The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has admitted it has the ability to use capsicum spray on detainees in Australia’s onshore immigration detention centres. In an apparent change of policy, hundreds of reported “use of force” incidents in Australia’s onshore immigration detention network could have included the use of capsicum spray on detainees, but it is unclear whether or not capsicum spray has actually been used on detainees.

In February, Fairfax (no link due to strike) revealed that so-called “use of force” incidents where security officers had to intervene or restrain detainees in Australia’s immigration network based in Australia (excluding Nauru and Manus Island) had more than doubled between February and April last year, compared to a similar period between August and October in 2015, up to 230 incidents per week from 100 incidents per week. This came despite a decline in the total number of detainees held on onshore detention centres. These stats came from several documents released under FOI law.

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Fairfax reported that the use of restraints in particular was a cause for concern, with reports of the elderly or those in wheelchairs being forced to wear restraints while being transported. When questioned about the report in Senate estimates, Border Force commander Roman Quaedvlieg said that the definition of “use of force” could vary depending on who exactly is being subjected to the use of force: from those needing medical treatment to those attempting to escape to those who had their visas cancelled on character grounds:

“If there is a detainee who is threatening to commit, or actually demonstrating, self-harm, there is justification to use force to prevent that from occurring. If, for example, a detainee is scaling a fence to try to escape a facility, the use of force is justified. If we are moving people into a community setting for the receipt of medical, health or other treatments and they are an escape risk — which is risk assessed — we may apply restraints.”

In response to a question on the actual definition of “use of force” the department said it included “drawing, aiming, striking or discharging the baton, firearm or chemical agent and ‘force’ as any verbal command or physical action to gain subject control”. The chemical agent is capsicum spray, according to the department:

“Chemical agent, means oleoresin capsicum spray or any other irritant or inflammatory spray, or device, of a type which has been approved by the Comptroller-General of Customs or his or her authorised representative for use by an officer in the exercise of statutory powers, and that is an approved item of personal defence equipment for the purposes of section 189A of the Customs Act 1901”

This comes in contrast to the previously reported department position that “under no circumstances are chemical agents, including sedatives, tear gas, pepper spray or capsicum spray used in immigration detention”. The department did not state whether capsicum spray had been used on detainees. Crikey sought clarification from the department but had not heard back by deadline.

In response to questions from Labor, the department also revealed there are two types of restraints used to hold detainees in the detention centres:

The department didn’t respond directly as to whether these restraints were used on the elderly or disabled as had been claimed, but said that “application and approval of restraints is appropriate and proportionate to the threat and risk of harm to the individual detainee and of others.” Physical condition, age, and mental condition are all taken into account, according to the department.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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