Academic News & Views: An OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention

As part of the Australian Journal of Human Rights fascinating new Special Issue on the OPCAT, the matter of ensuring adequate coverage of immigration detention has come into sharp focus. In a brand-new article by Madeline Gleeson of the University of New South Wales titled ‘Monitoring places of immigration detention in Australia under OPCAT’, the author focuses on the challenges of making certain that immigration detention is effectively monitored in practice.

The parallels with Canada are illuminating. As has been highlighted in recent Canada OPCAT Project posts, even though Canada’s formal immigration detention estate is small, the Government frequently resorts to the use of provincial prisons for immigration detention purposes. Furthermore, unlike in Australia, there is currently no statutory inspection body for immigration detention in Canada, bar a temporary monitoring agreement with the Canadian Red Cross.     

Madeline Gleeson
Australian Journal of Human Rights – image copyright of the AHRC Centre at UNSW Sydney.

In her thought-provoking article Madeline Gleeson makes the essential point:

“…. while the government immediately claimed it as a ‘significant victory for human rights’ (Bishop and Brandis 2017b), the extent to which ratification of OPCAT will in fact mitigate the risks of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention will depend on how it is implemented. In the context of immigration detention in particular, there are significant challenges and controversies to be overcome if OPCAT is indeed to play the preventive role for which it is intended.”

For Australia these aforementioned challenges and controversies are several. In her article Madeline Gleeson embarks on a broad sweep of what might constitute immigration detention in Australia, including more typical facilities located within the country, but also focusing on less typical accommodation type settings, international transit zones in airports, escorts and transfers, so-called off-shore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and cloaked-in-secrecy detention at sea.

Madeline Gleeson
Maitland Gaol by OZinOH (2007).

For Canadian readers the author’s detailed discussion points to the wide range of potential immigration detention settings in any given country, itself an extremely informative exercise. All of these settings, she correctly argues, potentially fall within the scope of the OPCAT.   

Madeline Gleeson’s focus on the general features of an NPM also serves as a useful reminder of the wide potential array of functions of an effective NPM. In doing so, she examines two existing oversight bodies responsible for immigration detention in Australia, namely the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

As Australia’s future NPM is likely to comprise a multi-agency body whose work is coordinated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the author makes various key recommendations aimed at ensuring its legal and functional independence as well as its efficacy as an institution. This advice merits a detailed reading, especially if, as predicted by this writer, Canada also opts for a multi-body NPM as its future mechanism under the OPCAT.    

As in Canada, Madeline Gleeson also notes that the Australian Red Cross has a long history of visits to immigration detention facilities across Australia through its Immigration Detention Monitoring Program. The writer notes: “The Red Cross’s engagement with the Australian government is confidential, focusing on identifying issues of humanitarian concern and providing advice on how to minimise harm for people in detention.” However, unlike in Australia, Canada currently has no other permanent oversight entity for its main immigration detention settings such as an ombudsperson-type body.

The final section of the author’s paper highlights several outstanding challenges relating to the monitoring of immigration detention in Australia. While these factors are to a certain extent Australia-specific in scope, several of Madeline Gleeson’s observations apply beyond its national borders to other current and future OPCAT States Parties such as Canada. These include that:

  • unfettered access to NPM monitors should be ensured in practice in terms of places, people and information;
  • the monitors should be able to address the root causes of potential abuses which may lie in official state policy (such as punitive immigration approaches);
  • and states should be open to independent scrutiny and criticism of their immigration policies, no matter how unpalatable the truth.

All of these lessons could have resonance in the Canadian context as a state which may one day get around to ratifying the OPCAT.

In a word, Madeline Gleeson has made both a very interesting and highly practical contribution to the Special Issue on the OPCAT, with several important lessons for the Canadian setting. With further articles to come in this excellent series of papers, please stayed tuned to the Canada OPCAT Project dial.  


Many thanks to Steven Caruana for his assistance in relation to this post.

The above article by Madeline Gleeson appears in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, published on-line on 17 April 2019. The article can be accessed free-of-charge here.

Read an overview of other articles in the Special Issue on the OPCAT of the Australian Journal of Human Rights.  

Read more about the Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Report.

Examine the Concluding observations of the UN Committee against Torture from December 2018 concerning oversight of immigration detention in Canada.