Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Making visits harder and less friendly

In recent years, the overall environment of the visit area changed and moved from a welcoming environment conducive to more relaxed social interactions to one that is highly regulated and prison-like. The replacement of sofas with fixed chairs in Brisbane ITA, bolting down chairs and tables in Yongah Hill IDC and Melbourne ITA, and the reports that people detained in Brisbane ITA can only sit at pre-assigned tables in the visitor room are some of the examples that show the undermining of the social and communal atmosphere of those facilities.

In Melbourne ITA, people detained in different compounds now need to make a formal application to Serco to use the limited capacity of the visitor room to meet each other. In the past, however, people in detention could see each other and socialise in common areas, during classes and excursions and at meal times, as before they had more freedom of movement between compounds and had more shared activities. This has also reduced the capacity to visit people.

Visitors who spoke to us believed that the obvious and constant presence of Serco staff within the visitor room not only takes up much-needed space but also prevents people from having relaxed, private and free conversations. People talked about numerous situations where they were reminded of various rules mid-conversation (for example not to share food with those sitting at the adjacent table), making them feel intimidated and as if they were being watched all the time.

Reports from visitors to some detention facilities, such as Villawood IDC, state that Serco staff at times walk around the visitor area with cameras strapped to their front recording images and voices. This creates a threatening and fearful environment — or, as one of our participants referred to it, a ‘Kafkaesque’ situation.

Arbitrary rules and restrictions

Arbitrary rules and restrictions enforced in some facilities also impact on the experience of visitors during the visit. Below are some of the examples:

  • In Brisbane ITA, visitors with separate bookings cannot sit together. If visitors arrive in pairs (for example on many instances when husband and wife both visit people in detention), they need to sit separately and are unable to share conversation and food, making them feel very isolated.
  • In Melbourne ITA, if a person in detention needs to take a toilet break during the visit, they are not allowed back into the visitor area and the visit will be terminated. This rule imposes unnecessary and pointless pressure on people during the visit. This issue has also been raised by the visitors to Brisbane ITA, although it appeared to be a less established rule. People who visit Brisbane ITA told us that at times they had to leave if the person they were visiting needed to use the toilet or had to advocate to continue the visit. One of the visitors recalled one incident which left herself and her friend in detention feeling humiliated:

The person I was visiting had to go to the toilet, as part of his medical condition. I tried to get the guards to check on the person’s medical records and agree to resume the visit. They made such a fuss, was horrible …. I then left accompanied by a guard to the gate, and once back at the reception, I asked to talk to the manager. By the time he came to the desk, he checked the medical records and allowed to restart the visit, the person was so upset by the whole event that he didn’t want to come back, as his stress level was [quite high].

  • In Melbourne ITA, delivery of gifts is restricted to very narrow periods over the working week, causing difficulties for people who visit during weekends.

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