About immigration detention

Australia's Migration Act 1958 requires people who are not Australian citizens and do not hold a valid visa to be detained. Unless they are given legal permission to remain in Australia by being granted a visa, such unlawful non-citizens must be removed from Australia as soon as reasonably practicable.

Immigration detention supports a well-managed migration system and is used to enable the identification and management of potential risks to the Australian community, including national security, health and character risks. It also supports the integrity of Australia's visa programmes.

Detention is not limited by a set timeframe but is dependent upon a number of facts, including identity determination, developments in country information and the complexity of processing due to individual circumstances relating to health, character or security matters. Where a detainee challenges visa or removal decisions, this can also lengthen their period of time in detention.
Placement decisions for people in immigration detention are made taking into consideration each individual's circumstances and risks, with a view to seeking a balance between the best interests of the individuals, particularly children, and operational and security factors. This might include:

  • the individual's character, any identity and security issues, age and family composition, health and well-being
  • any unique or exceptional circumstances
  • their cooperation with immigration processes
  • the likelihood of the person's compliance with any conditions (such as reporting regularly, staying at the specified address and not working).

All Australian immigration detention facilities are regularly visited by the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Red Cross, pastoral care providers and representatives of community groups. There are also robust internal feedback and complaints systems in place at all facilities.

The length and the conditions of detention are subject to regular review by senior departmental officers and the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The reviews consider the lawfulness and appropriateness of the person's detention, their detention arrangements/placement, health and welfare and other matters relevant to their ongoing detention and case resolution.

Who is 'unlawful' ?

People in Australia, who are not Australian citizens, and do not hold a valid visa are unlawful non-citizens. This could have happened because:

  • they arrived here without a visa
  • they overstayed their visa
  • their visa was cancelled.

Unlawful non-citizens are liable for detention. They might be granted a visa, removed from Australia or transferred to a regional processing centre in a regional processing country. The Republic of Nauru and the Independent State of Papua New Guinea are currently designated as Regional Processing Countries.

Families with children

It is government policy that children will not be held in immigration detention centres. Children might be accommodated in low security facilities within the immigration detention network to manage health, security and identity risks to themselves or their guardians. Facilities include immigration residential housing, immigration transit accommodation and alternative places of detention.

Immigration detention facilities

There are different types of detention facilities in Australia. See Immigration detention facilities for a description and where they are located.

Management of detainees in immigration detention

We manage detainees in immigration detention by providing the following:

  • health care
  • general services, including meals, education, recreation and religious activities
  • care arrangements for unaccompanied minors.

The Department has contracted Serco Australia Pty Ltd to provide services to people in immigration detention facilities throughout Australia. Services include catering, security, transport and the delivery of meaningful programs and activities.

The contract encompasses a strong focus on the rights and wellbeing of people in immigration detention and provides a comprehensive framework for ongoing quality improvement, including effective performance management systems. The contract also requires the detention services provider to comply with all of Australia’s obligations under international treaties, charters, covenants and agreements.

Health care provided to detainees in immigration detention facilities

All detainees in immigration detention have access to health care at a standard usually comparable to the health care available to the Australian community. We currently have a contract with International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) which provides and coordinates health care for detainees in immigration detention, including those in SRSS Bands 2-3/ Community detention.

Detainees entering immigration detention undergo a health induction assessment, which includes assessing for any physical and mental health issues. This assessment informs an ongoing health care plan.

When people leave immigration detention they are given a summary of any treatment they received during their detention and any ongoing treatment regimes. Where appropriate, they are linked with community health providers.

IHMS provides primary health care through general practitioners (GPs), nurses, counsellors and psychologists located within immigration detention facilities. Specialist and ancillary services, including psychiatric, dental and physiotherapy, are provided by referral to an IHMS community network provider or onsite, by visiting practitioners. Emergency and acute health care is provided by local hospitals.

Health care provided to detainees in the community

The health needs of detainees accommodated in the community under SRSS Band 2-3/Community Detention are coordinated by IHMS, through a network of community-based providers. Detainees in the community are assigned a GP and pharmacy and, as required, the GP will refer the detainee to other health services, such as allied and specialist services. They can make an appointment with their GP at any time and are subject to the same waiting times as any member of the Australian community accessing public health services. The costs of health provisions for community detainees are billed to IHMS and passed through to us.

Education and other activities

Arrangements are in place for all school aged children in community detention to attend school in line with state and territory government legal requirements. We fund access to schools through agreements with providers.

