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“The Plight of People Living with Disabilities within Australian Immigration Detention: Demonised, Detained and Disowned”.

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“The Plight of People Living with Disabilities within Australian Immigration Detention: Demonised, Detained and Disowned”.









6.  People Living with Disabilities in Australian Immigration Detention

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) defines persons with disabilities as those who have ‘long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. [1]

NEDA is a strong proponent of the social model of disability, and recognises that societal and environmental factors, rather than an individual’s disability, are disabling and act as barriers to participation and equality. NEDA also acknowledges that persons with disabilities are not a homogeneous group and that people have different needs and capacities and contribute in their own unique ways to their communities.

Refugees with disabilities are faced with multiple and diverse challenges and are ranked among the world’s most vulnerable persons. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Detention Guidelines[2] states:

‘Asylum-seekers with disabilities must enjoy the rights included in these Guidelines without discrimination. This may require States to make “reasonable accommodations” or changes to detention policy and practices to match their specific requirements and needs. A swift and systematic identification and registration of such persons is needed to avoid arbitrary detention; and any alternative arrangements may need to be tailored to their specific needs, such as telephone reporting for persons with physical constraints. As a general rule, asylum-seekers with long-term physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments should not be detained. In addition, immigration proceedings need to be accessible to persons with disabilities, including where this is needed to facilitate their rights to freedom of movement’.

People living with disability who are mandatory detained are faced with additional barriers, and therefore are further disadvantaged than others within detention.  They have individual and unique support needs that must be met in order to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing and to ensure that they are able to participate in activities while living within detention.  

Data relating to people living with disability, their families and carers, in Australian run immigration detention facilities is practically non-existent. NEDA lodged a formal request for information with the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), and received a letter in response that did not provide specific data on people living with disabilities in immigration detention, yet did assert that:

‘Any detainee with a disability is referred for further specialist assessment, diagnosis and support, including the provision of assistive devices such as wheelchairs and hearing aids, as appropriate. Detainees are referred to public services where available or to private providers if required and in line with Australian community standards. Appointments are scheduled commensurate with public waiting lists’.

On a practical level this rarely appears to be the case. Evidence continues to demonstrate that people with disabilities in immigration detention not only face immense challenges, but are not having their basic needs met.

6.1 The data: disabled and detained, what do we know?

As at 30 September 2014, there were 268 people living with disabilities in onshore immigration detention facilities of which 219 were adults and 49 were minors; and 114 people living with disabilities at regional processing centres of which 109 were adults and 5 were minors.

Number of People living with Disabilities Detained in
Australian Immigration Detention, as at 30 September 2014
Onshore Regional Processing Centres (Manus Island, Nauru)
Adults 219 109
Minors 49 5
Total 268 114

Table 2: Number of Detained People with Disability  in Immigration Detention as of 30th September 2014.

Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection


The disabilities these people lived with, included:

  • Amputation;
  • Cognitive (dementia);
  • Developmental (Asperger’s disorder, autism, developmental delay)
  • Functional impairment (reduced mobility, deformity, multiple sclerosis);
  • Hearing impairment (hearing loss, deafness);
  • Visual impairment (blindness of eye, visual impairment, coloboma); and
  • Other (epilepsy and neuralgia)

Detailed data on the ethnicity of people with disabilities in immigration detention is not available, however the top five nationalities identified by the DIBP were[3]:

  • Iranian;
  • Stateless;
  • Afghan;
  • Iraqi;
  • Pakistani  

6.2 Children with disabilities in Immigration Detention

In July 2014 there were 28 children with disabilities detained in immigration detention, aged between 2 and 17 years old and who on average had spent 11 months detained.[4]

These disabilities these children lived with included:[5]

  • Vision disabilities
  • Hearing disabilities
  • Epilepsy
  • Developmental disabilities i.e. developmental delays, autism, reactive attachment disorder, conduct disorder
  • Spinal deformity
  • Congenital kidney anomaly

In addition, in July 2014 a total of 36 children residing in immigration detention were assessed as having a mental health illness or mental health disorder.[6]

The mandatory detention of children, more specifically children with disabilities, is not only unlawful but abhorrent. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recently published The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2015) thoroughly documents the negative impact that prolonged detention has on children’s physical and mental health and details how immigration detention is a dangerous place for children to live in. It provides compelling and numerous accounts of incidents of violence i.e. assault, sexual assault and self-harm, within Australian managed detention centres.

A prominent health care practitioner within the field of refugee health has informed NEDA that in Regional Processing Centres “there is sub-optional care for children with special needs because of little to no allied health services available, such as physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, audiology and dietetics.’[7]

Australia’s mandatory detention of children is at odds with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that dictates: ‘States have an obligation to take all appropriate measures to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation that includes sexual abuse Article 19(1)’.

Taking into consideration what is known about the invisibility of people living with disabilities within refugee communities, and the prior-mentioned obstacles to disability identification, it is probable that the number of asylum seekers living with disabilities currently detained is underreported.

NEDA would not be surprised if, in fact, the number of asylum seekers with disabilities currently detained was higher than what was reported.

This would most certainly be the case when considering less visible disabilities such as developmental delays, autism/Asperger’s syndrome and/or developmental delays.

[1] United Nations, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 1.

[2] UNHCR Detention Guidelines, 2012, ‘Guidelines on the Application Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Alternatives to Detention’, ,  

[3] Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection, February 2015.

[4]Australian Human Rights Commission, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, page 65, Available at:

[5] ibid


[7]Personal Correspondence to NEDA