The following paragraphs about the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Refugees are from the website of the UN High Commisioner for Refugees:
Liberty is a fundamental human right, like asylum. As a general rule, detention of asylum-seekers is not acceptable. It is particularly undesirable when those detained include the very vulnerable — children, single women, and people with special medical or psychological needs, such as torture victims. They are not criminals; they have already suffered great hardship and jailing them is wrong.
The 1951 Convention specifically bars countries from punishing people who have arrived directly from a country of persecution (or from another country where protection could not be assured), provided that they present themselves speedily to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry. Monitoring (through reporting obligations or guarantor requirements) is often a perfectly viable alternative to imprisoning asylum-seekers.
Detention is only acceptable if it is brief, absolutely necessary, and instituted after other options have been implemented. Acceptable purposes include to verify identity; to determine the elements on which the claim for asylum is based; the protection of public order; or, if necessary, in cases where refugees have destroyed documents or used fraudulent ones. Detained asylum-seekers should always be informed of their rights – including the right to challenge their imprisonment. All asylum-seekers must maintain the possibility of contacting the local UNHCR office, other agencies, and a lawyer.
The Australian government policy violates the above convention in the following ways:
- It is applied without discrimination to all unauthorised refugees including, children, single women and torture victims.
- It is neither brief or necessary. Detention of refugees can last for weeks months or even years while their application makes its way through the bureaucracy. Australia is the only country in the developed world to imprison refugees. In other countries they are generally released into the community while their application is being processed.
- Refugees in detention centres are not informed of their rights to the UNHCR, refugee support groups or legal representatives. In fact the Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate them from such groups.