The policy of mandatory detention in Australia (that is the legal requirement to detain all non-citizens without a valid visa) was introduced by the Keating (Labor) Government in 1992 in response to a wave of Indochinese boat arrivals.
Under this policy it is a requirement that ‘unlawful non-citizens’ (a national from another country without a valid visa) in Australia's migration zone are detained unless they have been afforded temporary lawful status through the grant of a bridging visa while they make arrangements to depart or apply for an alternative visa. Most are usually granted temporary lawful status in this manner, but if an unlawful non-citizen is considered to be a flight or security risk, or refuses to leave Australia voluntarily, they may be refused a bridging visa and detained in preparation for their removal.
Currently, all asylum seekers who arrive without authority by boat are detained and usually transferred to Christmas Island initially while their reasons for being in Australia are identified.
The main focus of Australia’s mandatory detention policy is to ensure that:
- people who arrive without lawful authority do not enter the Australian community until they have satisfactorily completed health, character and security checks and been granted a visa, and
- those who do not have authority to be in Australia are available for removal from the country.
While Australia’s detention population is comprised of unauthorised boat arrivals (also referred to as irregular maritime arrivals), some visa overstayers and certain other unlawful non-citizens, it is the (often lengthy) mandatory detention of asylum seekers who have arrived unauthorised by boat that attracts the bulk of the attention in the public debate.
Australia is not alone in detaining unauthorised arrivals in certain circumstances and many other countries around the world have onshore immigration detention or ‘reception’ centres. However, Australia is still the only country where immigration detention is mandatory for all unlawful non-citizens (including asylum seekers).
This background note provides a brief overview of the historical and political context surrounding mandatory detention in Australia. It includes government policy responses and a statistical appendix with data drawn from available sources, including committee reports, ministerial press releases and figures supplied by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC).