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Immigration detention in hotels is harmful, wasteful – and profitable

The prolonged detention of people in hotels is an inefficient use of taxpayer funds that benefits the coffers of private service providers while causing incalculable suffering and harm to people’s health and wellbeing.

That is a clear conclusion from an Australian Human Rights Commission report, ‘The Use of Hotels as Alternative Places of Detention (APODs)’, which makes 24 recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs after identifying a raft of concerns.

However, the Department of Home Affairs appears unlikely to address these concerns, accepting only two of the recommendations, and disagreeing with five recommendations – including rejecting a call for the public release of a 2020 Departmental Review into mental healthcare in immigration detention – while merely “noting” the remainder.

The report raises concerns about the harms of prolonged hotel detention to detainees’ physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as a lack of transparency, fairness and consistency in many processes and outcomes for detainees.

The Commission identified cases in which closed immigration detention did not appear justified, and reiterated previous recommendations for alternatives to closed detention, including that the Minister and Department routinely consider all people in closed detention for release into alternative community-based arrangements.

Healthcare concerns

The report gives many examples of detainees having inadequate access to healthcare. For example, several people were diagnosed with latent tuberculosis only after being released from hotel APODs.

When asked about these particular examples, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) staff indicated that all detainees would be screened for tuberculosis before their transfer to Australia, and that this should have been identified either in this initial screening or in subsequent regular assessments. “The Commission was informed that it would be ‘incredibly rare’ for this not to be identified, and yet it appears that there were at least several examples of this occurring,” said the report.

Community health providers also told of former detainees with significant physical and mental health issues, with many having dental or medical issues requiring urgent attention. “The evidence presented to us suggests that there were significant limitations in the way that medical needs were addressed in hotel APODs,” says the report.

Other key concerns identified in the report included social isolation and confinement in rooms, entrenched loneliness, lack of privacy, and a lack of access to shared facilities, activities, outdoor space and fresh air.

“The lack of access to sufficient outdoor space and shared facilities for exercise and recreation appears to be [a] key factor contributing to the significant decline in the physical and mental wellbeing of those detained in hotel APODs,” said the report.

Worse than jail

Many detainees said that conditions in the hotel APODs were worse than in other immigration detention facilities due to the lack of access to programs and activities.

“Similarly, a number of individuals who had previously served sentences of imprisonment in adult correctional facilities commented that they had access to a wider range of programs and activities in prison than they had in the hotel APODs,” said the report.

Departmental policy means people detained in immigration detention centres are not allowed to access programs and activities that lead to a qualification or certification. One person told of having to give up enrolment in a TAFE course after being released from prison and transferred into a hotel APOD.

“People held in hotel APODs appear to be significantly more restricted in the range of programs and activities that they are able to access when compared to people held in other immigration detention facilities, or those detained in adult correctional facilities,” the report found.

One individual stated that “in jail, I had jobs to do and a routine. There’s none of that in here. In here I have nothing to do. I would rather be in jail”.

Expensive

The report also finds that hotels as alternative places of detention are not cost-effective. The average administered cost per annum of detaining a person in hotel accommodation was estimated at approximately $471,493 per person in 2019-20. By contrast, the average cost of supporting a person in the community was between $16,652 and $46,490.

“Hotels are intended as short-term accommodation options,” says the report.

“They are not designed to be used for lengthy periods of detention, and are not appropriate for this purpose. For this reason, the Commission reiterates its previous conclusion that hotel APODs should only be used in exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible time. They should not be used as long-term places of detention under any circumstances.”

The report includes findings from the Commission’s inspection of hotel APODs in Brisbane and Melbourne, and interviews with detainees and detention service providers, Serco and IHMS, as well as community-based services.

The report says there is no complete list of all previously designated hotel APOD facilities (and the dates during which they were operational), nor an indication of how many people have been held in APODs since their establishment. It is known that there were, as at 31 July 2022, 77 hotels approved as APODs under the Migration Act, with seven in operation.

Since the inspections that informed the report, most people detained in hotel APODs have been released, and the average period of time spent in hotel APODs has significantly reduced.

“Even with this reduction in numbers, it is the Commission’s view that examining the past and continued use of hotels as APODs, and the impact this has had upon the people who were (or are still) detained, is important. It is our intention that this report will not only document the recent use of hotel APODs and help to improve current conditions and policies, but will also influence future policy decisions around the use of APODs in Australia.”

Lengthy detention problematic

As at 31 July 2022, the average length of time detainees had spent in hotel APODs was 69 days. The longest continuous period of detention in a hotel APOD was 634 days.

The report said that time spent in hotel APODs cannot be considered in isolation, with many people – particularly those within the Medevac cohort – having also spent long periods in other immigration detention facilities.

The average length of time spent in immigration detention in Australia continues to increase, reaching 806 days as at 31 January 2023, and is far higher than in comparable jurisdictions.

For example, in the United Kingdom in 2021, 76 percent of all detainees had been in immigration detention for fewer than seven days. In Canada, the average length of detention was 24.1 days between July and September 2021.

The report found that the length of time spent in detention, and the continuing uncertainty of their situation, was contributing substantially to a worsening of detainees’ physical and mental health.

One hotel detainee said:

The sole purpose of being here seems to be to torture. To be made to suffer like this it is not possible for them to be human, they must be aliens.

Two or three years ago I could think about life outside but now I am not capable of envisaging outside at all. I have no imagination; everything is blurry and now can’t see anything.”

One organisation that works directly with current and former detainees said that while many had experienced torture and trauma before arriving in Australia, “it is the secondary trauma caused by the detention environment and related systemic issues that has further exacerbated, perpetuated and prolonged clients’ psychiatric presentations and lack of treatment responsiveness”.

The Commission acknowledged contributions to the report by Dr Suresh Sundram from Monash University and Monash Health, who assisted with the inspections as an independent medical consultant, and the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) for training provided to Commission staff.

Commercial determinants of trauma

Meanwhile, The Independent newspaper in the UK reports that “an Australian travel firm previously slammed for its handling of COVID quarantine hotels has been quietly handed a £1.6bn contract covering the UK’s new asylum accommodation ships”.

Corporate Travel Management was put in charge of the lucrative two-year arrangement in February, weeks before the UK Government revealed it would use a barge as its first offshore accommodation for asylum seekers.

The contract was awarded directly to the company, without competition. Ministers have repeatedly refused to detail the projected cost of Rishi Sunak’s controversial asylum vessels, while insisting they will be cheaper than using hotels that are currently costing £6m a day.


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