A new report from the Human Rights Commission has damned Australia’s use of hotel detention as a breach of basic standards – but it is a practice the government has no plans to abandon. By Denham Sadler.

Hotel detention breaches human rights

A man smiles beside his own portrait painting.
Former detainee, activist and artist Mostafa Azimitabar.
Credit: Supplied

For 15 months, Mostafa Azimitabar’s only view of the outside world was a cement wall seen through tinted glass.

Azimitabar, a Kurdish–Iranian refugee, was brought to the Australian mainland in late 2019 under the short-lived medevac law. He needed treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complications relating to asthma.

Azimitabar was placed in hotel detention in Melbourne, with no fresh air, little access to the outside world and the constant presence of security guards.

“It was not a hotel. It was a prison,” Azimitabar tells The Saturday Paper. “My whole life for 15 months was a room and a narrow corridor. It was torture.

“There was not a window in my room. There was glass and I couldn’t open anything. In front of the glass was a cement wall. They were burying me alive.”

In a report released this week, the Australian Human Rights Commission found the government’s practice of holding people in hotel detention like this, known as alternative places of detention, or APODs, was in breach of basic human rights standards.

After conducting inspections of the hotels in Melbourne and Sydney, and interviewing people detained in them, Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay and an independent medical expert found the practice was having a significantly detrimental impact on the physical and mental health of the individuals, with little access to fresh air or the outdoors, a lack of privacy, limited activities and the presence of security guards outside the hotel doors.

The new report has already been largely rejected by the Department of Home Affairs, which signalled it would continue to use hotel detention as a normalised part of the immigration system. The department agreed to act on only two of the report’s 24 recommendations.

As of July last year, the average length of time an individual was detained in a hotel was 69 days. One person was kept in hotel detention for 634 days continuously.

Just under 80 hotels across Australia were designated as APODs under the Migration Act as of mid last year, with seven in use at the time.

In July 2020 there were 238 people detained in APODs, many of whom were asylum seekers brought to Australia under the medevac law, as Azimitabar was. This figure has declined recently, and there were 33 people in hotel detention at the end of last year, most being those who had their visas cancelled under the character test.

The commission found the conditions in hotel detention had “consistently fallen short of minimum human rights standards”.

“They are confined to hotel rooms where you could see the outside life going on around you,” Finlay tells The Saturday Paper. “The thing that struck me, speaking to individuals, was that sense of helplessness and a lack of hope – that was really profound. For people spending an extended period of time in there, it’s really traumatic.”

Azimitabar says his time in hotel detention has had a lasting impact on his health. “I have been broken massively,” he says. “I am very sick – I smile all the time but I am very vulnerable, I am very sick. I am suffering so much.”

Azimitabar, who now lives in Sydney on a bridging visa, is now suing the Australian government over his time in hotel detention, challenging the legality of the designation of APODs.

Finlay says there are worries that hotel detention could be used more in the future.

“That’s something that really concerns us,” she says. “Hotels simply aren’t suitable to be used as places of detention and we have significant concerns about the way that they are a regular part of our immigration network – and they don’t actually ensure minimum human rights standards.”

The report found people in hotel detention were largely confined to their rooms, leading to social isolation and entrenched loneliness. They were often more restricted than if they had been in a low-security immigration detention centre.

“The sole purpose of being here seems to be torture,” the report quoted one person being held in hotel detention as saying. “To be made to suffer like this, it is not possible for them to be human, they must be aliens.

“Two or three years ago I could think about life outside but now I am not capable of envisaging outside at all. I have no imagination; everything is blurry and now I can’t see anything.”

Azimitabar says he was barely able to leave his room during his detention, and never without a security escort. He was pat-searched more than 400 times, exacerbating his PTSD.

“When they touch my body, I feel they put needles in my body,” Azimitabar says. “I went to see a doctor to tell them to please stop this. Before seeing the doctor they did a pat-search of my body; after seeing them, they did a pat-search.”

Those in hotel detention are often handcuffed before being taken to medical appointments. This medical care, when available, was significantly limited, the Human Rights Commission found, with some individuals having to wait six months for dental treatment and multiple individuals being diagnosed with latent tuberculosis only after being released from hotel detention.

Professor Suresh Sundram, an independent medical expert who assisted the Human Rights Commission with its report, says hotel detention is taking a “serious toll on people’s physical and mental health”.

“The health impacts are particularly concerning for those who have pre-existing conditions or who have experienced trauma,” Sundram says. “Many people with chronic conditions have not received the medical care they need, which is extremely concerning.”

Many of the APODs in use are also currently functioning hotels, making the situation even more distressing for the people detained in them. “It’s a tease,” one person in hotel detention told the commission. “Mocking you because you’re so close to everything.”

In its response to the report, Home Affairs did not agree with most of the recommendations.

“There remains an ongoing need to retain existing hotel APODs to support the short stay placement of illegal foreign fishers, those requiring rapid removal after being Refused Immigration Clearance, and those detainees considered too vulnerable to place within immigration detention centres,” the department wrote in its response.

The department only agreed with two of the commission’s 24 recommendations, disagreeing with five and noting 17. The two it agreed with were that it review the management of Covid-19 in the immigration detention network and the procedures around the notification of legal representatives when their clients are set to be released.

The department said Australian Border Force had “actively reduced” its use of hotel detention. It claimed the placement of people in these facilities was based on their individual circumstances and the “good order” of the detention centres.

Home Affairs “noted” the recommendation that all individuals detained in hotels must be able to access fresh air in the rooms where they were being held.

In its response, Home Affairs also pointed to the “generalised and anecdotal statements” included in the Human Rights Commission’s report and said these “cannot be verified from a factual perspective”.

Finlay welcomed the reduction in the use of hotel detention but criticised the department’s response to the report and its dismissal of the commission’s human rights concerns.

“We acknowledge and welcome the release of people from APODs and the reduced numbers, but we are really disappointed that there are a significant number of recommendations that have been made in various forms repeatedly by us and other oversight bodies that continue to be noted but where we don’t seem to see changes actually happening,” Finlay says.

“Oversight is an incredibly important thing to happen but it’s the next step that’s really critical. Shining a light isn’t enough if it doesn’t lead to the necessary changes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "‘They were burying me alive’".

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