In late December 2010, a rickety boat carrying nearly 100 asylum seekers crashed into the rocky cliffs of Australia’s Christmas Island, killing 50 people. What began as a tragedy turned quickly to unrest as asylum seekers in detention centers staged protests to draw attention to what they believed was the Australian Navy’s lackluster efforts to save those who died and the government’s decision to detain the survivors.
The shipwreck also roused critics of Australia’s detention policy, which calls for the automatic detention of all asylum seekers who arrive without permission (mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, or Sri Lanka). In March 2011, disapproval took a sharp turn to chaos as more than 200 detainees set fire to the Christmas Island detention center in a bid to escape overcrowded conditions and prolonged detention (the average stay is around 300 days, but some migrants have been held for as long as two years).
The riot followed a week of sometimes-violent protests over asylum application processing delays, and was just the first in a series of riots, fires, and violence at Australia’s detention centers throughout the year. High rates of self-harm and suicide among the detained also raised alarm about the mental health of asylum seekers under indefinite detention, of which there are currently around 3,000.
The Australian government sought a solution, announcing plans in May to transfer 800 of its asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for the resettlement of 4,000 refugees from Malaysia over the next four years. The plan was denounced by the international community and eventually overruled by the country’s high court.
In June, the Australian Parliament established a select committee to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the detention system, including its management, resourcing, potential expansion, possible alternative solutions, and the effect of detention on detainees. The committee is expected to report on its findings in March 2012.
Public backlash against a government’s immigration detention system, however, was not unique to Australia in 2011.
By mid-year, activists in the United Kingdom targeted the government’s failure to end the practice of detaining children in the country’s immigration removal centers, as had been promised in 2010. As recently as October, the UK government raised hackles by defending the practice of detaining children and families in order to expedite claims for asylum.
The number of children entering detention in the United Kingdom has been drastically reduced in the past year, however; 18 were detained in the second quarter of 2011 compared to 114 in the same period a year earlier. About 25,900 people entered immigration detention in the United Kingdom’s 13 facilities in 2010, and by the end of June 2011, a total of 2,685 remained there.
In the United States, reports of unacceptable conditions — poor sanitation, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate medical care — in detention centers throughout the country ramped up in 2011, triggering backlash from immigrant-rights groups. The Obama administration’s increased focus on immigration enforcement seemed to only intensify the objections: government statistics indicate that 363,064 immigrants were detained in 2010, 52.8 percent more than the 2005 level.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is in charge of administering the US detention program, claims it is actively looking into facility standards, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency responsible for detention and deportation of noncitizens ordered removed from the country, has stated it will investigate all allegations of misconduct.
Critics of the US immigrant detention system also expressed concern about the increasing privatization of detention facilities and perceived waste within the system. Several private firms manage a number of detention centers, and the US system of immigrant detention is expected to cost taxpayers $2.75 billion in fiscal year 2012.
In fact, private firms also run all of the detention centers in Australia and most in the United Kingdom. As in the United States, immigrant advocates in those countries have expressed mounting concerns about private contractors being in charge of civil detention. They contend it creates a disconnect with respect to the government’s responsibility to care for migrants. Poor conditions and ill treatment of detainees have been linked with private firms not meeting — or not being required to meet — government standards of practice.