Boost drug search powers, make immigration detention ‘last resort’, watchdog says

<span>The AHRC has made a number of recommendations in a report on the Yongah Hill immigration detention centre in WA.</span><span>Photograph: AAP</span>
The AHRC has made a number of recommendations in a report on the Yongah Hill immigration detention centre in WA.Photograph: AAP

The Albanese government should abandon mandatory immigration detention and boost drug search powers to help fix a system that is “not fit for purpose”, the human rights watchdog has warned.

Immigration detention should be time-limited and “only be used as a last resort” if a non-citizen is a risk to the Australian community or of absconding, the Australian Human Rights Commission has said.

The AHRC made that recommendation in a report by the human rights commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, into the Yongah Hill immigration detention centre (YHIDC) in Western Australia, released on Monday.

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Finlay wrote that although the “key concerns have been raised repeatedly for many years” there has been “an increase in critical incidents across the whole immigration detention network” as the population shifts from asylum seekers who arrived by boat to people whose visas have been cancelled on character grounds.

“There has also been an increase in behaviours frequently associated with the prison system, including trafficking of drugs and other contraband, bullying and standover tactics and violence,” Finlay wrote in her foreword.

“A majority of the people interviewed during this inspection of the YHIDC told us that they felt unsafe in detention.”

The AHRC report found that the “lack of access to healthcare” – including mental health services – and “the infiltration of drugs and alcohol and related violence … are creating an environment of heightened risk, and are causing significant harm to people”.

The report noted powers to search detainees or their rooms are limited to if staff have a “reasonable suspicion that a weapon or escape tool has been concealed”.

Random searches are limited due to legal advice and there is “no power to search for illicit substances or other contraband”, it said.

It recommended the government amend the Migration Act to allow “targeted personal searches and room searches to be conducted where there is reasonable suspicion that drugs are being concealed”.

The AHRC said that “a majority” of detainees “reported that they are unhappy that they lose access to programs they used to have in the prison system”.

That echoes a submission by the commonwealth ombudsman to the Senate inquiry into Labor’s deportation bill, which said mandatory minimum prison sentences might not deter non-cooperation because detainees prefer prison to immigration detention.

In response to the AHRC report, the home affairs department rejected seven of its 33 recommendations and referred a further six to government, including replacing mandatory immigration detention with a case-by-case assessment and boosting drug search powers.

The department said that random room searches “are not prohibited”. It “partially agreed” with a recommendation for wastewater testing, and said it had already implemented “increased counselling, harm minimisation, and rehabilitation services” which the AHRC had labelled “inadequate”.

The AHRC called for an independent review of healthcare services to “urgently” improve out-of-hours and emergency care, access to clinical staff and mental health and trauma services.

The department rejected this recommendation, arguing that the “existing health governance framework supports the provision of health services and clinical risk management” in the centre.

The AHRC also called to reduce the use of physical restraints, such as handcuffs, during medical transfers; and for legislation banning the use of spit hoods in immigration detention.

The report recommended decommissioning two “inadequate” low security compounds and replacing them with smaller compounds, to reduce the heightened risk of criminal behaviour, as well as other safety and privacy concerns. But the department said infrastructure improvements “would require significant financial resourcing”.

After its election in 2022, Labor examined alternatives to held detention, including the creation of an independent review panel to release low-risk detainees.

In September Guardian Australia revealed that in 2020, Peter Dutton’s home affairs department was warned that immigration detention was “failing”, including because visa cancellations were sending “prison-hardened” people into detention – increasing risks including drugs and violence.

The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, said at the time that immigration detention should be a “last resort” and “people should only be in immigration detention if it is necessary for security or safety grounds”.