Mandatory detention might remind you of after-school rubbish-collecting fun, but it really isn’t that great. Especially not for the 8,797 people caged in razor-wire facilities on Australian territory as at 30 April 2013.

Of these, 6,302 were detained on the mainland and 2,495 on Christmas Island. One-fifth of them were children.

Predictably, IMAs made up most of the detainees, at 96 per cent. A quarter were Iranian nationals, followed closely by Sri Lankans, and then Afghans.

The mandatory detention policy was introduced in its fundamental form in 1992. Essentially, asylum seekers are held while they undergo a case-by-case assessment process to determine whether they are genuine refugees, including security and health checks.

Children in detention, January 2009 - April 2012


The costs

The 2012-2013 Budget estimated that DIAC would incur an asylum-related expenditure of $5 billion between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, with the assumption that arrivals remained at 450 per month. More than 3,000 people arrived by boat in both April and May this year. That’s a lot of people who will end up in detention, and a lot more money spent than expected.

But those aren’t the only costs — let’s not forget the human price of detention.

Refugee advocate Fabia Claridge regularly visits the asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre. “These people, they survive persecution, war, bomb-blasts,” she says. “But when they come to a country that they think is safe, they are in a sense psychologically and emotionally tortured by the detention system, and that’s the thing that undoes them. It’s like a recurrent nightmare.”

The Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman, Colin Neave, released a report titled ‘Suicide and Self-harm in the Immigration Detention Network’ in May this year.

It disclosed that between July 2010 and April 2013, there were 11 deaths in detention, most of them ruled in coronial inquiries to be suicides. It also revealed that almost 14 per cent of self-harm incidents in 2010-2011 involved children.

According to the report, there exists a strong correlation between average detention time and self-harming behaviour, which is where the good news (yes, shock horror) comes in: the average period of time an asylum seeker spent in detention decreased from 277 days in November 2011 to 86 days, as at 30 April 2013.

That’s somewhat commendable, taking into account the spike in arrivals… Although Fabia would shake her head vigorously and say that it’s frankly still 86 days too long.


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