‘Unsafe’ Yonga Hill immigration detention center labeled ‘not fit for purpose’ in new report

Key points
  • A new report has raised serious concerns about conditions at the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.
  • Most detainees interviewed told Australian Human Rights Commission inspectors they felt unsafe in detention.
  • Among the concerns was the lack of access to health care, including emergency services, out-of-hours services and mental health care.
Drug trafficking and inadequate health care in one are among the serious concerns of Australian Human Rights Commission inspectors.
Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay led inspectors on a two-day visit to the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Center in the remote town of Northam, about 95km northeast of Perth, in May 2023.
A report with their findings was published on Monday.

“Parts of Yongah Hill are no longer fit for purpose,” Finlay said. “A majority of those interviewed told us that they felt unsafe in detention.”

“The welfare and safety of both detainees and staff must be paramount, but there must be a nuanced approach,” Finlay added. “Safety is about how you treat people, not just how you keep them safe.”
The report, released on Monday, found there was a worrying “lack of access to healthcare”, including emergency services, out-of-hours services and mental health care, which “posed a very significant risk to people in detention”.
Many of those held at the center were detained due to visa cancellations based on character reasons.

Finlay said the cohort of people entering immigration detention has changed significantly over time.

A woman in a black jacket sits behind a microphone

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay. Source: MONKEY / Mick Tsikas

In December 2023, there were 872 people in immigration detention nationwide, the majority of whom were men. The average time spent in detention was around 625 days, significantly longer than the UK and countries such as Canada.

Inspectors reported an increase in behavior often associated with the prison system, including trafficking in drugs and other contraband, bullying and standover tactics, and violence.
The 80-page report also found that a lack of access to health care, including emergency services, out-of-hours services and mental health care, places inmates at significant risk.

The well-being of detainees at Yongah Hill was closely linked to the overall security of the centre, the report said. Some of those interviewed said they had been harassed or intimidated by staff.

They told the committee they were afraid to speak out because they would be threatened with points deductions. The center has a points system whereby detainees who participate in structured activities receive points that can be exchanged for items through the center’s canteen.
The committee made 33 recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs aimed at improving conditions at Yongah Hill and all other immigration detention centers under Australian jurisdiction.

The recommendations include reducing the use of physical restraints such as handcuffs during medical transfers, increasing staffing levels in some locations, strengthening search powers for staff where there was reasonable suspicion of drug concealment and an independent review of healthcare services.

The commission warned that drug infiltration and drug abuse are “a multi-faceted and complex issue”, adding that “it cannot be solved simply through stricter security measures”.
Home Affairs accepted or partially agreed with 20 of the 33 recommendations and disagreed with seven, while the remaining six required government consideration.
SBS contacted the Ministry of the Interior, which referred to its official response to the report.

The department said it “appreciates the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission in inspecting immigration detention centers such as the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Center and acknowledges the findings and recommendations published in this report.”

“The Department takes the safety and security of staff and detainees in immigration detention centers seriously,” the Home Office response said, noting that the Department “continually assesses program and policy settings and adjusts processes and risk management measures as necessary.”
In response to recommendations that the department dismantle the high-security complexes at Yongah Hill and replace them with multiple smaller, low-security complexes, it said it is “exploring options for infrastructure improvements at this facility, noting that projects require significant financial resources.” .
The inspection lasted six months who could not be transferred to another country could not be held in indefinite immigration detention.

“It is essential to ensure that community safety is not compromised, but also that the policy responses adopted are measured, proportionate and firmly anchored with respect for the human rights of all involved,” Finlay said.