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Life is extra risky for women in immigration detention

By Eva Cox and Terry Priest - posted Wednesday, 17 August 2005

In the last few weeks the Federal Government released all families with children from detention centres, so many assumed that most of the women in detention facilities were released. However, in figures dated August 3 but made public a few days later, there were still 54 women in detention facilities. As there has been no change in policy, we assumed correctly that some women remained in detention and others will continue to be locked up. These will be mainly overstayers or for visa breaches, not asylum seekers off boats. The figures show women becoming an even smaller proportion of detainees and this will require careful management to ensure that they are not put at further risks.

We started a report on women in detention some months ago before the Rau and other cases hit the media. We were concerned that women, who were in the minority, in a locked facility may be facing particular difficulties. We had heard stories from advocates and visitors suggesting there were problems that related to being women. Our research of the government reports then available already identified problems with both the contracts and administration in recognising the particular needs of women.

The Palmer Report (pdf file 1.16MB), and a second report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) a week earlier, provided evidence of specific problems which showed the management of the facilities could hardly be seen as competent. These findings suggest there are risks to women within such centres from staff and maybe also from other - often angry or distressed - inmates. Most of the cases that have hit the headlines have been women, both for being detained or deported illegally and for problems that are particularly gendered such as giving birth, managing children, sexual assaults and health care needs.


Our report on women in immigration detention facilities confirms that being female puts some detainees at additional risks. While women face similar issues to the men, they may also face assumptions about gender appropriate behaviours and prejudices. There are also the questions of meeting their differing needs relating to contraception, reproduction, mothering, healthcare and possible harassment or violence.

The treatment of Rau and Solon raises examples of possible gender biases that may also affect other women in DIMIA’s control. With Solon, the Palmer Report stated at least one worker assumed Solon was a trafficked sex worker, so we suspect ethnic and gender stereotyping may have affected her credibility. Cornelia Rau’s reported “abusive, unco-operative, prone to unprovoked violence and disruptive” behaviours may also have affected her treatment. Had she manifested more stereotypical forms of feminine distress, rather than aggressively defending herself, would she have been more easily and properly diagnosed as sick and not as manifesting conduct disorders?

What happens to other women who may have been sex workers? What happens to other women who may act in what may be seen by guards or other detainees as inappropriate ways? Are some constrained by cultural norms and social pressure or others made uncomfortable by being unable to find appropriate clothing or privacy? Single women may be at particular risk, given some of the cultural issues both for staff and other detainees.

These are questions that have been raised when there were more women in detention: now there are fewer they may find it harder to be heard. The detention facilities will continue to be a closed system, relatively free from outside scrutiny, and this increases the already existing risks of abuse of rights.

We need to recognise that DIMIA itself did not identify the flaws in the treatment of Rau and Solon, but it was other detainees and the media that raised the issues publicly. The well-publicised issues of unfair detention propelled major media interest and pushed the government to act. Had the pressure not been on, it is interesting to speculate on whether the Georgiou agreements would have happened. So the problems identified with Rau and Solon in the Palmer Report could well have continued to be overlooked were we dependent on government actions.

The reports by Palmer and the ANAO were not the first official critiques. ANAO had reported critically before and so had HREOC and the Ombudsman’s Office. Many of these reports make it quite clear that the systems of reviewing and monitoring the ways facilities are run are problematic but action by DIMIA was limited and sometimes non-existent, for example with HREOC report on children.


The two latest reports criticise the gross lack of compliance by DIMIA and the detention centre managers, Global Solutions Ltd (GSL), to stated government policy, as represented by the published Immigration Detention Standards. Even where the facilities do comply, the standards are limited and fail to cover many of the areas that particularly affect women. The government has reacted to revelations of lack of appropriate action by removing the cases that are raised from detention but not committing itself to substantial systems changes, which would protect future detainees.

These system failures put all inmates at risk but neither of the latest reports suggests major systems reform as this was not in their power. These limits to change are not appropriate as they leave a closed system in place, which can again hide its errors.

Our recommendations are therefore to put in place both more independent scrutiny, and alternative ways of implementing policy and extending and enforcing the existing, but inadequate, immigration detention standards. In order to deal with the gaps in the system, we also want these standards to be extended to deal with the special issues women face.

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Full copies of this paper are available from It was prepared by Eva Cox and Terry Priest, University of Technology Sydney, with funding from the Pamela Denoon Trust for Women’s Electoral Lobby.

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About the Authors

Eva Cox is the chair of Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia and director of Distaff Associates.

Terry Priest is a research assistant in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Other articles by these Authors

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