Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Importance of detention visitors

A lifeline

Visits are one of the few lifelines that people in detention have with the outside world. Most of those detained in immigration detention facilities report lacking the required access to legal advice and information. As previously mentioned, they also lack meaningful activities to fill their time and to have social interactions with others. We heard consistently from those in detention that the visitors are those who fill this void.

Visitors help people to navigate an extremely complex immigration and legal system by providing information, assistance and referrals. A visitor based in Victoria reflected on how she works to fill the void created by lack of legal advice and delayed access of lawyers to people in detention:

One of the great concerns I have now is the timeline for people to lodge. If someone arrives in detention on a character cancellation, it’s two days for them to lodge an appeal. For an AAT [Administrative Appeals Tribunal], its 7 days and for another process it’s 9 days. If you have to get papers signed and get these things lodged it makes it very difficult. Often, I do those things because the lawyers are required to apply 48 hours in advance to enter [the detention facility] and they often get put off and they can’t access the clients. So, it is easier for me to go in as a visitor.

But I think that perhaps legal processes are put at risk by these restrictive processes. You find people who don’t have the language skills, who don’t know anybody.

A visitor who used to visit Wickham Point APOD agreed:

I think without the assistance of advocates, people won’t be able to navigate this complex system by themselves and they would just get completely lost.

Detention visitors continue to advocate on behalf of people in detention to make sure their needs are addressed. In an environment where Departmental case managers are often hard to contact, questions are left unanswered and health concerns are unexplained, advocacy plays a major role in ensuring human rights standards are upheld. Many people not only advocate on behalf of people in detention but also help them know their rights and assist them in advocating on their own behalf, for example by helping them request their medical records.

People we spoke to were determined to fight the idea that a human being can just be forgotten about. They continue to share their observations and the stories they hear, and to talk about what is happening inside the places of detention in Australia.

The spirit of mateship

The impact of visitors on people in detention will be discussed in more detail at the end of this section. In brief, many people who spent months or years in detention facilities, uncertain about their future, commented that detention visitors brought humanity and friendship to their lives and alleviated their stress. The example below, shared with us by a visitor to Villawood IDC, is a true illustration of this:

There was a wedding party at Villawood. The officers did not allow us to play music or have musical instrument in the visiting area. The atmosphere lapsed into tense silence. A wedding party needs music. So, we started improvising with the people in detention making music with whatever objects which were around, including tapping on the tables. The atmosphere was filled with joy.

A participant who was previously in detention stated the following when asked about the impact of visitors on his life in detention:

Most visitors I had were Australian. I had a friend from my home and he used to visit once a month but mostly I had friends from Australia visit me at the visit room. They used to come, they are still going there and visiting the guys. They are really nice people who are caring to help. They understand humanity and I wish your government could have 10% of their humanity. I think in Australia you call it the spirit of mateship. I wish your Government had that spirit of mateship.

During the course of our consultations, it was valuable for RCOA to listen to different approaches people take when trying to support people in detention. For example, one of the participants based in New South Wales reflected:

Some people detained don’t want a case manager approach. They just want a normal everyday human being to visit them as opposed to feeling like they have been cased managed or counselled or [being asked to tell] … the horrible story over and over, for them to be recorded again and then they feel like nothing much is happening.

Visitors have also helped people in detention tell their stories and talk about the impacts of detention, mostly through art. The ‘Refugee Art Project’, which provides art workshops for people detained in Villawood IDC and shows the artwork in public exhibitions, is a remarkable example of this. Similarly, one detention visitor from Victoria told us about her work with people in detention in that state:

I tried to find avenues to create activities for people detained that might engage them during the day a bit. And out of that, there is a small group of people who are now called artists, creating amazing artworks. I offered to put on an art exhibition. It was more about giving them a goal. I could see how hard it was for some of them. Producing artwork and creative work in that environment is incredibly hard, like you are struggling against everything…[you] just want to give up and later… you get to try, imagine, draw and create…And they did it. In the end, it turned into a little art exhibition which was called ‘Over the Fence’ in … Victoria. It was very well attended and the money raised [was used to] … resource them further, and it had an impact on them that their work has been shown to public. I called it ‘Over the Fence’ because in a way they loved to jump over the fence, even if they physically couldn’t get out, actually the exhibition itself, the artwork did.

