Joint statement of disability organisations calling for the release of people living with a disability in immigration detention centres
Disability service providers from across Australia call for legislative change to end the detention of all people living with a disability and their families, following the release of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.
People living with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are between 2.3 and 3.3 million forcibly displaced people living with a disability, for whom resettlement options are chronically limited.
Locking people with a disability in detention is inhumane and unacceptable. We support the introduction of legislation to prevent this practice ever occurring in Australia again.
Fleeing persecution and civil unrest is especially fraught for people living with a disability, their carers and family. Disability does not protect people from persecution because of their race, religion or politics; it often makes them easier to target. Escape is often more risky for people with a disability and their family; the breakdown of services as a result of war more profoundly felt.
Once they enter refugee camps, people living with a disability are often the last to get food and medical care, and the first to develop infections and disease, and to die.
The findings of the report of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention demonstrate detention centres are dangerous, lacking specialist services, and likely to worsen the physical and mental health of children living with disabilities and their carers. The Inquiry found dozens of children with physical and mental disabilities were detained for prolonged periods.
As at July 2014 there were 28 children in detention who were assessed as having a disability. These children had spent 11 months in detention on average and were aged between two and 17 years old. Their disabilities included: hearing disabilities; vision disabilities; developmental disabilities including autism; developmental delays; conduct disorder; reactive attachment disorder; functional impairments including congenital heart disease and muscular dystrophy; epilepsy; spinal deformity; and congenital kidney anomaly.
The limited health care that can be provided in detention, particularly remote centres, is not suitable to respond to the complex treatment requirements of people with these needs.
As specialist disability services we are deeply concerned about the:
- danger posed by the detention environment, as demonstrated by the numerous incidents of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm involving children and adults. People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in this unsafe, high tension environment.
- limited paediatric care offered and therefore the ability of staff to identify disability in a detention environment (an issue raised in the first Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention Centres)
- lack of access to aids and equipment including people having their medication and equipment (such as hearing aids) confiscated and destroyed when they first arrive by boat, and little access to mobility or communication aids, or stimulation activities. 
- denial of essential specialist services due to remote location of centres. Many people require multidisciplinary, specialist assessment including speech therapy, behaviour therapy, physiotherapy, or occupational therapy.
- denial of the right to access effective communication through the lack of access to diverse language and communication supports, including sign language.
- profoundly negative impacts on the mental and emotional health and development of children. In the first half of 2014, 34% of children in detention were assessed as having mental health disorders, compared to less than 2% of Australian children. 30% of adults had moderate to severe mental health conditions. As disability services, we know the complexity of finding and providing care for people with dual diagnosis. Putting people with a disability in a context that breeds poor mental health is abhorrent.
- impact on carers, who carry the burden of care in exceptionally stressful conditions with limited support. The prison-like environment makes preparing foods, keeping loved ones clean, and moving people around the centre incredibly difficult (for example only two of eight centres in Australia have an accessible meal preparation area for parents to use at any time). A staggering 63% of parents in detention said they felt depressed all or most of the time; it is likely to be higher for those parents caring for a child with a disability. If a carer becomes unable to care for a child with a disability this could be catastrophic, as well as creating an exponential financial cost.
- denial of education, which is fundamental to all children’s development. The denial of access to education for more than a year of children held on Christmas Island suggests access to specialised education for those children living with a disability is even less likely.
We represent a broad collection of specialist disability organisations across Australia. We are calling for immediate legislative change to ensure no one living with a disability is again held in immigration detention centres in Australia or in Australian-managed centres off-shore, with particular urgency to protect the most vulnerable amongst them, the children.
We believe no one living with a disability should be forced to live in detention for prolonged periods of time without access to specialist healthcare. We believe no one living with a disability should be forced to live in conditions that are likely to worsen their physical and mental health. We believe that no person living with a disability should ever be sent offshore for processing and that this should be applied retrospectively.
While we acknowledge the Government’s efforts to release asylum seekers from detention, we believe that legislative change is essential to ensure that no one ever suffers like this again.
Effective alternatives to detention already exist in Australia including Community Detention and release into the community on bridging visas. We urge the Australian Government to expand the use of these alternatives, and ensure that they are used routinely for people living with disabilities who seek protection as refugees on our shores.Signatories to this statement are:
Australian Human Rights Commission (2014) The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, pg 65.
 Australian Human Rights Commission, Case Study 1, pg 68; Christmas Island doctors' letter of concern — in full. The Guardian 2014; Jan 13. http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2014/jan/13/christmas-island-doctors-letter-of-concern-in-full.
 Australian Human Rights Commission, pg 29.
 Australian Human Rights Commission, pg 63.