Researchers have mapped dozens of hotels used for immigration detention by the Australian government, the first nationwide visualisation of a practice that has operated largely in the shadows.
But the data remains incomplete.
For two decades, the Australian government has run a network of semi-secret “alternative places of detention” – often hotels in major cities – at times detaining more than 3,000 people, but with almost no publicly available information about them.
The locations of the “Apods” are not listed publicly by the government, and a freedom of information request for the information was refused this year because the department said it did not have a “list” of where they all are.
Independent government agencies have consistently raised concerns about the conditions in Apods and the length of time people are held in them, sometimes approaching two years.
“The hotels used for immigration detention have been found to lack dedicated facilities for exercise and recreation, there is often limited access to fresh air or outdoor space, and there have been media reports of maggoty food,” the human rights commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, said. “The human rights and health impacts of hotel detention are serious and well documented.”
Department officials have told the parliament that, between 2018 and 2021, at least 170 places across Australia were designated as Apods. The commonwealth ombudsman reported 77 hotels were approved as Apods as at 31 July this year, with seven in current use.
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Researchers from Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for international refugee law have relied on court documents, freedom of information requests and responses to Senate estimates questions to build a coast-to-coast interactive map of where centres are.
But the researchers argue the secrecy surrounding Apods means the list of Australia’s hidden detention centres is incomplete: they have been able to identify only 34 hotels formerly used as Apods.
“The lack of transparency about these closed-detention facilities is concerning in regard to the rights of those held within hotel rooms, some for more than 600 days,” Dr Andrew Burridge, from Macquarie University’s school of social sciences, said.
“Those detained within the hotels though medevac transfers have described these as prisons and sites of torture.”
The deputy director of the Kaldor Centre, Associate Prof Daniel Ghezelbash, said the research demonstrated the need for transparency around current and past use of hotels for immigration detention.
“While the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Human Rights Commission do monitor conditions at these facilities, the Australian public has been kept in the dark about the locations and scale of the use of hotels for immigration detention. This is not acceptable in a democratic society,” he said.
Ghezelbash said it was welcome that the new government had released significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from hotels into community detention in recent months.
Australia’s Migration Act requires that all non-citizens in the country without a valid visa be detained. Apods were first introduced in 2002, as a more accommodating alternative for children, families or vulnerable people who could not be adequately cared for inside the more restrictive confines of immigration detention centres. The policy allows for hospitals, aged care homes, or, increasingly, hotels, to be designated by the immigration minister as an Apod.
At the peak of the practice, when detention centres around the country were overfilled in 2013, more than 3,500 people were held in Apods in Australia and on the Christmas and Cocos/Keeling islands. The use of Apods has since reduced significantly, to about 500 people in 2015 and 88 people now, according to government figures.
In October, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the commonwealth ombudsman took the rare step of issuing a joint public statement saying that Apods were only suitable for short-term detention of less than four weeks.
The average time in detention was 69 days, the statement said, but the longest a person had been held continuously inside a hotel Apod was 634 days.
Apods operate largely unknown, occasionally flaring into public awareness when they are the site of protests – such as Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central and Melbourne’s Mantra, or when they are the centre of a big Covid-19 outbreak – such as inner Melbourne’s Park hotel.
The Park hotel in Carlton, which has since been sold and renamed, attracted global scrutiny when the world’s No 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic, was briefly held there, before being removed from Australia because he was unvaccinated.
His presence in the hotel drew attention to the fact that dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, most of them medevac transfers from Australia’s offshore detention regime, had been held in the hotel for months, some for more than a year.
The legality of Australia’s practice of designating certain sites as Apods is under scrutiny in the federal court. Iranian refugee Moz Azimitabar is suing the federal government for his allegedly unlawful detention over 14 months in the Mantra and Park hotels in Melbourne.
A spokesperson for the Australian Border Force told the Guardian the government was “committed to a managed and equitable system of migration, consistent with our international obligations and respect for the human rights”.
The spokesperson said it was the government’s intention that the use of hotel-like accommodation as an Alternative Place of Detention (Apod) should only occur when necessary and for the shortest period of time required.
The department respected people’s right to protest, the spokesperson said, but would not tolerate violent or aggressive demonstrations.
“For operational, security and safety reasons of detainees, service providers and members of the public, and especially the privacy of detainees, the Department will not publicly disclose a full list of Apods.”