If people must be held in immigration detention facilities, they should be located in metropolitan areas not remote locations, a report into the Leonora immigration detention centre says today.

The report, released this morning by the Australian Human Rights Commission, calls for mandatory detention to be repealed and questions the effect of remote indefinite detention on children.

Opened in June last year, the low-security facility is located in Leonora — a small town of 1500 people in the Western Australian outback, approximately 850km northeast of Perth. Leonora is run by Serco and, according to the Commission, used primarily to hold children and families. The nearest major town is Kalgoorlie, nearly 230 km away.

Catherine Branson QC, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, says that the report raises key concerns about the effect of remote detention on children.

“Once again the Commission is seriously concerned about children in detention who have limited access to the basics necessary for their healthy psychological and physical development,” Branson said in a statement today. “The Commission acknowledges the efforts of staff at the Leonora detention facility, who are working in challenging conditions. However the hot, dusty and harsh physical environment of the facility makes it inappropriate for children.”

Source: 2011 Immigration detention in Leonora report

The centre’s remote location is of key concern, says the Commission, particularly when health services such as dental and specialist medical care located in Kalgoorlie.

While visiting Leonora, detainees complained to the Commission that there were long waiting times for dental care. Two pregnant women also told the Commission they had not yet seen a GP or been provided with access to an ultrasound. The centre’s location is also a problem in attracting and keeping good staff, according to the report.

In a string of recommendations to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Commission says that detainees — particularly children — should be held in cities, not outback towns:

“The physical environment of the Leonora facility is quite harsh. It is not an appropriate place to hold families with children in detention, particularly for long periods of time. The outdoor heat is often extreme, and there is a limited amount of grassy and shaded space inside the facility. A number of the outdoor areas consist only of red dirt … If people must be held in immigration detention facilities, they should be located in metropolitan areas.

The Leonora detention centre soccer pitch. Source: 2011 Immigration detention in Leonora report

The mental health of detainees was also a cause of worry to the Commission, with the centre’s remote location and lack of access to psychiatric services a key concern. During its visit to Leonora, the Commission also said that there appeared to be cases in which detainees should be considered for community detention placement based on mental health concerns, but they had not been referred. One detainee was quoted as telling the Commission: “Holding us here makes us stressed. We lose our tempers. We get unwell. By the time we get our visas it is too late.”

In another recommendation to DIAC, the Commission advocated that the decision to detain a person, or a decision to continue a person’s detention, is subject to prompt review by a court. Mandatory detention — particularly that of children — also comes under the spotlight in the report, with the Commission urging the federal government to repeal the policy.

In its response to the report, DIAC said that the recent influx of asylum seekers had made sourcing locations for detention centres difficult and this made remote locations necessary. DIAC also said that a number of concerns raised by the Commission — including dental care, mental health and the care of pregnant women — had also been noted and acted on.

At the time of the Commission’s visit there were 202 people in immigration detention in Leonora — 69 men, 67 women, 35 boys and 31 girls — and that these were all people who had arrived by boat and were seeking asylum.

Peter Fray

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