Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Impacts of detention

The cruelty of detention in Australia

Three features make immigration detention in Australia especially cruel:

  • the length of time people are spending in detention (currently )
  • the absence of an independent review process, and
  • the fact that all non-citizens in Australia who do not have a valid visa are required to be detained under Australian law.

These policies have long been severely criticised by national and international independent observers, service providers and academics.

These factors are the main reasons people in detention suffer from extremely poor mental health, causing numerous incidents of self-harm. This has been well documented by medical professionals. For example, Dr Peter Sainsbury, the former president of Public Health Association of Australia, characterised immigration detention facilities as “psychosocially destructive environments”.

Social isolation, uncertainty, lack of reliable means of communication and being left to one’s own thoughts in a confined space, are the daily realities of life in detention. For almost a quarter of those now in detention, they have been living like this for more than 730 days.

Many of the participants in our research spoke about the mental strain caused by detention. They told us about their firsthand experiences of watching people deteriorate. In the words of one of the visitors in Victoria:

It is a cruel system designed to deter people coming here and it is breaking people and that’s the hardest part about visiting. You see someone who has just arrived in detention, 2-3 months, maybe even 4 months they’re OK and then you watch them decline. You see them come out, their hair is unwashed, their eyes are dull, they can’t smile, they are barely able to function. You know they’ve got the detention sickness and they are on the road downhill.

New challenges in detention

This decline has been made worse by a lack of meaningful programs and activities in recent years. RCOA heard constantly that programs and activities now lack a real purpose and merely exist to fill the time. People in detention comment that the daily activities do not provide them with any skills or respite from the stressful environment of detention.

With no structured activities over the weekends, except for access to some sporting equipment, days feel longer and meaningless. While previously people could leave the detention facilities for a few hours to visit parks, swimming pools or places of worship, in recent years excursions have become either severely limited or have been stopped altogether.

The negative impacts of detention are made more profound by being housed with people who have spent time in prisons, being mechanically restrained for outside appointments (including appointments with health professionals) and random room searches. These practices also strengthen the perception amongst people seeking asylum that their detention is not an administrative measure, but designed to punish and deter.

As one visitor noted:

The men obviously fear the night with the nightmares and room searches that come with it, but they just as equally fear the days. The days are so long and without any activities, it really takes a toll on their mental health.

These everyday challenges highlight the important role of detention visitors. Family, friends and community members who visit people in detention are the few remaining protective factors. They bring a sense of normalcy and community. However, they are facing increasing challenges.

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