JRS Staff came together to share their experiences working in detention and explored ways to promote alternatives for refugees and asylum seekers. (Photo by Oliver White, JRS Asia Pacific).
Asia Pacific, 8 April, 2011  Oliver White is the regional communications and advocacy officer for JRS Asia Pacific. Oliver recently returned from the workshop which was focusing on solutions for Thailand, Indonesia and Australia, and will share an introduction to detention issues from his colleagues in the region.

Q: What is detention?

A: Detention is a big issue in the Asia Pacific. Essentially, detention is a means for a country to control its borders. Governments claim the right to detain people for national security and public health reasons.

UNHCR’s guidelines on detention refer to detention as “Confinement within a narrowly bounded or restricted location, such as prisons, closed camps, and airport transit zones, where freedom of movement is substantially curtailed.”

Because countries are using detention to deter people from migrating, refugees and asylum seekers are incresingly detained for long periods of time. They are living in poor conitions, with limited or no access to those who can assist them in gaining refugee status and resettlement.

Q: Who is detained?

A: Many different people are detained, usually for overstaying a visa, entering the country in a way that is considered illegal, or not applying for work permits. This can include refugees, asylum seekers, economic and irregular migrants, and trafficked people. Some of these people are fleeing violence, others are women and children, others have disabilities. Many have faced trauma in their home country from torture or war and as a result should not be detained.

Q: How do they end up in detention?

A: Well, there are many ways to wind up being detained. Many times, immigration authorities will round up groups of people who have overstayed their visas (see page 4) while seeking refugee status or resettlement. Others are detained upon claiming asylum at an airport and others are detained before they are deported back to their home countries.

Q: What are the conditions like in detention centres?

A: Conditions vary from centre to centre and country to country, but most people detained would agree that they are poor. Many immigration detention centres in the region have become overcrowded, placing dozens or even hundreds more people in a cell than was originally planned. With so many people living in a confined space, there are health and sanitation risks. Also, in detention centres around the world there have been documented cases of human rights abuses against detainees.

Q: What does JRS do in places of detention?

A: JRS works in detention centres in three countries. In Thailand our work has grown to providing medical and legal services and supplementing food. We also assist people financially who cannot afford to return to their country when it is safe for them to do so. 
In Australia, JRS provides pastoral services and general accompaniment in major detention centres. But JRS Australia has also been involved in providing housing for children in the community who are undergoing residential determination. 

Indonesia is our newest detention project. JRS is in one detention centre, accompanying refugees and asylum seekers, advocating for improved conditions and providing exercise classes and recreational activities. 

Q: What are the psychological impacts of detention?

A: There are numerous studies that document the psychological impacts of long-term detainment. Often the process of being recognised as a refugee is lengthy and asylum seekers are not well informed about the process. After becoming a refugee it can take a long time to be resettled to a third country. Months or years of not knowing one’s future causes great distress. The longer people are detained, the worse their condition becomes. 

Detainees can suffer from weight loss, insomnia, migraines and depression and even attempt suicide due to severe psychological stress. Detention centre staff describe how detention visibly affects the health of detainees. Unlike people sent to prison, the majority of detainees do not know when they will be released. This undoubtedly leads to psychological harm.

Q: Are there any alternatives?

A: Because of increased international awareness about detention there have been some positive steps toward detention reform. Hong Kong, Australia and Japan have all stopped or reduced the number of children detained.

A number of countries in Asia have taken steps towards providing alternatives to detention like Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Nepal and Japan. For example, in Indonesia a government directive allows refugees and asylum seekers who report regularly to immigration authorities to live in a designated area outside of a detention centre.

Q: What is JRS doing to promote alternatives in the region?

A: JRS Australia specifically has been instrumental in advocating for alternatives to detention in their country. JRS, with civil society and church groups, has worked to set up community housing for children as they undergo residential determination. They have partnered with the Red Cross and Marist Youth Care who provide youth workers to look after the children.

The Australian government has agreed to release all children by June 2011. JRS, with others, will continue to strive to find accommodation for all children living in detention.

Countries Related to this Region
Australia, Indonesia, Thailand