A person to trust

Arguably, one of the main reasons that community advocates and visitors have become so effective in communicating with and advocating for people in detention is because of their ability to develop a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. This level of trust has at times made detention visitors and advocates privy to information that people in detention may not disclose to others.

It is encouraging to hear people in detention have someone to speak to, about their personal stories or thoughts. However, hearing about matters like suicidal thoughts or accounts of abuse and neglect can place an enormous burden and responsibility on the visitors who remain the main trusted point of contact for people in detention:

We had a guy try to hang himself two days ago. He is in hospital now. If they are worried about things they’ll tell us constantly that they’re suicidal and want to kill themselves. They’ll tell us.

—A detention visitor in New South Wales

That level of trust on numerous occasions created an opportunity for advocates and visitors to help detention service providers calm stressful situations and resolve conflicts. This is in stark contrast to their portrayal by some media outlets and politicians. For example, in Northern Territory when a number of people detained in Wickham Point APOD engaged in a prolonged hunger strike, the coordinator of a local advocacy organisation assisted in breaking down the communication barriers between people in detention and authorities. As the coordinator explained

They had the Department talking at them every single day and they said ‘no, we are not going to eat ever again so we will die’. Then we went to see them and explained that we understand what you are upset about … but you are being processed now, so it’s not actually achieving anything for you in the long run, because the department does not negotiate with people protesting like this … so let’s just eat and then do [other] things instead [relay your complaints in other ways]’…. [it was successful], whereas the department just says ‘eat eat eat’ and they say ‘no’.

Another example points to a program (which unfortunately has now ceased) that started in response to the level of distress of young people in detention. It shows the importance of an effective and trustworthy relationship between detention visitors and detention service providers and the benefits that relationship can have for the most vulnerable people in detention:

I was asked by a lawyer in another state to see [the unaccompanied minors whose cases were rejected at the primary stage] because they were her clients and she couldn’t get there in time but she knew how distressed they were. One boy tried to hang himself, three of them were on hunger strike and they were really disturbed. I sat with them and talked to them and then I spoke to the immigration manager at the time, who was a decent man, and I asked if we could take them out to the park for a picnic and he trusted us, and let us do it. Those kids really turned around, we took them out a couple of times and then they went into their appeal process and of course they were all found to be refugees. They were all absolutely solid cases. After that because that director trusted us and we absolutely stuck to the rules and he could see how beneficial it was, we would regularly take out the young fellas, so we’d take them bowling etc.

—A detention visitor in Victoria

Impact on people in detention

RCOA sought written or verbal feedback from those who had been in detention on the impact of visitors on their lives in detention. The people we spoke to spent, on average, two years in detention between 2013- 2016 and were living in the community at the time of consultation.

All of the people we spoke to highlighted the positive, crucial and constructive role of visitors in their lives, not only while they were in detention, but also after their release. For them, being visited in detention meant that someone was there to listen to them and provide a respite in difficult situations. Almost every interviewee emphasised that spending time with visitors reduced their stress, caused emotional relief, gave them mental solace, and hope about the future. As one person previously in detention said (through an interpreter):

The [visitors] provided respite in difficult situations, consolation and emotional support when there was nobody around me except my fellow detainees.
90% of the interviewees talked about how the visitors gave them a sense of consolation and empathy. People believed this made them feel supported and more resilient and lifted their moods.

Three quarters of the people stated that visitors provided them with resources and necessities such as toys for kids, cultural food, and clothes that made them feel more dignified. Half of those we spoke to noted that visitors helped them with referrals and/or found them a lawyer.

In addition, 40% stated that visitors created positive feelings towards the Australian community, connecting them with the real Australian society and made them feel they are being seen and heard by people in the society. As another person previously in detention commented, “I felt that the hope we were given helped me accept the situation”.

The support the visitors provided was not limited to the time in detention. Many of those who were previously in detention told us about the lasting friendships established during the detention visits. After people are released, many visitors continue to help them. They often give them information about the city, society and employment and help them re-adjust. Some have become like a member of one’s family.

After leaving detention, I am still in touch with them and they are present in my life as guides.

— A person who was previously in detention

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