The Albanese government is investigating alternatives to immigration detention, and considering the creation of a review panel to help clear the “intractable” caseload of people held for long periods.
Refugee and asylum seeker stakeholders report that the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, and the Department of Home Affairs have been “proactive” in consultations and there are already “encouraging” signs more people assessed as a low risk to the community are being released.
In comments to Guardian Australia, Giles recommitted to “risk-based immigration detention policies”, including that people should be living in the community if they do not pose a risk.
Giles met stakeholders in late July and early August, with a further briefing from the department revealing options under consideration included a review panel to reassess the more than 1,400 people in detention.
The alternatives to immigration detention included release on a visa, whether permanent or a bridging visa; community detention; and release on conditions, including reporting to the department.
Giles told Guardian Australia that the government “is committed to ensuring humane and risk-based immigration detention policies”.
“If there are no security or safety concerns, individuals should be living in the community until a durable solution is finalised,” he said.
“Since becoming minister I have met the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the UNHCR, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross to discuss their crucial role in providing independent oversight of the immigration detention network.”
Giles cited Labor’s commitments in its national platform, which include that “indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable and the length and conditions of detention, including the appropriateness of both the accommodation and the services provided, will be subject to regular review”.
The AHRC said it had met with Giles on 28 July and attended a departmental briefing on alternatives to held detention.
“The commission has long recommended that the Migration Act be amended to ensure that closed immigration detention (including alternative places of detention) is only used in circumstances where it is strictly necessary to manage unacceptable risks to the community and for the shortest period necessary.”
Hannah Dickinson, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s principal solicitor, said these alternatives were “not novel” and were already in use.
“No revolution [is required],” she said.
Power said “solutions have to be found” and the Albanese government had “been proactive about what the answers might be”.
“There is a recognition that it’s counterproductive, that the outcome is nothing except the denial of freedom of people with no alternative available.
“The psychological impact of prolonged and indefinite detention are well known.”
Dickinson said the situation was “really serious”.
“A decade of deteriorating conditions and extraordinary time blowouts have resulted in deaths, unnecessary and in many cases unjustifiable detention.”
The system involved “a catch-22 that detention is making people so unwell the government is worried about then releasing them”, she said.
“We’ve been encouraged about the pragmatic, humane decision-making in releases from detention [since May]. It’s slow but encouraging – we’re optimistic.”
The ASRC is calling for detention to be a last resort not a mandatory starting point, as well as maximum detention times, a review of all current detainees, closure of the “unsustainable and inhumane” Christmas Island facility, and review of detention practices including the use of solitary confinement and restraints.
A brief to the incoming government revealed the average time spent in immigration detention was almost two years, with almost a third of those in detention for more than five years.
The department was struggling to deal with an “intractable caseload of individuals” who cannot be returned to their country of origin, it said.
Refugee and asylum seeker groups said the government was aware there was a crisis in detention and planned to fix risk assessment protocols that have seen numbers swell.
Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, said immigration detention was supposed to be “administrative, for the purpose of resolving your status” but had become progressively longer term due to the “significant number” of people who were refugees, stateless or could not be returned because their citizenship was not recognised by their country of birth.
Power blamed a series of changes to the Migration Act “lowering the threshold to be detained so that people who posed no significant risk to the community were swept into detention”.
“Nothing constructive is being gained by detention. If no resolution or removal to another country is possible, and people are not serious enough a risk to warrant this additional punishment, they should be released.”