BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: The Crisis in Australian Immigration Detention

Friday 21 February 2020 9.30am – 12.30pm

Facebook live stream videos of the event are here:

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

Organised by The Refugee Advocacy Network, an informal network of groups and individuals active in refugee advocacy in Victoria, and hosted by the Melbourne Law School

WELCOME Prof John Tobin, University of Melbourne
CONTEXT Alison Battisson, Human Rights for
All STORIES FROM THE INSIDE – a former detainee and regular visitors to refugees in immigration detention
PANEL PRESENTERS will be followed by an open discussion
Moderator Prof Philomena Murray, University of Melbourne


In March the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) will both visit Australia to look at the use of detention. Australia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in 2017, which obliges each Australian state and the Commonwealth to set up National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs), to monitor and report on all places of detention, including immigration detention centres. The SPT is visiting to review progress on the establishment of monitoring processes (including the involvement of civil society) and it is anticipated that some places of detention will be inspected. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will also visit detention centres.

Concerns about the situation of refugees and people seeking asylum in detention include arbitrary and indefinite detention, lack of appeal processes and an increasing level of control exercised over detainees and those who seek to visit and support them.

The Behind Closed Doors symposium will bring together a diverse group of experts – academics, human rights, legal and medical professionals, advocates and policy makers to:

  • Provide accurate information and promote informed discussion about the injustices within the current detention regime for refugees and people seeking asylum
  • Raise awareness about OPCAT and Australia’s obligations to establish robust monitoring processes.
  • Discuss the key issues and policy alternatives, and how to leverage the scrutiny of the United Nations to promote changes in policy.

Panel presenters – BEHIND CLOSED DOORS symposium 21 February 2020

Edward Santow has been Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission since August 2016.

Ed leads the Commission’s work on technology and human rights; refugees and migration; human rights issues affecting LGBTI people; counter-terrorism and national security; freedom of expression; freedom of religion; and implementing the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).

Ed’s areas of expertise include human rights, public law and discrimination law. He is a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Human Rights and the Fourth Industrial Revolution and serves on a number of boards and committees.

David Manne is a human rights lawyer and Executive Director of Refugee Legal. He has worked in various capacities assisting refugees and asylum seekers for over 20 years. Since 2001 he has lead Refugee Legal teams in successfully arguing 10 out of 10 landmark High Court challenges.

David sat on the Board of the Refugee Council of Australia and currently sits on the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Ethics Committee and the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness Advisory Board. He has been appointed to the UN

High Commissioner for Refugees Advisory Board of Eminent Persons. He is regularly invited to present at the UN High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges.

David has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and is frequently named as one of Australia’s leading immigration lawyers in the Australian edition of Best Lawyers.

Guy Coffey has worked for more than 30 years as a clinical psychologist in public mental health facilities and specialist psychological trauma services, with a primary focus on the assessment and psychological treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. He provides forensic psychological reports to Victorian courts and psychological evidence for refugee status assessment and in character cancellation matters. He has also worked as a lawyer for asylum seekers seeking judicial review

of protection applications. Guy has published a number of studies of the mental health consequences of immigration detention.

He has also been an instructing solicitor in High Court challenges to the lawfulness of immigration detention. Recent projects in addition to his clinical work have included:

  • developing guidelines for the UNHCR regarding protection claims made by psychologically vulnerable applicants
  • providing training to DHA protection officers regarding psychological considerations in assessing refugee claims
  • acting as a member of the Medevac Independent Health Advice Panel
  • participating on the working group updating and revising the Istanbul Protocol (the principal document used by courts and investigators to guide the documentation of torture pursuant to the Convention Against Torture)

Dr Claire Loughnan is a lecturer in Criminology, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Her research examines the institutional and ethical effects of the externalisation of responsibility for refugee protection, with a focus on offshore processing and detention. Claire is a team member of the EU- funded, international Comparative Network on the Externalisation of Refugee Policies.

Background briefing 

OPCAT and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 

What is OPCAT?

The Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) is a United Nations treaty which requires countries ratifying it (States Parties) to set up a comprehensive regime for monitoring places where people are deprived of their liberty. These include immigration detention facilities, prisons, juvenile justice facilities, police custody, mental health and social care institutions.   Strong independent monitoring can provide vital protection for people held in detention.   OPCAT is intended to help States Parties prevent torture and ill-treatment, as required by the UN Convention against Torture.

Why is it important to Australia now?

Australia held discussions about ratifying OPCAT over many years, and finally ratified it in December 2017.  It has three years to implement OPCAT, so is required to have nominated or established independent monitoring bodies for all places of detention by the end of 2020. 

How does OPCAT work to prevent torture and ill-treatment in places of detention?

OPCAT provides for two levels of protection for people in detention.  

The first is a network of monitoring bodies for all places of detention: ‘National Preventive Mechanisms’ (NPMs).  These bodies – which may be based on existing bodies such as Ombudsman offices and Prisons Inspectorates, or may be newly established bodies – must be fully independent of government and properly resourced, and must be able to inspect all places where people are deprived of their liberty, without giving notice, with full access to people and information, with power to make recommendations and to report publicly, and with protections for anyone giving them information. 

The role of NPMs is to carry out regular inspections, and make recommendations for change, in order to prevent the occurrence of torture or other ill-treatment.

The second level of protection is provided by the United Nations Sub-Committee for the Prevention of Torture (the SPT).  The SPT is an expert international Committee which can visit any place of detention in States Parties and recommend actions.  It can also advise and assist countries that have ratified OPCAT with the establishment of their NPMs. 

When visiting countries which have ratified OPCAT, SPT members can meet with State officials, NPMs, representatives of national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, and any other people who can provide relevant information.  It can then provide recommendations and observations to the government, and to the NPM, in a confidential Report. The SPT will publish its report and recommendations if asked to do so by the State Party. The SPT also produces a public Annual Report on its activities.

What is the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention?

This is a group of experts which reports to the UN Human Rights Council on practices of arbitrary detention.    It can investigate individual complaints and can make country visits. When it makes a country visit it has discussions with the government, and judiciary, national human rights institutions, representatives of civil society and others, to understand and report on any practices of arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

What is happening in Australia?

  1. Australia ratified OPCAT in December 2017 and announced that the Commonwealth Ombudsman would be the Commonwealth NPM.  It is also the National NPM Co-ordinator, and will co-ordinate the state and territory NPMs when these are established.
  • All states and territories must nominate or set up their NPMs by the end of 2020. To date only WA has done so.
  • The SPT has announced that it will be visiting Australia between 29 March and 9 April 2020.    The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) will also be visiting Australia, from 10 March to 23 March 2020.  The practice of the SPT and the WGAD is to hold open invitation meetings with civil society during the visit.  

Prepared by Prof Bronwyn Naylor, RMIT University

You can download the report to OPCAT below: