UN expert voices ‘serious concern’ over detention conditions for immigrants in Australia

31 July 2002

Immigrants in Australia can face long periods of detention, children are sometimes separated from their parents, and due process is often inadequate, according to a report released today by a United Nations human rights expert who just returned from the country.

In his report, P. N. Bhagwati, the Regional Advisor for Asia and the Pacific of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former Chief Justice of India, welcomes the positive efforts underway to improve the situation, but voices “serious concern” about what he witnessed during visits to two detention centres while in Australia from 24 May to 2 June.

The situation of immigrants at the Woomera centre, in particular, could in many ways be considered inhuman and degrading, according to the report, which documents how the expert met men, women and children who had been held for up to two years. “In virtual prison-like conditions in the detention centre, they lived initially in the hope that soon their incarceration will come to an end but with the passage of time, the hope gave way to despair,” he states, calling what he saw “a great human tragedy.”

The expert decries conditions at Woomera facing young boys and girls “who instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, were confined behind spiked iron bars with gates barred and locked preventing them from going out and playing.” Traumatized by the experience, many children, out of “utter despair,” ended up harming themselves.

In addition to calling attention to the problem of children in detention, the expert raises concern about the fact that some individuals are held for “unduly long periods,” the absence of proper judicial review of the detention itself, detainees’ lack of adequate information about their rights, and the absence of an independent body to continuously monitor the situation.

The Australian Government had agreed to the visit following a request by High Commissioner Mary Robinson earlier this year. Today, the High Commissioner “fully endorsed” the report, and urged the authorities to review the concerns expressed and seek appropriate ways to address them.


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