Coalition accused of sitting on warnings that immigration detention may have breached duty of care | Australian immigration and asylum

The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, has accused the Morrison government of having “sat” on an explosive review of immigration detention and doing “very limited work” on alternatives, despite the review’s conclusion that detention was “failing”.

But advocates have responded to the report by the former secretary of the attorney general’s department Robert Cornall by accusing Labor of not having done enough to cut the time spent in detention.

On Saturday Guardian Australia revealed that in March 2020, when Peter Dutton was home affairs minister, his department was warned that visa cancellations sent “prison-hardened detainees” into immigration detention. Cornall suggested this may breach the Australian government’s duty of care to other detainees, including asylum seekers.

Although the Morrison government investigated alternatives to held detention in response to the report, in the first phase this was limited to research including on international detention models.

On Monday Giles said: “It is concerning that the Morrison government sat on this report, and it is concerning that very limited work was being done exploring options and alternatives to held detention.”

“We are committed to humane and risk-based immigration detention,” Giles told reporters in Canberra. “Of course, we believe strongly that people should only be in immigration detention if it is necessary for security or safety grounds.”

Giles said progressing alternatives to detention was an “absolute priority” for him to make real the “aspiration of ensuring immigration detention is a last resort”.

The Cornall report said the “generally accepted view is that long-term immigration detention is damaging to the detainees’ mental health”. Health services provided in detention “may be treating the symptom and not the cause”, it said.

A home affairs department spokesperson said it “acknowledges impacts of prolonged immigration detention and continues to explore a range of measures aimed at addressing barriers to status resolution and associated risks of long-term detention”.

The spokesperson said it is developing alternatives to held detention, but these are “in the early stages of consideration and are subject to policy authority from government”.

“Australian Border Force officers work tirelessly to ensure safety and security is maintained but the detention population has a high proportion of people with criminal backgrounds, including those who have been incarcerated for serious offences and have higher security and health risks.”

Hannah Dickinson, principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the Albanese government had “acknowledged reform is needed and has taken some steps to relieve pressure, including the release of some people who had been detained for years”.

“Over a year into its term, however, the crisis in detention continues,” she told Guardian Australia.

“Numbers in detention have decreased only minimally; there is little change for those detained for years.”

When Labor came to government in May 2022, there were 1,414 people in immigration detention, with an average time spent in detention of 726 days. At 30 June 2023, there were 1,114 with an average time of 711 days.

The University of Sydney’s Prof Mary Crock said there had been a “distressing failure to see a change in culture” on visa cancellations and the “length of time in detention is really problematic”.

Crock, a professor of public law, said the problem identified by the Cornall report of “throwing together the murderers with asylum seekers” had an “easy fix”.

“Separating hardened criminals out from the others – that seems to be low-hanging fruit,” Crock said.

Giles defended the pace of change and said authorities faced “day-to-day challenges considering individual circumstances” because cases had to be considered “carefully and appropriate decisions made”.

He said he took advice from oversight bodies “seriously”.

“It’s critical from my perspective … to take the time to get it right, to balance all the considerations so that we can make sure we have a system that operates informed by those principles of national interest and respecting the human rights of all involved.”

Guardian Australia has contacted Dutton for comment about the report’s findings.

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