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Indefinite detention causes serious harm

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Thursday, 20 February 2014

The ongoing controversy over how to respond to asylum seekers who come to Australia in boats has suddenly become even more serious, with one death and many serious injuries occurring in disturbances in and around the Manus Island detention centre. Whilst there have been many protests and disturbances in various detention centres run by Australia over the past couple of decades, nothing like this has happened before.

Regardless of whether or not you support the federal government's 'Stop the Boats' mantra, this incident raises the classic question of whether the end justifies the means. Supporters of the government's 'stop the boats' approach often say they do so because they are driven by concern for the safety of lives at sea. This is a concern shared by those with different views about how best to go about it.

The same humanitarian concern behind preventing people from the risk of drowning should also apply when it comes to the conditions in which asylum seekers under Australia's care are kept. This concern about the conditions asylum seekers might face was very loudly expressed by some Liberal MPs when they were opposing the former government's so-called Malaysia solution. The same concern must apply when it comes to the conditions in detention centres run and/or funded by Australia.


It will take some time before it becomes clear what has happened on Manus Island. Given the Minister and the government have gone out of their way to hide the facts about what is being done as part of 'stopping the boats', they can hardly be surprised if people are sceptical about whether the government will provide the full story about what has occurred in this instance. The continuing refusal to allow the Australian Human Rights Commission to have access to the centres on Manus Island and Nauru also doesn't engender confidence about the level of transparency.

This incident starkly highlights the dangers of government secrecy. When people believe they are able to operate in secrecy, they understandably assume that they are not required to be accountable to the wider community for what they do. Despite the rhetoric, this is not a war. It is difficult policy challenge, but it is not a war, so secrecy befitting wartime is not justified

Around ten years ago, during the first version of the Pacific Solution, I was able to visit the detention camps on Nauru on four occasions over the space of four years. The refugees had been confined there for over two years before those visits started and it was some time again before it was possible to get access to their files. By that time, a number of Afghani refugees had decided to return 'voluntarily' after prolonged pressure.

But when the claimants' files were finally examined by independent people, it was clear that the assessment process for the refugee claims of many detained on Nauru had been slipshod to say the least. There were interview records in the wrong persons' files, blatant errors in descriptions of conditions in claimants' homelands and claims being rejected solely because the claimant was not believed, with no detail on how that view was reached. In short, because Nauru had been set up to avoid people being able to appeal their claims to an independent Tribunal, the assessments were shoddy because the people making them assumed they would never be independently reviewed.

This is important because such assessments can literally be a matter of life or death. Most of those who were still on Nauru eventually got a fair assessment of their claims, but in the meantime hundreds of people had been returned to danger. It was subsequently shown that many of those people had to flee their homelands all over again, and in a few cases people ended up being killed before they could flee again.

There is much that is disputed regarding this area of public policy, but one thing which is beyond dispute is that prolonged, indefinite detention – even in the best conditions – is seriously harmful. Knowingly inflicting serious harm on people – particularly those who are already vulnerable – should not be an acceptable approach in a healthy democracy in any area of public policy.

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Former Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett is a Research Fellow with the Migration Law Program at ANU

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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