Challenging inhumane handcuffing in immigration detention

Challenging inhumane handcuffing in immigration detention

We have exposed excessive and unlawful handcuffing of detainees in Australian immigration detention and the harm it causes. 

For years, it has been standard practice for detainees to be handcuffed when transported between detention centres or taken off-site for medical treatment. We believe the routine use of handcuffs without proper risk assessment is unlawful. 

The practice has also left people feeling humiliated and degraded when forced to wear handcuffs in public, with people assuming them to be criminals. For some, handcuffing exacerbated mental health conditions caused by past violence and trauma.  

Getting justice for Yasir*

In 2020, we filed a landmark test case in the Federal Court for asylum seeker Yasir*, challenging authorities over inhumane use of handcuffs. 

Yasir arrived in Australia seeking asylum with a history of severe trauma and abuse. As a small child he had been imprisoned with his family in his birth country, where they were tortured and handcuffed by guards. As a result, Yasir would experience intense psychological and physical effects, including seizures and vomiting, whenever he was handcuffed or threatened with the use of handcuffs. 

Over his seven-years in Australian immigration detention, Yasir was diagnosed with mental health illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Yet the Commonwealth and its immigration detention contractors Serco refused to adopt medical recommendations to stop handcuffing Yasir when he was travelling to offsite medical appointments. 

Yasir was put in an impossible position: either accept the physical and psychological harm handcuffing caused or miss out on essential healthcare.  

Because of the severe impacts, Yasir refused to wear handcuffs on many occasions so was not taken to medical appointments and did not receive care for serious health conditions. 

In our test case, we argued that requiring Yasir to wear handcuffs to access essential medical care was a form of disability discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act. We also argued it was unlawful, as there was no power under Australian law allowing authorities to pre-emptively use restraints on detainees in those circumstances.  

In 2022, we raised Yasir’s case with the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ahead of an Australian visit. We successfully highlighted the misuse of force and restraints like handcuffs within Australia’s immigration detention regime to the Subcommittee and in the media, calling for a comprehensive review.  

After a prolonged three-year legal battle, the Commonwealth and Serco finally settled with Yasir on confidential terms. Yasir was pleased with the outcome and felt there was finally some accountability for his mistreatment.  

* Name has been changed to protect our client’s identity. 

Media coverage

The Guardian: Australia’s use of handcuffs on asylum seekers inhumane and unlawful, lawyers say, 24 June 2020 

SBS online: Landmark legal case challenges the ‘inhumane’ use of handcuffs on asylum seekers, 24 November 2020 

Croakey: Test case challenges use of handcuffs in transferring asylum seekers to medical care, 25 November 2020 

ABC RN Breakfast: Refugee brings landmark test case against handcuffing by Australian Border Force, 26 November 2020 

The Guardian: Call for UN torture watchdog to investigate Australia’s handcuffing of asylum seekers en route to medical care, 16 September 2020 

SBS online: Being handcuffed for medical appointments left asylum seeker Yasir shaken. Why is it happening?, 16 September 2022 

ABC News online: Commonwealth settles case with asylum seeker who missed medical appointments because of handcuff PTSD, 15 November 2023 

The Canberra Times/AAP: Asylum seeker settles handcuff case against Serco, govt, 15 November 2023 

Crikey: Australians need to better understand the reality of detainees’ lives, 5 December 2023 

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