Alternatives to detention

Alternatives to detention

01 Aug 2011

La Trobe report sets out ‘five steps’ to manage migrants in a humane way

refugeeWith the Commonwealth Ombudsman launching an inquiry into high rates of suicide and self-harm attempts in immigration detention centres, a La Trobe University study has identified cost-effective and reliable alternatives to immigration detention that could help ease the pressure on the nation’s detention system.

The research proposes a five-step community-based management model that is cheaper, maintains high compliance rates and promotes better integration outcomes by limiting the use of detention.

The international study by Robyn Sampson found that most countries do not use detention as the first option – and that a number of countries rarely resort to immigration detention.

The study has published a ‘five step plan’ to ensure detention is only applied as the last resort.

Titled ‘There are alternatives: A handbook for preventing unnecessary immigration detention’, the study was a joint venture between the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre and the International Detention Coalition, an international network of 250 members from 50 countries.

The Ombudsman’s inquiry follows reports of new figures that reveal an average of three threatened or actual self-harm attempts across the detention centre network per day. In one week earlier this month, there were 50 such incidents.

Ms Sampson says ‘It is disturbing to hear that so many people have become so overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and despair.’

‘These feelings are common among people who have been held in captivity unjustly and who have no prospect of release or of being allowed to live a normal life in the future. Such symptoms are also seen in people who are serving time in jail for a crime they did not commit.’

Ms Sampson’s research highlights alternatives to detention that enable asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to live in the community with freedom of movement while their migration status is being resolved or while they are awaiting deportation or removal. The study describes such programs in countries including Spain, Belgium, Canada and Hong Kong.

She says Australia was included as having some of the world’s best programs for managing asylum seekers and irregular migrants in the community through growing use of community detention.

‘These programs could easily be expanded to reduce pressures within detention centres, especially as mandatory detention does not deter new arrivals, breaches human rights law and harms their health and well-being.’

The handbook and recommendations based on her research made an important contribution to a roundtable on alternatives to detention held by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in May.

Ms Sampson says the La Trobe research shows that asylum seekers and irregular migrants rarely abscond while awaiting the outcome of a visa application or status determination.

‘In the US, for instance,’ says Ms Sampson, ‘a Department of Justice survey showed that more than 85 per cent of asylum seekers who were living independently in the community without restrictions on their freedom of movement appeared for their hearings with an Immigration Judge, without any extra conditions being imposed.’

She says community-based options also cost less – saving at least AU$86 a day. They also reduce wrongful detention and litigation, overcrowding and long-term detention, while protecting human rights.

The research findings, packaged into a Community Assessment and Placement (CAP) model, outline the following five steps to prevent unnecessary detention:

•    A presumption against detention;

•    Individual screening and assessment to identify the needs, strengths, risks and vulnerabilities of each case

•    An assessment of an individual’s community circumstances to identify any support that may help them with immigration proceedings

•    Further conditions, such as reporting requirements or supervision, to strengthen their community setting and mitigate any concerns

•    If these conditions are shown to be inadequate, detention in line with international standards, including judicial review and of limited duration, may be used as a last resort in exceptional cases.

The research was supervised by Professor Sandy Gifford and Dr Ignacio Correa-Velez from the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre, assisted by Grant Mitchell, Director, and Lucy Bowring, Middle East and Africa Regional Coordinator, from the International Detention Coalition.

Ms Sampson is also researcher and co-author of a major study on the impact of long-term immigration detention ‘The meaning and mental health consequences of long-term immigration detention for people seeking asylum’  which  appeared in the international journal ‘Social Science & Medicine’ in June last year.

For a copy of the handbook for preventing unnecessary immigration detention please see:
Additional information from the International Detention Coalition can be found at

Ms Sampson can be contacted for media interviews on T: 9479 3268 (office hours) E:  or via Ernest Raetz (Media and Communications) 041 226 1919




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