Experiences of religious service providers
The previous sections highlighted the challenges all of our research participants, as detention visitors, have been facing. Many of the visitors who spoke to us were religious service providers, some of whom have been visiting immigration detention facilities in Australia for over 20 years. This section highlights the specific issues they face.
While previously people in detention could visit places of worship outside the detention facilities, in recent years, those opportunities have become extremely limited. In this environment, the role of religious service providers who visit detention facilities becomes more significant, as they can ensure the right to practice religion freely.
Religious service providers spoke about the difficulties they face in the reception process. For example, regular long-term visitors report being turned away because of misspellings in a single visitor form, or elderly nuns have been refused entry on the basis of highly unreliable drug tests. Those who offered services both in prisons and in immigration detention facilities frequently commented that they found working in prisons much easier, as the rules and regulations were defined and less discretionary.
They reported that they are now escorted everywhere and are confined to a specific area, while in the past they had more freedom of movement around the facility. The restrictions on where they can hold the mass have also affected how they can deliver those services. For example, in Villawood IDC, as only some people in detention can access certain rooms, religious service providers have to deliver the Mass in two separate areas in a short timeframe, forcing them to rush from one location to another and feel stressed.
We also heard disturbing accounts of religious services being interrupted and abruptly ended, because of going slightly overtime, and reports of security staff treating items used in a Catholic mass as contraband. Such incidents demonstrate a profound disregard for the religious needs of people in detention.
The documented eyewitness account of a group of religious service providers who attended Melbourne ITA to offer mass on Christmas Day 2016 is one example that highlights many of the issues discussed in this report. Father Peter Carrucan who provides pastoral care describes an intimidating system with rigid rules and a highly monitored and regulated visit. From the beginning of the visit, staff remind the group of the time limit and most show no flexibility even though it is Christmas Day. The story draws attention to the issues with reception process, taking in food items, escorts and securitisation and illustrates how visits have come to be a source of stress in themselves rather than an opportunity for social interaction and alleviating stress.
People in detention and detention visitors can lodge a complaint through DIBP’s Global Feedback Unit. According to the DIBP’s website, Global Feedback Unit aims to ensure that all complaints are handled in a consistent way and are actioned appropriately.
Most of the detention visitors who spoke to us believed this feedback mechanism was futile and that the complaints lodged through this channel are not assessed or actioned properly. The participants in this research indicated that in response to their complaints, they receive generic replies from authorities, mostly stating that there is no evidence to substantiate their complaints.
People raised their disappointment that, even when they formally raise an issue with detention monitoring agencies, there is no assurance that those issues will be addressed or even investigated. This is because none of the recommendations made by those agencies are binding on the Government. Generally, visitors felt complaints were not heard and there were no effective mechanisms to hold ABF and detention service providers accountable for their management of the detention facilities.