Leading Australian human rights advocates have asked a UN oversight body visiting Australia to rule on whether treatment of asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention amounts to cruel and degrading treatment, or even torture.

The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) arrived on Sunday to investigate whether Australia is meeting its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in places of detention, including immigration detention.

A collective of leading human rights organisations and academics have raised a range of serious concerns about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and the Australian Government’s long history of ignoring findings and recommendations. They ask the Subcommittee to advise the Australian Government ‘in clear, specific and robust terms’ to:

• review and reform Australia’s system of mandatory detention; 

• make laws preventing indefinite detention and set a maximum timeframe for detention;

• improve conditions of detention, including by ending the use of spithoods and solitary confinement;

• require a minimum standard of healthcare in detention, in line with Australian community standards; and

• review the use of regional processing on the basis that Australia cannot avoid its obligations under OPCAT even when it deprives people of their liberty outside national borders.

Signatories to the letter: 

Public Interest Advocacy Centre, The Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International Australia, Refugee Casework and Advice Service, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, The Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney, SCALES Community Legal Centre, Human Rights For All, Professor Mary Anne Kenny, Dr Anthea Vogl and Dr Sara Dehm.

Madeline Gleeson, Kaldor Centre Senior Research Fellow says:

'Many refugees and asylum seekers flee torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in their home countries, only to face risks of the same when they reach Australia. It is legal to seek asylum, yet over the past few decades, punishment has often replaced protection for people seeking safety. This visit offers a timely opportunity for a comprehensive review of the need for and nature of immigration detention of people seeking asylum in Australia’.

Lucy Geddes, Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) Senior Solicitor says:

‘Australia’s immigration regime is deliberately harsh and intimidating, even for people who have a right to seek our protection from persecution. In PIAC’s view, the emphasis on deterring asylum seekers has resulted in cruel and degrading treatment of people in immigration detention, so we welcome scrutiny by the experts on the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture.

‘By signing OPCAT, Australia has committed to ensure we are not treating people in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way and it’s past time for us to be held accountable for that commitment.’

Sanmati Verma, Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) Managing Lawyer says: 

‘People are being locked up in record numbers and spending longer than ever in immigration detention – there are people in detention today who have been there for a decade. A decades-long policy of mandatory detention, coupled with creeping visa cancellation powers, have led to this impasse. It requires immediate and urgent attention.’  

Hannah Dickinson, ASRC Principal Solicitor, says: 

‘The severe harm being done to people in immigration detention is inexcusable and must end.  Indefinite detention is built into the law, and over years, cruelty – from isolation, inappropriate restraint, neglect, years-long uncertainty, and denial of basic rights – has become a conspicuous feature of the Australian system.

‘We welcome the visit and scrutiny of the UN Subcommittee, and call for urgent reform.’

You can read the joint letter to the Subcommittee here

Image credit: Illustration by Cecilia Humphrey.