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Mahzer Ali, an uncle of the Bakhtiari boys, jumps on the razor wire at the Woomera detention centre
Mahzer Ali, uncle to the Bakhtiari boys, jumps on the razor wire at the Woomera detention centre on 10 February 2002 in a desparate way showing his fury about the treatment of children in detention centres.

People's Inquiry into Detention: We've boundless plains to share

We've boundless plains to share: The first report of the People's Inquiry into Detention

"The People's Inquiry was established as open, independent, transparent and inclusive, in order to bear witness to events in Australian immigration detention facilities, whose operations were largely shrouded in official secrecy. The inquiry adopted the role of a medium for telling the stories of those people directly and indirectly affected by government policy, who may not ordinarily be consulted. Anyone with experiences of immigration detention was invited to present evidence about any aspect of the detention regime."

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NOTE: The website of the Inquiry is located at

Related pages:

31 October 2008: Human Rights Overboard: the Perth launch with Carmen Lawrence and Fred Chaney - with many photos. "The Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work called the People's Inquiry to conduct an independent, open and transparent investigation in order to give voice to those previously silenced, to influence policy and to place the stories of detention on the public record."

Life Buoy19 August 2008: Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia - Human Rights Overboard draws together, for the first time, the oral testimony and written submissions from the inquiry in a powerful and vital book that stands as an indelible record of one of Australia's bleakest legacies. "This is a profoundly important book. It is an unflinching look at disgraceful events. Too many Australians allowed these things to happen. Our generation will forever be marked with the shame of it. It is not only an epitaph for the Howard government: it is also a caution to future generations."

Life Buoy10 September 2008: Human Rights Overboard: Media reviews and opinion reactions - "Using the first-hand accounts of former child detainees and their parents, Human Rights Overboard details the impact of mandatory detention on boatpeople and other unlawful entrants before the policy was watered down." Here is the news about this foundation document of Australian refugee detention and human rights issues.

5 July 2005: Christine Rau: my sister's 309 days - "Cornelia has had a terrible ordeal and is understandably angry about it. She was locked up in isolation, has said she felt treated like a caged animal, for the crime of mental illness which led her to lie about her identity."

27 February 2005 - Life after Cornelia Rau: a People's Inquiry into Detention? - "last Saturday the Mick Palmer Inquiry Call for Submissions appeared in The Weekend Australian. While I think this should be called the "Mickey Mouse Inquiry", it may be a useful vehicle for some people to submit material."

27 February 2005: Talking about Cornelia: the Baxter detainees Statement - A page about Cornelia Rau, who was "lost" inside Australia as 'Anna', classed as an 'illegal immigrant' without any evidence for this by Department of Immigration staff.

7 February 2005: Finding Anna: when Immigration gets it really, really wrong - Astounding is the word, but I guess the story is familiar by now. 'Anna', or as we know now, Cornelia, an Australian citizen, went missing, and based on the fact that she was disoriented, spoke some German, and could not be identified, she ends up in Baxter's punishment block, after 'having been assigned' to DIMIA, the Department of Immigration, for being an alleged 'illegal immigrant'.

Introduction [1]

In February 2005, when Australian resident Cornelia Rau was discovered in the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre where she had been incarcerated for four months despite suffering from a serious mental illness, some Australians were shocked. Others were not. Thousands of ordinary Australians across the country had formed close relationships with asylum seekers locked in our detention centres. Overwhelmingly, these were people fleeing countries from which the Australian government ultimately accepted they had a well founded fear of persecution.

Some refugee advocates had heard about Cornelia Rau from their asylum seeker friends and had been trying for over two months to get her assistance. For them, and other refugee advocates, her situation was just one more in a long list of appalling stories and shocking incidents inside detention. For them, it was no surprise that someone who displayed disturbed and bizarre behaviour seemed quite normal in the detention context, or that nothing had been done to help her, despite authorities being alerted to her plight.

When the government announced that former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer would conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of Cornelia Rau's detention, the terms of reference were restricted to the circumstances of her detention alone. [2] As Cornelia's sister, journalist Chris Rau, said at the time:

While she was an unnamed illegal immigrant, the only treatment she got for mental illness was longer periods in lock-up as punishment for bad behaviour. Yet as soon as she was found to be an Australian resident, she was whisked away to a teaching hospital, seen by psychiatrists and medicated. During which leg of her flight from Baxter to Adelaide did she suddenly gain the basic human right to medical treatment? How many cases like Cornelia's will it take until detainees get the care they deserve or, more importantly, are taken out of conditions that themselves lead to mental illnesses? [3]

There were many community calls for the government to widen the terms of reference of the Palmer inquiry to cover a full inquiry into immigration detention, but these went unheeded. The calls included one from Baxter detainees who stated:

God sent Cornelia here to send our cry to all Australian people. We are all happy that she be free from such a terrible place. We all pray that she will get well. She remains in our minds and hearts as a heroine for ever and ever. [4]

In response to the narrow terms of reference of the Palmer inquiry, the Australian Council of Heads of School of Social Work (ACHSSW) initiated the People's Inquiry into Detention.

