Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

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The changing context in recent years

On 1 July 2015, the Department of Immigration was merged with Australian Customs and Border Protection, and the Australian Border Force (ABF) was established. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) considers the ABF to be the ‘operational enforcement arm’ responsible for the operation of immigration detention. ABF works with detention service providers and directs day-to-day operations and oversees the management of those facilities.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into the Australian Border Force Bill in 2015, RCOA stated that its overriding concern regarding the merger of the Department of Immigration with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Services was:

the apparent shift away from a facilitation-centred approach to migration, refugee protection and citizenship to an enforcement-centred approach. The creation of the Australian Border Force suggests that enforcement is to become an overarching focus for all areas of the agency, rather than being limited to those sections which have a specific mandate for enforcement.

This ‘enforcement-centred approach’ with its emphasis on compliance has resulted in a highly restrictive detention regime. This approach is the underlying cause of the challenges faced by visitors to detention recorded in this report.

Amendments to the Migration Act 1958 have been another significant factor. These amendments have made it easier to detain people on the basis of their ‘character’. These amendments greatly extend the powers to detain non-citizens because of their criminal records or related ‘character’ concerns. Some of these amendments require automatic cancellation of people’s visas if they are sentenced to prison for 12 months or more. This means if they are not in prison, they will be detained in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or leave Australia.

This has meant that people seeking asylum are being detained with a greater number of people who have spent time in prisons. It also means that new security measures have been introduced into detention centres, affecting both people in detention and their visitors.

Visiting detention centres

Australia holds people in immigration detention in a variety of places across the country. Some of these are located closer to the main capital cities. For example, Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (ITA) are located about 25km from the centre of Sydney and Melbourne respectively, and are easily accessible by public transportation.

However, other detention facilities are located in more remote areas. Yongah Hill IDC, for example, is located in the city of Northam, about 100km from Perth. There are few public transport options from Perth to Northam station, and there is no public transport for the extra 7km to the centre itself.

Access to North West Point IDC in Christmas Island is much more challenging. The flights to the Island are limited and expensive. The cost of accommodation and food is quite high.
People can visit these detention facilities in different capacities. Currently, the Department lists on its website those who can visit (subject to conditions) as friends and families, lawyers and migration agents, religious service providers, volunteers and community groups, detention monitoring agencies and some other officials.

Some of those visitors, especially those who have been visiting the facilities for many years, have been able to raise issues in detention with those managing and running the centres. One of the ways to raise those issues is through Community Consultative Groups. These are meetings held in these places between representatives of some community organisations, many of whom are detention visitors, and detention management. However, as this report argues, there is a need to expand the opportunities for this kind of engagement and dialogue.

Researching this report

For this report, RCOA spoke to many detention visitors across Australia about their experiences during the visits. They spoke about the impacts of visits on them and the increasing challenges they face in accessing people in detention. They spoke about the increased security environment of immigration detention facilities, resulting in highly regulated and monitored visits.

We also spoke to people who were previously in detention to understand how having visitors affected their wellbeing, and to hear from them how the difficulties in receiving visitors affected their time in detention. RCOA decided not to interview people currently in detention for this report, because of their and our concerns about any adverse impacts of speaking out. However, the views of this group are presented throughout this report, through the feedback and reports we received from their supporters.

To carry out this research, RCOA conducted interviews and received feedback from 55 people across all Australian states and territories where there are or have recently been detention facilities.(As there was never an immigration detention facility in Australian Capital Territory and Pontville Immigration Detention Centre in Tasmania closed over three years ago, we did not interview people based in those states and territories. ) This includes 15 people who were previously in detention.) Many of our research participants have been visiting immigration detention for over 10 years, with a few who have been volunteering their time since the early 1990s.

We were able to speak to visitors to all onshore immigration detention facilities. During the course of this research, two places of detention closed (Wickham Point Alternative Place of Detention (APOD) and Perth Immigration Residential Housing (IRH). Since access to offshore detention facilities is extremely difficult, this report is only about facilities in mainland Australia as well as North West Point IDC in Christmas Island.

We also made sure we spoke to individuals who visited detention facilities in different capacities, including social visitors, religious service providers and lawyers. Many of the visitors we spoke to were part of larger groups which regularly visit detention facilities. Some, however, continued to visit as individuals.

Most of the information was collected through semi-structured interviews that ran for up to an hour on average. Participants could also send through written responses. All research participants were given the opportunity to contact RCOA as many times as necessary with further updates. The list of interview questions is available in Appendix 1. As most people who spoke to RCOA did not wish to be identified, all names and affiliations have been removed.

RCOA welcomed an opportunity to present its findings to the Australian Border Force in advance of publishing this report. We were able to raise and work through some of issues identified in the course of our research, and look forward to continuing this dialogue in the future.

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