Immigration detention unsafe workplaces: ALA Report

6th Jun 2016

Immigration detention unsafe workplaces: ALA Report

6 June 2016

Immigration detention facilities are unsafe workplaces, ALA Report finds.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance (‘ALA’) is today releasing a ground-breaking 150-page report, Untold damage: workplace health and safety in immigration detention under the Work, Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), (‘WHS Act’). 

The ALA is a national association of lawyers, academics and other professionals dedicated to protecting and promoting justice, freedom and the rights of the individual.

The Report details serious concerns regarding compliance with legal obligations in Australia’s immigration detention facilities both onshore and offshore. Information received by the ALA under freedom of information laws reveals that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (‘DIBP’) has under-reported incidents causing physical and mental harm. Reluctance by the government workplace regulator Comcare to investigate these incidents, which included physical and sexual assaults, self-harm and suicide attempts, is also apparent. This is the first Report to provide a comprehensive overview of the operation of the WHS Act in immigration detention.

ALA spokesperson Greg Barns said that the Report establishes that the DIBP has a duty of care, under the WHS Act and at common law, towards all workers and detainees in immigration detention. This duty extends to offshore centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

“The DIBP has accepted this duty by reporting some incidents to Comcare, such as the death of Reza Barati on Manus Island.

“The burning of baby Asha on Nauru in January 2015, by contrast, does not appear to have been reported. Yet this baby was burned by water that needed to be boiled because there was no safe water available to drink. Surely an injury resulting from the absence of safe drinking water should be reported and investigated,” Mr Barns said.

From 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2015, the DIBP reported a total of 1,092 incidents to Comcare across all of its activities. The incidents involved office workers and workers and detainees in immigration detention facilities. Around 800 of these reported incidents involved asylum seekers – more than one workplace incident a day over this period.

“Many of the health and safety risks faced by detainees and workers are a direct result of being in the workplace in the first place. At best, the DIBP and Comcare seem to be unaware of or confused about their obligations under the WHS Act.

“Inadequacies in the legislation are also apparent. Some of the biggest threats to health and safety in immigration detention, such as sexual assaults, are falling through the cracks. Comcare has said that sexual assault is reportable only if it results in hospitalisation.

“How can a workplace be safe if sexual assault is not considered relevant to safety?” asked Mr Barns.

“Safety is also compromised by a culture of intimidating those who do speak out. We saw it under Minister Morrison in relation to his defamatory allegations against Save the Children, which has since been compensated for accusations made against their staff. Minister Dutton has continued this trend by criticising advocates in the wake of self-immolations on Nauru.

“The Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth) contributes to a climate where workers and detainees might be fearful of disclosing health and safety risks to Comcare or the media. Under-reporting and concealment are a real concern. If risks to health and safety are not talked about, they are more likely to go unresolved,” Mr Barns said.

The Report makes a number of recommendations, including reform of the WHS Act to ensure it is fit to combat risks to health and safety in immigration detention, and investigation and prosecution of any offences that may have been committed. It is available on the ALA website:


For further details, contact Australian Lawyers Alliance Legal and Policy Adviser, Anna Talbot, on (02) 9258 7700, Greg Barns on 0419 691 846 or at


Tags: Human rights Asylum seekers and refugees Freedom of information Comcare Greg Barns