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Australia: End Indefinite, Arbitrary Immigration Detention

A Month Since Tennis Star’s Deportation, No Change for Detained Refugees

A protester outside the Park Hotel calling for the release of refugees being detained inside the hotel in Melbourne, Australia on January 8, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Hamish Blair

(Sydney) – Australian authorities continue to indefinitely detain 32 refugees and asylum seekers at the same facility where Novak Djokovic was held, one month since the world tennis star’s detention brought international attention to their plight, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Australian government should immediately end its harsh and unlawful policy of indefinite and arbitrary immigration detention of refugees and asylum seekers. It should adopt alternatives to immigration detention, Human Rights Watch said in a new submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which is considering a bill to end indefinite and arbitrary immigration detention.

“The world learned about Australia’s cruel approach to refugees and asylum seekers during Novak Djokovic’s encounter with the immigration detention system,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “With an Australian election expected soon, all political parties should reject the indefinite, arbitrary immigration detention of refugees and asylum seekers.”

Successive Australian governments have used detention of refugees and asylum seekers as a form of deterrence. Under international human rights law, immigration detention should not be used as punishment, but rather should be an exceptional measure of last resort. Conditions at immigration detention centers need to meet international standards.

The Australian Department of Home Affairs reported that 1,459 people are currently in immigration detention facilities in Australia. Those detained include more than 70 refugees and asylum seekers who were transferred to Australia from Nauru or Papua New Guinea for medical treatment. Many of them have spent long periods detained in hotel rooms in Australia with heavily restricted freedom of movement, and limited access to sunlight, space to exercise, and fresh air.

Mehdi Ali, a 24-year-old refugee from Iran who has spent the last two years detained at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where Djokovic was held, described his and a fellow detainee’s situation as “a real-life nightmare.”

“The residents of this building are desperately in need of freedom,” Ali said. “Some of them think about committing suicide every night before they go to sleep.”

Currently, the average period for people held in Australian immigration detention is 689 days; the highest ever recorded. This compares with averages of 55 days in the United States and 14 days in Canada. Australian authorities have also detained 117 people for five years or more, with 8 people having spent more than 10 years in detention.

The proposed law on ending indefinite detention makes mandatory immigration detention illegal, provides alternatives to immigration detention that are focused on the immediate needs of refugees and non-citizens, and dismantles Australia’s current offshore immigration detention policies. If adopted, it would help bring Australia in line with its international legal obligations and best practice in relation to immigration detention.

Community-based alternatives to detention have been successfully used in countries across Europe, Human Rights Watch said. Alternatives have proven not only more humane than detention, but effective in achieving immigration enforcement goals at a lower cost.

“Detaining people solely due to their immigration status is harmful, expensive, and ineffective as a deterrent to migration,” Pearson said. The Australian government should stop punishing those who may have fled violence and other injustices and offer rights-respecting alternatives to detention.”

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