June 6 2002 – United Nations officials today strongly criticised Australia’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers, describing the Howard government’s policy of incarceration as an abuse of human rights.
Many of those detained were affected by “collective depression”, due to uncertainty about if and when they might be released, the UN officials said.
The Australian government immediately rejected the criticism of the visiting UN group, which it said had raised “no substantive issues” against its treatment of illegal immigrants.
“The detainees live day-in, day-out with an agonising uncertainty … about the duration of their detention,” said Louis Joinet, the chairman of the UN working group on arbitrary detention.
Mr Joinet and the working group have spent two weeks touring Australia’s five detention camps, housing asylum seekers – mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka – who were caught entering the country without visas.
Under Australian law illegal immigrants, including young children, are not freed until their applications for asylum are processed – which can take up to three years. If their applications are rejected they face deportation.
The UN group’s tour included an inspection of the notorious Woomera camp in the desert of South Australia, where asylum seekers have rioted, sewn their lips together and attempted suicide to protest against what they claim are inhumane conditions.
Mr Joinet would not comment today on conditions in the camps, except to say that the situation at Woomera was “dramatic” and the centres – which are surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire – were by no means “luxury prisons”. He said the group had serious concerns about the plight of asylum seekers in Australia.
“Our first subject of concern is the detention of … vulnerable people, particularly young children, unaccompanied minors, persons with disabilities, pregnant women and of course the elderly,” he said.
He said the UN officials had seen what they described as “collective depression syndrome” among asylum seekers behind the razor wire. “This time in detention is something that doesn’t happen to common criminals when they’re put in prison because their time is limited by law.”
The refugee application process is very slow, and “there is a lack of adequate information given to detainees on the status of their visa applications, with the result that it appears they are almost living in limbo,” he added.
At a separate news conference in Canberra, the Australian immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, said “no substantive issues were raised” when he met members of the UN committee.
Mr Ruddock also blamed some of the problems in the camps on visits by groups seeking information, such as the UN committee.
Detainees have tried to exploit the visits as opportunities to “impress their claims upon individuals whereby they then seek to self-harm and exhibit what some people call ‘collective depression'”, he said.