The detention service provider runs cultural and lifestyle classes, sporting activities, external excursions, educational programmes and English language classes for detainees in immigration detention.

Detainees in immigration detention facilities have access to resources and equipment for self-education and recreation. These include computers, CDs and videos, art and craft supplies, sport and recreational facilities and equipment, a library with a variety of reading material in various languages, and computers with internet access.


A variety of nutritious meals are served three times a day. Meals are also prepared for cultural and religious festivals, such as Ramadan and Christmas. Detainees who need special diets for cultural or medical reasons are catered for. Beverages and snacks are available between meals.

Individual Allowance Programme

The Individual Allowance Programme (IAP) is a system by which detainees can earn points in order to access incidental items from shops and canteens in immigration detention facilities.  The IAP is managed by Serco on behalf of the Department. Detainees in immigration detention are given mandatory points each week and have the opportunity to earn more by participating in a variety of programs and activities. Points do not accumulate; if they are not used by the end of the week, they are forfeited. Points may not be transferred between individuals (unless in a family) and are not exchangeable for cash.  The IAP allows detainees in immigration detention to purchase phone cards, and other incidental items such as newspapers, additional hygiene items, recreational items, snacks and soft drinks.


All immigration detention facilities have areas for prayer and worship services, and detainees in immigration detention can practise the religion of their choice. Religious representatives provide services for most major faiths. Detainees have access to:

  • religious representatives
  • appropriate religious books and materials
  • communal areas for religious activities, celebrations, feasts and worship.

Care arrangements for unaccompanied minors

The Department entered into a contract with service providers under the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) programme to provide specific care and support for all children who are in immigration detention facilities throughout Australia who don't have a parent or guardian with them.  These service providers work closely with the Department and Serco (in its capacity as Facility and Detainee Service Provider) to coordinate care arrangements for children to ensure their unique needs are met, and their safety and wellbeing promoted.

While detainees are in immigration detention, there are a range of meetings and interviews which they are required to undertake. For children and young people who don't have a parent or guardian with them, the contracts provide for independent observer services. The independent observer is there to provide a friendly and reassuring presence for the child and to provide pastoral care and support through formal interview processes.

Tracing and restoring family links

The Australian Red Cross conducts regular visits to immigration detention facilities through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Department. Under the terms of the MOU the Australian Red Cross provides detainees with access to family tracing services. The objective of the service is to re-establish contact for detainees in immigration detention who have lost contact or have been separated from family members or close friends.  Contact is often lost due to situations of armed conflict, internal violence, natural disaster and any other humanitarian cases in which there are no other means of communication.

Visiting an immigration detention facility

The Department provides and facilitates certain services to detainees while in detention. The Department facilitates visits to detainees, including family, consular officials and legal representatives. For more information see  Visiting an immigration detention facility.

Immigration detention statistics

See Statistics for the number of detainees held in each of the immigration detention facilities.

Review and Regulation

Immigration detention is administered through legislation and International Conventions. Immigration detention is also subject to regular review and external scrutiny.

External scrutiny of immigration detention services

Scrutiny from a number of external bodies helps ensure detainees held in immigration detention are treated humanely and fairly. These parties include:

  • Parliamentary committees
  • the Minister's Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention
  • the Commonwealth Ombudsman
  • the Australian Human Rights Commission
  • the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

We advise the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Parliament regularly on the status of detainees who have been in immigration detention for two years or more.

The Minister's Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention provides the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection with independent advice on the resolution of immigration status for people seeking asylum or other migration outcomes in Australia.

Detainees have the right to provide feedback about their treatment in immigration detention without adverse consequences. Their feedback will be followed up quickly and fairly and can be submitted to:

  • the detention service provider or departmental staff at the facility
  • the Commonwealth Ombudsman
  • state and federal police
  • state and territory child welfare agencies
  • other external agencies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Legislation and International Convention

We have a duty of care towards detainees in immigration detention. We must apply the policy, laws, rules and practices governing people in our care.

Legislation related to immigration detention

Other Commonwealth legislation

The following Commonwealth legislation is available at the Comlaw website.

  • Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986
  • Ombudsman Act 1976
  • Freedom of Information Act 1982
  • Privacy Act 1988.

International conventions

We also have obligations under international law and conventions to which Australia is a signatory:

  • the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees
  • the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
  • the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness
  • the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.