This was based on a view that ordinary Australians have an obligation to act when our government is unwilling to do so. Fiona Redding argues that citizen led inquiries can empower people to strive for change and work to engage members of the community who are otherwise disengaged from the democratic process. [5]

The People's Inquiry

The People's Inquiry was established as open, independent, transparent and inclusive, in order to bear witness to events in Australian immigration detention facilities, whose operations were largely shrouded in official secrecy. The inquiry adopted the role of a medium for telling the stories of those people directly and indirectly affected by government policy, who may not ordinarily be consulted [6]. Anyone with experiences of immigration detention was invited to present evidence about any aspect of the detention regime.

The response

The response to the People's Inquiry has been overwhelming. It has travelled around Australia hearing testimony in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Launceston, Port Augusta, Shepparton, Swan Hill and Griffith. Most presenters have given evidence to a panel of three, although there have been some private hearings. By the time the final hearings take place in Adelaide in December 2006, more than 200 verbal accounts will have been heard and 200 written submissions received. Those who have given evidence to the inquiry include former detainees, their Australian supporters, doctors, nurses, educators, former DIMA/DIMIA [7] officials, detention centre employees, [8] migration agents and lawyers.

The People's Inquiry is extraordinary not just because so many people have felt able to come forth and place on the public record the stories they have carried with them, but also because people all over Australia have volunteered to help. The inquiry commenced with no money, but a great deal of goodwill, passion, energy and expertise.

Specialist volunteer advisors assist the People's Inquiry in the areas of media, ethics, law, publicity and fund-raising. A Melbourne-based steering group plans and organises activities. Social work and other students on field placements have made a major contribution.

Universities and community organisations throughout Australia have provided venues and other support for the hearings. Volunteer counsellors were available to those giving evidence at all hearings. Actors, artists, poets and musicians performed at the launch of each hearing. As the momentum of the inquiry took hold, funding was obtained from a range of sources.

To our knowledge this is the first time that such an extensive citizen-driven inquiry has been conducted in Australia. The success of the People's Inquiry demonstrates that inclusive and flexible forms of inquiry strike a chord with community members through providing a safe platform to voice their concerns. So many people have told the organisers of their appreciation of the opportunity to come forward with the stories they did not previously know how to tell in the public domain. The rallying of dedicated people reveals support for ensuring that the policies and practices that shamed a nation are not forgotten.

Changes to detention policy

During the time the People's Inquiry has been gathering evidence, major changes have occurred in Australian government policy. At the time Cornelia Rau's incarceration was discovered, many of those in immigration detention and their supporters were despairing that a change of policy would ever occur. Some people had already been held in detention for more than six years.

In May 2005, Federal Liberal backbencher Petro Georgiou, supported by colleagues including Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird and Russell Broadbent, threatened to introduce a Private Members' Bill to soften the government's mandatory detention policy. On 14 June 2005, Mick Palmer presented DIMIA with the draft of his damning report on Cornelia Rau's detention. [9] Three days later, The Prime Minister John Howard announced that as a compromise with his backbenchers, changes would be made to detention policy. Families with children were to be housed in the community, those detained for over two years would be subject to an investigation and report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman that would be tabled in Federal Parliament; initial determinations on refugee claims would be quicker, and the applications for permanent residence by holders of Temporary Protection Visas would be fast tracked. [10]

Too late for many

These changes have seen almost all long-term detainees released and some people granted permanent residence more quickly. However, the policy changes have come too late for many. So far ten people have died in immigration detention. Some people will never fully recover from the physical and mental illnesses they developed during their incarceration. Even those who will cope with the trauma of having been in detention have lost years of their lives before being recognised as refugees, some separated from their wives and children for more than seven years.

Furthermore, the tenuous nature of the reforms was demonstrated when in January 2006 a boat of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived in Australia and were recognised as refugees. In a move widely seen as an attempt to appease the Indonesian government, the Prime Minister John Howard moved to harden policy further. Several Islands including Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef had already been excised from Australia's migration zone, [11] thereby denying asylum seekers access to Australia's legal appeals process. Sending asylum seekers who arrived at excised areas to be processed on Nauru and Manus Island had already cost Australian taxpayers $218 million. [12]

But John Howard now proposed sending all asylum seekers who arrived by boat without valid visas offshore for processing, effectively excising the whole of Australia from the migration zone. Even those found to be refugees were to be settled in countries other than Australia, a process which could have resulted in their indefinite detention. [13]

Petro Georgiou called it "the most profoundly disturbing piece of legislation I have encountered since becoming a member of Parliament." [14] Howard only withdrew the legislation after government backbenchers Georgiou, Broadbent and Moylan crossed the floor to vote against it in the lower house and it was clear that Senator Judith Troeth would cross the floor to defeat it in the Senate.

