Failing immigration detention system in dire need of review

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Born in strife-torn Sierra Leone, an orphan at nine, Moses Kellie arrived in Australia aged 21 with a humanitarian visa in hand and the dream of a new life. Thirteen years later, Kellie was found dead in his cell at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

Kellie’s tale is not just about a young man who lost his way, but also one of several deeply troubling accounts of serious failings in Australia’s justice and immigration detention systems uncovered through a series of investigative articles by The Age’s Charlotte Grieve.

Those articles have exposed a rottenness at the heart of the immigration detention system just as the government is scrambling to prop it up after a High Court finding that indefinitely incarcerating people is unlawful. Thursday’s news that a boat had arrived carrying 12 people from Indonesia will only increase scrutiny on the immigration and detention systems here and offshore.

The Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre.Credit: Fiona-Lee Quimby

The investigative series casts an extremely unflattering light on an area many Australian policymakers would prefer was never discussed amid accepted political wisdom that punching down on immigrants, particularly those with a criminal conviction, is often a vote winner.

Never mind that many accept that the test of a society is how it treats its most marginalised members. This characterisation certainly applies to Kellie. His childhood was filled with violence, drugs and alcohol.

Within a few years of arriving here, unable to find work, Kellie fell through society’s cracks. Living homeless in Sydney’s Centennial Park, Kellie’s mental health deteriorated. The still unsolved murder of Redfern resident Anthony Cawsey in the park triggered a series of events that not only led to Kellie’s death, but exposed a little-known practice of intelligence sharing between police and politicians across Australia.

Legal experts believe the practice undermines fundamental principles of a democratic society, including being considered innocent until proven guilty.

When laws were introduced in 2014 making visa cancellations mandatory for non-citizens sentenced to more than 12 months in prison, a new punitive frame was put on the calculus. A character test must be passed to remain in Australia.

Kellie was one of the first people affected. He was never tried over the murder that police wrote to the minister about due to a lack of evidence, but he was jailed for five years on separate charges related to stealing a phone, possessing a knife and assault. That was enough for his visa to be scrapped.

When Kellie challenged the visa cancellation, NSW Police crossed the line, insisting in an email to then-minister Peter Dutton that: “There is no doubt from our perspective that Kellie murdered [the Redfern man] by stabbing him in the chest with a knife.”

Based on what? Evidence that was twice judged insufficient to present in court. He died before a decision was made on his visa. An Age investigation has found that police forces around the country are lobbying the federal government to deport non-citizens, pointing to suspected crimes not proven in court.

The investigation then exposed the conditions for those awaiting a decision on their deportation – including many held for years but not covered by the High Court decision.

Interviews with detainees and staff backed up by leaked documents, videos and photographs reveal a dysfunctional system.

UN special rapporteur on torture Alice Edwards.Credit: Cordula Treml

Drugs are rampant, according to everyone except Serco, which will have received more than $4.6 billion from the government to run the centres by the time its current contract expires next year. Detainees, guards and even the Australian Border Force say drugs and alcohol are easily obtained.

These centres are not jails and they are not set up or staffed as jails, yet we have filled them with criminals, mixing minor offenders with serious offenders.

All are owed a duty of care by the government holding them in our name, but the investigation has revealed glaring holes in their healthcare, particularly mental health, which is staggering given the strain of uncertain detention.

It has also been demonstrated that violence is commonplace, with guards feeling unable to maintain security.

As of August, there were still 1025 people held in this so-called system. Many do not know when they will get a decision on their character assessment or are waiting for their cases to go through the courts.

The average time people spend in immigration detention is 708 days, with more than one in 10 (11.7 per cent) detained for longer than five years.

“It just does your head in,” one detainee told Grieve. “If you don’t know when you’re getting released, you don’t know what’s happening, nobody tells you anything. In prison, you know when your release date is, so you can plan your release date. Here, it’s more of a lifetime sentence.”

One New Zealand woman told Grieve she had been in detention for two years after a one-year prison sentence for evading arrest.

Is this justice as we would hope to see it meted out? Few will feel pangs for many of the serious criminals released after the High Court decision, but our courts do not put people in prison forever, except in extremely rare cases.

This is because we have accepted that prison should not be indefinite, and where people require conditions after their release, that is how as a society we should handle risk.

As lawyer Sanmati Verma eloquently put it in The Age earlier this month, these people have served their sentences for the crimes they have committed.

Their prolonged incarceration in broken, understaffed centres rife with drugs and unaddressed mental health, is unacceptable. That none of the relevant ministers saw fit to make any comment in response to this week’s revelations is beyond disheartening.

Alice Edwards, the Australian-born United Nations special rapporteur on torture, says it is an unacceptable, violation of human rights.

Her suggestion for a thorough investigation of the entire system seems like one the government should take up.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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