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Monitoring and reporting on laws and policy - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

The year in review

Monitoring and reporting on laws and policy

Advocating alternatives to mandatory detention of asylum seekers

In June 2011, the Commission welcomed action taken by the Australian Government to move a significant number of families and unaccompanied children from immigration detention facilities to community-based detention.

The Commission has consistently advocated for the use of community-based alternatives, which are cheaper, more effective and more humane than holding asylum seekers and refugees in closed detention facilities for extended periods.

This approach is also consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.

Over the last decade, the Commission’s reports have all highlighted the serious impact that prolonged and indefinite detention has on people’s mental health, particularly those who have experienced torture and trauma.

Our concerns escalated in 2010-11, with evidence of the deteriorating mental health of many detainees. This included high rates of self-harm, a number of suicides and serious unrest in immigration detention facilities.

We continued to recommend that immigration detention be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.

At the end of June 2011, there were still more than 4500 asylum seekers and refugees held in immigration detention facilities across Australia.

In May 2010, the Commission expressed serious concerns about the Government’s proposal to send some asylum seekers to have their claims processed in Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951.

While recognising the need for regional and international cooperation on asylum seekers, we reiterated our view that the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia each year should have their claims assessed while living in the community.

Complaints under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act

In 2010-11, the number of complaints the Commission received under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act rose by 34% compared with the previous year. There has been an 83% increase in complaints received under this Act over the past five years.

Just over half (51%) of all complaints received under the Act this year alleged breaches of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The majority of these complaints were about immigration detention.

Native Title Report

The 2010 Native Title Report identified access to financial, technical and other assistance for Indigenous peoples as being essential to meaningful and effective consultation.

Inspecting immigration detention facilities

During the year, the Commission visited immigration detention facilities around the country to monitor conditions and speak directly to detainees.

This included visits to facilities on Christmas Island and at Leonora (Western Australia), Villawood (Sydney) and Darwin.

The reports of our visits included recommendations specific to each facility and about Australia’s migration policy.

We acknowledged positive steps taken by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to respond to issues we had previously raised, as well as the efforts of detention staff who work in challenging circumstances.

However, our reports highlighted a number of common concerns, including overcrowding, deteriorating conditions and the serious impact of prolonged and indefinite detention on the mental health of detainees.

Promoting and protecting the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

On 11 February 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, launched two major reports that assessed current human rights issues and concerns facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Alleged breach of human rights

The complaint was lodged on behalf of a young orphan. The complaint alleged that a decision by the Commonwealth to detain the child in an immigration detention centre off the Australian mainland, and away from his extended family in NSW, breached the child’s human rights. The complaint alleged that the Commonwealth had failed in its obligation to take into consideration the best interests of the child and that the action constituted an arbitrary interference with the family.

On being notified of the complaint, the Commonwealth advised that arrangements were already underway to address the issues raised by the complaint. The matter was resolved seven days later when a determination was made to move the child from an immigration detention centre into community detention in NSW.

The 2010 Social Justice Report and the 2010 Native Title Report also outlined the key priorities that will guide his five year term as Commissioner. They include:

  • addressing the disadvantage still experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • strengthening relationships between Indigenous peoples, governments and the broader Australian community
  • working to achieve a truly reconciled Australia.

The 2010 Social Justice Report set out how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will provide a framework for pursuing these outcomes.

It also described advances being made in the Fitzroy Valley to argue that community-led initiatives deliver the best outcomes for addressing social and health issues in Indigenous communities.

In addition, the report explored the significance of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

The 2010 Native Title Report reviewed a number of key developments in native title law and policy that occurred during 2009–2010, including the Native Title Amendment Bill (No 2) and amendments to the provisions of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007.

It also highlighted two key ways that governments can rebuild relationships with Indigenous peoples: by improving agreement-making processes and through committing to meaningful and effective consultation and engagement.

The Commissioner is required to produce the Social Justice and Native Title Reports on an annual basis. The reports, which include recommendations to improve laws and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are presented to the Attorney-General and tabled in Parliament.