25 years of Mandatory Detention

25 years of Mandatory Detention:
An Overview of Key Events

The policy of Mandatory Detention has been ongoing for the past 25 years. This policy has taken numerous forms under numerous governments, on both sides of politics. Below are some of the key events which have taken place over the past 25 years.

1992 – The Migration Amendment Act (1992) is introduced, introducing the policy of mandatory detention into Australia as a temporary solution to ‘unauthorised boat arrivals’.

1994 – The maximum time limit of 273 days for mandatory detention was removed, leaving asylum seekers susceptible to prolonged and indefinite detention.

2001 – The ‘Tampa Crisis’– where 433 asylum seekers were rescued by the MV Tampa container ship after the overloaded fishing boat they were on became stranded.[1]. In response to this, the Border Protection Bill (also known as the Pacific Solution) was introduced by the Howard government. This new policy measure saw the opening of Offshore Processing Centres in places such as Nauru and Manus Island as a deterrent for ‘unauthorised asylum seekers’ (holding no valid visa) arriving by boat.

2005 – Community alternatives to detention in Australia were introduced by the Howard Government, with a focus on accommodating families with children. This meant that people could live in the community whilst waiting for their Visa applications to be approved. Despite this introduction, many people continued to be held in closed detention in centres.

2008 – The Rudd government ended the ‘Pacific Solution’ and closed the Offshore Processing Centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The asylum seekers which were being held in these offshore centres were subsequently resettled both in Australia and overseas.

2012 – The Gillard government re-introduced the Pacific-Solution as a means of addressing the increased boat arrivals during this time. This was followed by the re-opening of Regional Processing Centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Bec image 1

Figure 1 – Image sourced from Parliament of Australia website[2]

2013 – A change in policy (under the Rudd Government) meant that all ‘Unauthorised asylum seekers’ arriving by boat who were sent to Regional Processing Centres and were found to be refugees, would never be resettled in Australia.

2013 onwards – Onshore closed detention centres underwent changes prompted by the release of a Snapshot Report on ‘Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Human Rights’ by the Australian Human Rights Committee.[3] This report highlighted some of the key human rights concerns that arise from the mandatory detention of asylum seekers both onshore and offshore. Since then the number of people in closed detention centres in Australia has significantly reduced and the Australian Government has closed ten mainland detention centres with plans to close more. The people from these centres have now been transferred to community-based alternatives . [4]

Bec Image 2.png

Figure 2 – Image sourced from Australian Human Rights Commission[5]
2014 – The Australian Human Rights Commission announced a ‘National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention’.[6] This prompted a response from the Australian community as well as other organisations and eventually resulted in the introduction of the Migration Amendment (Free the Children) Bill in 2016. This saw the removal of children from detention centres into alternative community arrangements.[7] As at 28 February 2017 there are now less than 5 children in closed detention facilities in Australia; however this did not include Regional Processing Centres – where there are still 45 children living on Nauru.[8]

2016 – In May a media release was issued by the UNHCR stating that the prolonged detention on both Manus Island and Nauru was ‘immensely harmful’ and called for ‘refugees and asylum-seekers to be immediately moved to humane conditions with adequate support and services.’[9] During the same period of time the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the operating of Manus Island was illegal. Since then a US resettlement deal has been announced which will see the people in detention on Nauru and Manus settled in the United States. This deal recently came under jeopardy due to changes in the U.S. government, but has since begun processing case applications to determine eligibility for resettlement.[10]

Conclusion: 25 years of mandatory detention is 25 years too long. “The Salvation Army respects the right of the Australian government to maintain its sovereignty and preserve the integrity of its borders, while ensuring the safety and security of those people seeking asylum. Nonetheless, the magnitude of issues requires a compassionate and bipartisan approach from Australia’s major political parties”.[11] There have been major concerns with how mandatory detention has affected and continues to affect asylum seekers, in particular the length of time people are held in these centres. Currently the average length of stay exceeds beyond 2 years for 23.2% of people in detention in Australia.[12] The indefinite nature has been shown to be a mental health risk for these asylum seekers due to the uncertainty and lack of control of circumstances.[13] Whilst Australia continues to utilise the process of mandatory detention, other countries have explored numerous alternatives to this model. [14] It is yet to be seen whether mandatory detention will continue in Australia or if alternative models will be sought.


2001: Australian troops take control of Tampa carrying rescued asylum seekers

Australian Human Rights Commission



Global Trends in Immigration Detention and Alternatives to Detention

Government Legislation


Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary – 28 February 2017

Parliament of Australia


Refugee Council




The Salvation Army Policy Statements 2016-2017


[1] http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/tampa_affair

[2] http://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/2012-2013/boatarrivals

[3] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/snapshot_report_2013.pdf

[4] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/AHRC_Snapshot%20report_2nd%20edition_2017_WEB.pdf

[5] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/AHRC_Snapshot%20report_2nd%20edition_2017_WEB.pdf

[6] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children

[7] http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22legislation%2Fbills%2Fs1021_first-senate%2F0000%22;rec=0

[8] https://www.border.gov.au/ReportsandPublications/Documents/statistics/immigration-detention-statistics-28-feb-2017.pdf

[9] http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/news/press/2016/5/572862016/unhcr-calls-immediate-movement-refugees-asylum-seekers-humane-conditions.html

[10] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-20/refugee-processing-for-us-australia-resettlement-deal-begins/8368574

[11] https://www.salvationarmy.org.au/Global/News%20and%20Media/Reports/2016/Policy%20Statements%202016-2017/Policy%20Statement%202016%20-%202017.pdf

[12] https://www.border.gov.au/ReportsandPublications/Documents/statistics/immigration-detention-statistics-28-feb-2017.pdf

[13] http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/getfacts/seekingsafety/asylum/detention/key-facts/

[14] http://jmhs.cmsny.org/index.php/jmhs/article/view/14

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