Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Steps forward

The current barriers to access to immigration detention facilities not only deprive people in detention of a much-needed support mechanism, they negatively impact the visitors. Throughout this report, we outlined the important role the visitors play in supporting people in detention. Ongoing barriers could pose a real risk to the ability of the visitors to continue supporting people in detention. This will be detrimental to all stakeholders, including detention service providers, DIBP and ABF.

Guideline 8 of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Detention Guidelines emphasises that as a minimum standard:

Asylum-seekers in detention should … receive visits from relatives, friends, as well as religious, international and/or non-governmental organisations, if they so desire … Facilities should be made available to enable such visits. Such visits should normally take place in private unless there are compelling reasons relevant to safety and security to warrant otherwise.[21]

The stories and testimonies presented in this report provide a strong evidence base that some elements of this guideline, like having the opportunity for private visits, are currently not being met.

To address the issues explored in this report, RCOA developed the following recommendations. These recommendations are informed by the views of the participants in our research and other member organisations. These recommendations are addressed to DIBP and ABF, with a view that it is the Department that manages Serco’s contract and any matters relating to how Serco operates should be addressed and managed by the Department.

Recommendation 1: Recognise their role and engage

DIBP and 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.

Through their interactions with people in detention, most visitors have developed a unique knowledge and insight into the impact of policies on people in detention. Many of the visitors have been visiting places of detention for decades and have a good understanding of the detention network and the policies and procedures which have worked well.

Forums like Community Consultative Groups at times create an opportunity for dialogue between members of the community and detention service providers. However, the limited time and the number of issues that need to be discussed in these meetings do not always allow people to engage in more detailed conversation about a specific issue.

DIBP and ABF should offer more time during such forums to detention visitors (and if suitable separate specific meetings) to hear the issues they would like to raise about access to detention and the solutions they would like to put forward. Those meetings could also be used to provide advance notice of any changes to current rules and regulations, instead of people finding out about those changes through experience.

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.

Currently all visitors are heavily scrutinised and monitored before and during the visits. RCOA understands that the detention of new cohorts of people may have presented additional challenges that the Department needs to manage, although rules should reflect the fact that immigration detention is administrative rather than punitive in nature.

In developing and managing rules, the Department should give staff more flexibility to take into account past compliance by detention visitors and those they visit. The Department should also encourage further discussion with detention visitors about how the perceived risks currently being addressed by the more restrictive rules could 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.

As previously mentioned, this recommendation is not about implementing the same rules nationally, irrespective of detention population and infrastructure. Rather, it is about ensuring rules are not constantly changed. In a highly unstable environment like detention, offering some level of stability is essential. Further, on matters that are not linked to detention infrastructure, like food and personal items visitors can take into the centre, there should be consistency across the network.

We look forward to a copy of national detention visit guidelines and encourage the Department to seek advice from the community before finalising the document. After the guidelines are finalised they should be available to members of public to ensure accountability.

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.

DIBP and ABF should work with Serco to develop better training for its staff to minimise the flaws in carrying out drug tests. They should also ensure that clear guidelines on how to carry out the tests are available to all frontline staff.

Additionally, before the start of the test, visitors need to be informed of their rights. There should also be consideration given to the time it takes to process visitors to ensure it is not going to affect the time people can spend with those in detention.

Recommendation 5: More relaxed visits

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

As discussed in this report, visitors play a vital role in supporting people in detention and help to mitigate some of the risk factors they face in the current detention environment. More unstructured and relaxed visits are needed more than ever. RCOA encourages DIBP and ABF to provide opportunities for regular unstructured visits and consult with visitors and people in detention about the format and time that is most effective.

This can be done by letting visitors book out the visitor room for a few hours and allowing more relaxed interactions, or by organising shared activities and meals (as was previously allowed).

These visits can provide a respite from the everyday stress of the detention. Removing some of the build-up of pressure and simply giving people a chance for having a relaxed time can make the management of the detention facilities easier. Such visits may also ease the demand for the visitor room in detention facilities with more limited capacity, as some visitors and their friends in detention may use these opportunities to enjoy each other’s company rather than applying for a visit through the normal procedures.

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).

As discussed in this report, here are a number of arbitrary rules that are usually not enforced across the detention network and are limited to one detention facility. They are unnecessarily restrictive and some can further limit the capacity of visitor rooms. They also directly affect the experience of visitors and people in detention and create undue stress.

An arbitrary rule that should be revised is the requirement at Melbourne ITA that people in detention need to apply to Serco and use the visitor room to see each other. This could be done through appropriately managed shared activities or allocating an alternative meeting place, rather than using the visitor room. Applying formally to Serco adds an unnecessary and frustrating extra step. Furthermore, in Melbourne ITA, there is a clear need for a toilet in the visitor area that can be used by people in detention. The current redevelopment of this detention facility provides an ideal time to address this issue.

DIBP and ABF, together with the management and service providers at Brisbane ITA, should also re-examine the need for the current restrictive management of visits at this facility, especially 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.

An increasing number of people who are being detained have established social networks in the community and need to receive visits. The current infrastructure of many detention facilities does not cater for these needs. Considering many detention facilities are undergoing redevelopment, this important factor should be given priority in all planning and design.

Allocation of separate visitor areas with separate entry process for detention population with high and low risks could address many of the issues identified in this report.

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.

This measure can reduce the likelihood of misplaced applications, refusal of entry due to administrative errors and late notification of booking confirmation. This training should also target those staff who are tasked with responding to telephone enquiries and should equip them to assist the callers more appropriately.

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.

DIBP and ABF should recognise in practice the value that religious service providers add to better management of facility and their role in ensuring people can practice their religions freely.

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.

Additionally, when the national visit guidelines are released publicly, they should be available in community languages.

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.

We started this report by speaking about the negative impacts of prolonged and indefinite detention. The recommendations in this report address some of the symptoms of this detention regime, but do not resolve the underlying causes.

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.

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