Test case challenges the misuse of handcuffs against detained asylum seekers

An asylum seeker has launched a landmark test case that highlights the excessive use of force in Australian immigration detention centres. The case challenges the inhumane use of handcuffs to restrain men and women attending offsite medical appointments which is often disproportionate to any genuine risk.

PIAC’s client, Yasir*, is taking action under the Disability Discrimination Act and challenging the lawfulness of handcuffs under the Migration Act. Handcuffing by detention centre staff poses a major barrier to Yasir obtaining essential and timely health care.

Yasir has a history of severe torture and childhood abuse. Over the course of his seven-years in Australian immigration detention, he has been diagnosed with a number of mental health illnesses. He is so severely retraumatised by the use of handcuffs that he often experiences seizures when faced with the prospect of being restrained. Yet the Government has refused to adopt medical recommendations to stop handcuffing him.

Across the network, the use of restraints has become commonplace for transfer to medical appointments even when detained asylum seekers are already escorted by security officers. In 2017, data obtained under freedom of information laws showed that the use of force and restraints in Australia’s onshore immigration detention centres had soared – more than doubling in just nine months. Asylum seekers make up almost 50% of the current onshore population. 

In recent years there has been increasing concern about excessive use of force against asylum seekers in Australian facilities. These statistics reflect changing dynamics since the Australian Border Force (ABF) took over the running of facilities in 2015. Many of the ABF’s policies and procedures have further militarised operations leading to a punitive culture. In 2019 the Australian Human Rights Commission published a report exposing the consistent, widespread use of restraints in immigration detention and recommending urgent reforms.

More recently, in an August 2020 report, the Commonwealth Ombudsman raised the growing tendency for force to be used as the first, rather than last choice in facilities, exercised in a manner both inconsistent with the Department of Home Affairs’ own procedures and possibly without legal basis.

Yasir:

‘I am running this case to try and help detained asylum seekers like me get access to healthcare without being forced to wear handcuffs. Restraints bring back brutal, retraumatising memories from my past which I already live with every day. I cannot attend medical appointments handcuffed because of the further damage it does to me’.

Jane Leibowitz, PIAC’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project:

‘More and more, we are seeing vulnerable, sick and otherwise cooperative detained asylum seekers, subjected to harmful and degrading practices which result in significant delays and disruptions to medical care’.

‘Yasir’s case shows how mistreatment of mentally ill asylum seekers happens on a daily basis. There are humane and effective alternatives to handcuffs and body belts which reflect the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability’.  

This case is supported by Grata Fund which provides the financial backing needed to get important, circuit breaking public interest cases like this to court, and Woodsford Litigation Funding. Mary and John Walker proudly support Yasir and the work of PIAC on his behalf.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gemma Pearce, PIAC Media and Communications Manager: 0478 739 280.

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Towards Truth is a partnership between PIAC and UNSW Indigenous Law Centre.
Former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes settled a dispute over a 'humiliating and distressing' experience.
We secured a settlement for our client Yasir* who alleges he was forced to wear handcuffs to access healthcare.

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