can appeal to various review bodies and if they get a ruling in their favour, it then proceeds to the minister who issues a "notice of intention".

“It’s an incredibly time consuming, money consuming process,” she says.

“They win, they get referred back, they get rejected by the minister and then they do it all again.”

She says the 2014 law changes made it “almost impossible” to contest a decision made in reference to Section 501, pointing that the minister's decision cannot be appealed.

Ms Battison says Australia is the only western country that "arbitrary and indefinitely detains" asylum seekers.

An Australian Border Force spokesperson highlights that: “Individuals, who have exhausted all options to stay in Australia, are encouraged to leave Australia. There is no requirement for them to remain in detention in Australia."

“The time an individual spends in immigration detention depends on a range of factors, including the complexity of their case, the legal processes they pursue and whether they voluntarily choose to leave Australia.”

Readers seeking immediate assistance or support contact: Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au.

Suicide Call back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Kids Helpline (up to age 25) 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au

For further information contact: Beyondblue 1300 224 636 www.beyondblue.org.au, Mental Health in Multicultural Australia www.mhima.org.au