Federal Politics


Asylum seekers: Ousted criminals raise level of violence in detention centres

Guards in Australian detention centres use force against asylum seekers more than seven times a day, Department of Immigration logs reveal.

Incidents have been in response to detainees who have armed themselves with scissors, smashed glass doors and brutally attacked staff and each other, as the government admits to a rising tide of violence.

The Manus Island detention centre houses asylum seekers who suffer a range of physical and mental disorders and where ...
The Manus Island detention centre houses asylum seekers who suffer a range of physical and mental disorders and where many regularly resort to self-harm. Photo: Andrew Meares

Fairfax Media understands a powder keg atmosphere in detention centres has developed after an influx of criminal detainees whose visas were cancelled by the government, raising serious questions over the welfare of vulnerable families and children behind the wire.

Labor has accused Immigration Minister Peter Dutton of "inept" oversight of the detention regime and the Greens have urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene.

The Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, which will soon close.
The Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, which will soon close. Photo: Andrew Meares

It follows revelations by Fairfax Media on Saturday that self-harm in detention has reached crisis proportions.

Incident logs from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection covering one year, obtained under freedom of information laws, reveal an alarming portrait of violence in onshore and offshore detention centres, where 159 children remained detained as of late December.


The data shows that in the year to July 2015 there were 2685 incidents of force by guards against detainees in onshore detention – more than seven a day, on average. These were often in response to disturbances and assaults by detainees, and self-harm.

In addition to incidents of force, there were 262 serious assaults during the 12-month period, including attacks on staff by detainees, fights between detainees and assaults or domestic violence attacks suffered by clients in the community or in community detention.

A detainee at the Manus detention centre, pictured last year.
A detainee at the Manus detention centre, pictured last year. Photo: Andrew Meares

Among other violence at the centres, the logs show 221 major disturbances. 

In an incident at Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention centre last July, force was used to control a detainee "who had gone berserk throwing [a] pool ball".

At the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre guards disarmed a detainee who was wielding a pair of scissors, while at Sydney's Villawood a violent detainee "smashed cameras and a glass window and door".

A department spokesman conceded there had been "higher reported incidents of violent behaviour" in detention centres due to increased numbers of higher-risk detainees, many with criminal backgrounds.

Recent laws allow a person's visa to be cancelled if they are sentenced to 12 months or more in prison.

Many use-of-force incidents are pre-planned, which the department says involves "minimal" use of force when moving risky detainees "to ensure their safety and that of other transferees, the community and staff". 

It includes the use of "mechanical restraints" such as handcuffs, a controversial elbow/arm lock called the "enhanced escort position" or when guards escort detainees with a hand on their arm.

As Fairfax Media reported last month, the Australian Border Force last year took control of onshore detention and brought in a "command and control" regime that has allegedly overseen the handcuffing of physically and mentally ill detainees leaving the centre to visit doctors.

The documents show that at Villawood last July, mechanical restraints were used on three detainees who became "overly interested in the surroundings while on escort".

The federal government has proposed a bill that would give security guards in detention centres extra powers to use force, including causing grievous bodily harm if necessary.

A department spokesman said the bill recognises the "increasing numbers of detainees with criminal convictions".

The freedom of information requests were made by the University of Melbourne's Law Students for Refugees in conjunction with Fairfax Media.

The documents also reveal the extent of violence at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. In 12 months, guards used force against detainees on 50 occasions at Nauru and 55 at Manus. In addition, the logs show 42 serious assaults at Nauru and 12 at Manus.

In one incident, two gay male refugees who had been resettled​ in Nauru were hospitalised after allegedly being bashed by three local men while walking home from the supermarket.

Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles​ said increasing tension in detention was "a direct result of the uncertainty facing asylum seekers which the Abbott/Turnbull Government has exacerbated through bad policy and inept ministerial oversight".

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the situation was "unacceptable".

"There is no excuse for Mr Turnbull to turn a blind eye to these conditions, he must act. His Minister, Peter Dutton, is responsible for this misery and must be held to account," she said.

- with Inga Ting

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