Australia holding immigration detainees for average of almost two years, freedom of information request reveals

by Paul Karp
At end of April there were 1,414 people in detention centres, 61% due to visa cancellations

Australia has an “intractable” caseload of people held in immigration detention for long periods largely due to visa cancellations on character grounds.

That was the advice of the home affairs department to the new immigration minister, Andrew Giles, in a brief revealing the average time spent in detention is 726 days.

At the end of April there were 1,414 people detained in the immigration network of 12 detention centres, 61% of who are there due to visa cancellations and 14% of who are “unauthorised maritime arrivals”.

The incoming government brief, released under freedom of information on Monday, warned that “the proportion of high-risk detainees in immigration detention has increased”. It also notes that 80% of detainees are assessed as “high to extreme risk”; 89% have a criminal history.

The brief noted that people with no lawful basis to remain in Australia “must depart” and the department seeks to “return or remove them to their country of origin or a safe third country”.

“However, there are a range of status resolution barriers that limit the department’s ability to effect return or removal in all cases,” it said.

“As a result, the department is managing an intractable caseload of individuals who have been detained or are at risk of being detained for prolonged periods.”

The brief noted that 41% of people detained had been in detention for more than two years, with almost a third of those in detention for more than five years.

“Many of these individuals do not satisfy the character requirements to be granted a visa.”

There is a “small cohort of finally determined intractable cases” that engage Australia’s obligation not to return refugees to a country they might be harmed, but “remain in held detention due to having a visa cancelled or refused on character grounds”.

The department noted the Albanese government had “indicated it would strive to reduce the time people spend in held immigration detention, including removal through third country removal options, and adjust character cancellation settings for New Zealand citizens”.

Advice on implementing these commitments was redacted, due to exemptions to freedom of information laws for matters that will be considered by cabinet or could affect operations.

In July the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, promised his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern that Australia would take a commonsense approach when applying the power to cancel New Zealand citizens’ visas, limiting its use on longterm residents of Australia.

The brief noted that non-citizens whose visas were cancelled on character grounds “are pursuing protracted review processes constitute a large part of the high-risk and long-term cohorts in immigration detention”.

Australia’s immigration detention network has a capacity of 1,400 to 1,600 detainees.

It has come under strain during the pandemic due to “continued inflow of detainees from prison, a decrease in ability to remove detainees from Australia, including international governments refusing removals, and constraints to obtain detainee travel documents required for travel”, the brief said.

It noted the $464m invested in the last Morrison government budget to increase capacity on Christmas Island from 1,000 to 1,500 detainees.

The brief notes in 2020-21 that 11,684 permanent protection visa applications were lodged and 1,389 granted, a refusal rate of almost 90%.

The department noted the closure of borders had reduced applications for protection visas onshore, and concluded opening borders “will likely result in an increase … which will continue to require significant resources to manage”.

It noted the number of cases of merits review before the migration and refugee division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal had ballooned from 19,474 at 30 April 2019 to 36,226 at 30 April 2022.

“This backlog of review cases places considerable pressure on immigration detention capability and contributes heavily to the number of bridging visa holders in the community,” it said.