Australia holds immigration detainees for almost two years on average, Freedom of Information requests show

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Australia has an “intractable” backlog of people held in immigration detention for long periods, largely due to visa cancellations for character reasons.

That was the advice from the Home Office to the new immigration minister, Andrew Giles, in a brief which reveals the average detention time is 726 days.

At the end of April, there were 1,414 people detained in the immigration network of 12 detention centres, of which 61% are there because of visa cancellations and 14% are “unauthorised maritime arrivals”.

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The incoming government letter, released under freedom of information on Monday, warned that “the proportion of high-risk detainees in immigration detention has increased”. It also notes that 80% of detainees are considered “high to extreme risk”; 89% have a criminal history.

The card noted that people without legal grounds to remain in Australia “must leave” and the department seeks to “return or remove them to their country of origin or a safe third country”.

“However, there are a number of status resolution barriers that limit the department’s ability to effect return or removal in all cases,” it said.

“As a result, the department is dealing with an insurmountable caseload of people who have been detained or are at risk of being detained for extended periods.”

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The card noted that 41% of those detained had been detained for more than two years, with almost a third of those detained for more than five years.

“Many of these people do not meet the character requirements to obtain a visa.”

It is a “small group of finally settled intractable cases” involving Australia’s commitment not to return refugees to a country where they may be harmed but “remain in detention because of visa cancellation or character refusal”.

The department noted that the Albanian government had “indicated that it would strive to reduce the time people spend in immigration detention, including removal through third-country removal options, and adjust grade cancellation settings for New Zealand citizens”.

Advice on the implementation of these obligations was redacted due to exemptions from freedom of information laws for matters that will be dealt with by ministers or may affect operations.

In July, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern that Australia would take a sensible approach when using the power to cancel New Zealand citizens’ visas, and limit their use to long-term residents in Australia.

The brief noted that non-citizens whose visas were canceled due to character “pursue lengthy review processes constitute a large proportion of high-risk and long-term cohorts in immigration detention”.

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Australia’s immigration detention network has a capacity of 1,400 to 1,600 detainees.

It has come under strain during the pandemic due to “continued inflows of detainees from prison, a reduction in the ability to remove detainees from Australia, including international authorities refusing removal, and restrictions on obtaining detainees travel documents required to travel”. says the letter.

It noted the $464 million invested in the last Morrison government budget to increase capacity on Christmas Island from 1,000 to 1,500 detainees.

The brief notes in 2020-21 that 11,684 permanent protection visa applications were submitted and 1,389 granted, a refusal rate of almost 90%.

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Noting that border closures had reduced onshore protection visa applications, the department concluded that opening borders “is likely to result in an increase … that will continue to require significant resources to manage”.

It noted that the number of merits cases before the Migration and Refugee Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal had increased from 19,474 at 30 April 2019 to 36,226 at 30 April 2022.

“This backlog of assessment cases places significant pressure on immigration detention capacity and contributes greatly to the number of bridging visa holders in the community,” it said.

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