Our purpose

The purpose of the People's Inquiry into Detention is to place on the public record the impact of the policies and practices that unsettled many in Australia, resulted in criticisms from human rights organisations in Australia and abroad, and, most importantly, had a devastating impact on those directly affected. The emphasis in the report is on asylum seekers, but there are other people who are held in detention and the inquiry has heard some accounts of their experiences. These voices will be included in the final report.

The report

The comprehensive findings from the People's Inquiry will be published in 2007 (see appendix for terms of reference). This first report highlights a range of experiences of asylum seekers in their journey to detention and the detention experience. It has been presented for public information and consideration and will also form part of the final report. The final report will also include information on the processing of asylum claims and the difficulties faced once released from detention.



[1] This introduction only to the Report, posted here upon the release and launch at the Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle WA, on Sunday November 19, 2006.

[2] For the terms of reference see

[3] Rau, C., My sister lost her mind, and Australia lost its heart, in The Age, 7/2/2005, accessed 13/10/2006

[4] Baxter detainees statement to refugee advocates, 2005.

[5] Redding, F. (2005), What is the point of a citizen led inquiry? International field study report, RMIT, Melbourne.

[6] Ibid

[7] During the period covered by the People's Inquiry the immigration department underwent name changes and the terms DIMA (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) and DIMIA (Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) are used in this report.

[8] Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) held the contract to manage Australian detention centres from 1997 until Global Solutions Limited (GSL) was awarded it in August 2003

[9] The final report was M. Palmer, Inquiry into the circumstances of the Immigration detention of Cornelia Rau: Report. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, July 2005. The report can be found at, accessed 3/12/2006

[10] Detention policy changes 'meaningful', Insiders, 19/6/2005, accessed 18/10/2006

[11] Excising Australia: Are we really shrinking?, Research note, Parliament of Australia, Department of Parliamentary Services, 31/8/2005, accessed 4/11/2006

[12] Fact Sheet 71, New Measures to Strengthen Border Control, DIMA, Canberra, 8/8/2002

[13] Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006

[14] Backbenchers defy Howard on asylum bill, in The Age, 9/8/2006, accessed 18/10/2006

Deaths in detention exposed

The Age
Andra Jackson
November 21, 2006

AT LEAST 10 people have died while held in immigration detention, a self-appointed public inquiry has been told.

The 18-month inquiry into detention centres found sick detainees sometimes had to wait days for medical treatment and weeks to see a doctor.

The co-convener of the inquiry, Professor Linda Briskman from Curtin University in Western Australia, said the inquiry had been told of at least 10 people who had died in detention since 1999, "but people are generally speaking of more than 10 deaths".

Among the deaths detailed in the inquiry's first report was that of a Thai woman, Phuongton Simplee, a heroin user who died in Villawood detention centre in 2001 of malnutrition. Despite losing a dramatic seven kilograms over just three days, management did not realise she needed hospital treatment.

Fatima Erfani, a mother of three detained on Christmas Island, died in January 2003 after being treated incorrectly. She was suffering from high blood pressure but was instead treated for a migraine and died from cerebral bleeding.

Tongan Viliami Tanginoa, who overstayed his visa, dived to his death from the top of a basketball hoop at Maribyrnong detention centre in December 2000.

Professor Briskman said yesterday details of the other deaths would be covered in the inquiry's second report next year.

The Age is aware of at least two other deaths in detention.

The report documented an attempt by a 12-year-old boy to hang himself.

A former nurse working for detention centre operator ACM told the inquiry a doctor attended Baxter detention centre five days a week but detainees could only have appointments on the day allocated for their compound. Sometimes the wait for an appointment on the "right day" could be up to three weeks, she said.

The People's Inquiry was set up by Professor Briskman and Professor Chris Goddard, director of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse at Monash University, on behalf of the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work.

It followed concern about the narrow focus of a Federal Government-appointed inquiry into the wrongful detention of the mentally ill Cornelia Rau.

The People's Inquiry, which has held public hearings around Australia and taken 200 written submissions, also found "needless cruelty" in how the detention centres were run.

Professor Briskman said former detainees, detention centre workers, visiting health workers and others reported a catalogue of petty cruelty, including people being addressed by their file number, repeatedly being woken at night for head counts, a four-month delay in posting mail to families overseas, and a lack of toilets (just two toilets for 700 people at Woomera).

The report also covered claims of beatings and humiliating actions by guards, including singing to Iraqis after a protection visa rejection: "I'm leaving on a jet plane, goin' back to see Saddam Hussein."

In his submission, Professor Goddard wrote that "detention centres generated universal mental ill-health never seen outside a psychiatric hospital".

An Immigration Department spokeswoman said: "Deaths in detention have been very few."