In Australia, the indefinite detention of refugees is legal, as a new bill allows the government to cancel their status.



On May 13, the government rushed through legislation that allows Australia to keep refugees in detention centres for the rest of their lives. The legislation was one of the first laws passed under new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. At the same time, the Tamil family from Biloela was stuck on Christmas Island, with Andrews considering letting the family leave detention, but not the island, and certainly not returning home to Queensland.

As she said at the time, “the welfare of that family on Christmas Island is clearly an issue that I have turned my mind to …I am seeking advice on that at the moment and I will continue to seek advice…in terms of other accommodation that may be available to them on Christmas Island, that’s an ongoing discussion that I am having with our officials…I will make a response in the not-too-distant future.”

The Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021 targets refugees in immigration detention who cannot return to their home countries because of a risk of persecution or serious harm.


This is a breach of international law and contains no mechanism to prevent the indefinite detention of those who cannot be returned.


It’s worth noting that the legislation notionally provides protections against sending people to harm, it also gives the Minister a new power to overturn refugee status. This is a breach of international law and contains no mechanism to prevent the indefinite detention of those who cannot be returned. Through the warped idealism of the law, we’d be keeping refugees in detention for their own safety.

As the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) noted, “…the legislation is an attempt to shield the Morrison Government from legal challenges currently in the courts against the lifetime detention of refugees. In April, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights raised concerns that the legislation would result in fewer checks on indefinite detention and had sought clarification from the Minister. No response was published before the legislation was rushed through Parliament.”

The bill was introduced in late March and officially passed both houses today.

As David Burke of HRLC said, “…the legislation exposes Minister Andrew’s willingness to leave growing numbers of refugees languishing in detention without any plan.

“The government should not have the power to lock people up for potentially the rest of their lives without any safeguards. This forces refugees into an unthinkable choice between spending potentially decades in immigration detention, or agreeing to go back to a country where the Federal government recognises they will be persecuted. These new laws allow the Morrison government to warehouse people who have nowhere else to go.

“There is no justification to give the Minister a new power to cancel refugee status. The Minister should not be able to waive a pen and overturn the fundamental protection the government has given someone whose life is at risk. Refugee status should never be a day-by-day proposition.

“Government decisions about who is detained, on what grounds and for how long, are matters that need more oversight, not less. We urgently need changes that do more than forcing people to choose between languishing in immigration detention or being forced back to harm.”




A decade ago, less than 3% of those in immigration detention were detained for more than than two years. In 2021, that figur has ballooned to 30%.

As the HRLC noted, “the average period that a person is detained after being taken into immigration detention in Australia has increased steadily from less than 100 days in mid-2013 to more than 600 days at the end of 2020. This is vastly more than comparable jurisdictions, such as the UK and Canada, where people are more often detained for a period of days or weeks.

“In contrast, it is now not uncommon for people to be held in detention in Australia for five years or more. Australia has no legal framework for reviewing keeping someone in immigration detention is appropriate or necessary, and no limit on how long they can be held.”





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