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Home > Publications > Reports > Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

(Report date: August 2017)


In recent years,  people who visit immigration detention have expressed concerns about changes to rules and practices that have limited access for people visiting in detention. The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), through its Detention Research Project, has interviewed visitors from across Australia to identify and record those challenges to detention visitors, and to make recommendations for addressing them.
This report also records the significant role people who visit immigration detention make to those in detention. We outline in this report the critical role they play in supporting people in detention, the value they bring to these most vulnerable people, and the challenges they face in doing so.

Executive summary

It is really important that visitors play the role of witnesses in a system where there is no independent scrutiny. By making it hard for us to get in, we are placing people at risk.

— A detention visitor from Victoria

The Australian legal framework that applies to people seeking asylum and refugees is rather complex and continuously amended, making it challenging for individuals to understand their rights and the options available to them, without assistance. Lawyers and human rights advocates who assist refugees and people seeking asylum in immigration detention in Australia face many barriers. They include situations when detainees are not allowed mobile phones; when telephone calls and visits are hard to arrange to detention centres (particularly Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre); and detainees are frequently moved and without notice; interpreting services are limited and procedures are frequently changing.

— Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Every day, ordinary Australians visit people detained in Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities. This is an important and often under-appreciated role. These visitors provide emotional support to people in detention, advocate on their behalf and fill in the gaps that exist in provision of services and information in immigration detention facilities.
It is not easy to visit people in immigration detention, to hear their stories and to speak up for those who are the victims of Australia’s current punitive approach to people seeking asylum. Visiting immigration detention facilities takes time, energy and commitment, and often has a significant impact on the wellbeing of visitors. Yet, all too often, we hear some politicians and media outlets falsely blaming these visitors and advocates for encouraging people to harm themselves or to disobey rules.
Over the past year, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has increasingly heard from these visitors that security conditions in immigration detention facilities are being intensified and it is now more difficult to visit people in immigration detention. Correspondingly, people in immigration detention are becoming increasingly isolated from the wider community, with negative impacts on their mental and physical wellbeing.
These concerns led us to conduct a national study to explore these issues further. This report is the result of our extensive research and consultations with detention visitors and people previously held in detention. It explores the challenges faced by people when trying to access detention facilities, including:

  • constantly changing rules and their inconsistent application
  • difficulties in arranging a visit, including searches and drug tests
  • lack of adequate space in visitor rooms in some facilities
  • arbitrary rules and intensified security conditions that make visits less friendly, and
  • specific challenges faced by religious visitors.

This report identifies the impacts of those difficulties on both visitors and people detained and puts forward a number of recommendations to address those challenges.

This report showcases the spirit of volunteerism in Australia, presenting the accounts of many volunteers who continue visiting detention facilities despite difficulties, so they can bring people hope and get their voices and concerns heard.

People who visit immigration detention often provide the only public information about what is happening in our immigration detention facilities. This is because Australia does not have an official national body that publicly and regularly reports on visits to immigration detention facilities.

The Refugee Council of Australia welcomes the Australian Government’s commitment to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) by the end of 201 We hope that this will result in greater scrutiny of immigration detention and ultimately better treatment of those in detention.

This report was made possible by Alicia Rodriguez and Moones Mansoubi, RCOA’s detention research volunteers, who generously dedicated over 300 hours of their time conducting interviews, collating information and drafting the report. RCOA thanks them for their dedication and time. We also thank Kelly Walsh who helped us with the design of this report.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1: Recognise their role and engage

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF) should recognise the important role of detention visitors. They should engage in more effective dialogue with the visitors, inform them of proposed future changes and seek their feedback. This should include institutional channels of communication as well as more flexible forms of dialogue.

Recommendation 2: Rules should be revised to better reflect and mitigate risks

In developing and managing rules on visits, DIBP and ABF should give greater weight to the administrative nature of immigration detention, to past compliance by visitors and those they are visiting, and to whether the perceived risks can be mitigated in other ways.

Recommendation 3: Rules should be consistent and public

DIBP and ABF should ensure consistency in how the rules around visiting processes are applied in each centre and across the network.

Recommendation 4: Improve processes for drug testing

DIBP and ABF should work with Serco to improve processes for drug testing, including better training for staff and appropriate procedures for ensuring visitors are informed of their rights and processed in timely way.

Recommendation 5: More relaxed visits

DIBP and ABF should ensure there are more opportunities for less structured and more relaxed community visits and gatherings.

Recommendation 6: Revise arbitrary rules

DIBP and ABF should revise the arbitrary rules that are putting unnecessary pressure on people in detention and the visitors (for example, the rules requiring people in detention in Melbourne ITA to apply to visit each other, and rules in Brisbane ITA preventing people sitting at different tables from speaking with each other or sharing food).

Recommendation 7: Changing population needs should be considered in planning

The change in detention population and their needs should be considered in future developments of detention facilities.

Recommendation 8: Train frontline officers in reception process

DIBP and ABF should work with Serco to develop training for frontline officers to ensure the reception process is organised and streamlined.

Recommendation 9: Support religious service providers

DIBP and ABF should better support religious service providers to deliver their services and the entry process should be relaxed for them.

Recommendation 10: Improve translated information on visiting

DIBP and ABF should improve the availability of translated material on visit booking system and the reception process.

Recommendation 11: Improve public information

DIBP and ABF should improve the availability of public information.
Currently there is no public information on the capacity of visitor rooms and the number of people one can visit in each detention facility. This information should be released and made available on the Department’s website as a matter of urgency. The availability of this information will reduce the likelihood of frequent changes to those numbers.

Recommendation 12: Establish independent review of detention

DIBP should establish a transparent and independent process for reviewing detention.
RCOA’s longstanding view is that many of our detention issues would be better addressed through fundamental reform of the detention system, including critically the right to independent review of detention. All decisions to detain an individual on account of their unresolved migration status should be reviewable by an independent administrative body at each decision to detain or extend detention, regardless where such detention occurs. People in detention should have a right to attend reviews and challenge the purported necessity for their detention at each review.

Read the full report

You can download the report here, or read the report in PDF or full text on the next pages.
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