Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

How visiting detention affects visitors

I’ve felt miserable, burnt out, guilty, desperate and depressed but I’ve also felt joy, excitement and hope.

—A detention visitor from Northern Territory

In all of the consultations we conducted, detention visitors reflected on the impacts that visiting places of detention has had on their lives. People talked about the many positive impacts, from forming valuable friendships to gaining a better understanding of the policies our Government is implementing when it comes to offering protection to people seeking safety.

However, the challenges outlined later in this report have left many visitors feeling frustrated and hopeless. They are confronted with an inevitable sense of anger, combined with powerlessness in a system where advocating for people has become increasingly difficult and policies and procedures are increasingly unjust. This is taking a substantial toll on visitors, all of whom embody the spirit of humanity and volunteerism. If these issues are not addressed, there is a real risk that visitors will be unable to continue to provide support to an increasingly traumatised group of people.

Beauty out of cruelty

I gained a great deal of knowledge and understanding of global and national issues; I learnt a lot about different cultures and languages; I got to know and respect a lot of beautiful people – some of whom have become lifelong friends; I grappled with my own motives and thoughts/feelings around a lot of complex issues such as: giving, helping, caring and taking risks.

–A detention visitor in Northern Territory

On several occasions, people expressed that visiting immigration detention facilities gave them a much better understanding of Australian Government’s deterrence policies and their practical impacts on human beings. They also better understood different cultures, their needs and how they interpret and understand the policies they are impacted by.

This puts visitors in a unique position where they have a wealth of knowledge and can effectively engage in a dialogue with decision makers and detention service providers. While the government authorities and detention service providers look at most issues through the lens of risk management, visitors can bring in a different side of the story. They can bring in the testimonies of real people and talk about how those people perceive different situations. This would be greatly beneficial for managing the facilities better.

On a more micro level, the knowledge that visitors acquire through visiting places of detention promotes awareness of issues faced by people seeking asylum. Visitors can raise awareness about the effectiveness of deterrence policies and detention among people who do not have the opportunity to obtain first–hand experience and might otherwise rely on the rhetoric provided by certain media outlets and politicians.

Getting to know people as people, listening to their stories, their ideas, cultures, and feelings all expanded the horizons of visitors. People commented that this has helped them learn a great deal about different conflicts in various parts of the world, the reasons people leave their countries in the first place and why they embark on dangerous sea journeys.

It’s quite a beautiful thing that comes out of such a negative thing, knowing all these people and their stories and their lives and their journeys. It gives us such insight and perspectives. Connecting with them is amazing.

–A detention visitor in Victoria

Many participants in this research eloquently expressed the impacts of visiting detention on their own personal growth. Getting to know people who remain determined to achieve their rights, despite having little control over their lives and being deprived of liberty, has inspired visitors to be even more resilient. As some visitors explained, this involvement have made them feel more positive about themselves and their effectiveness in the society.

I feel I’m doing something useful, taking action in something I believe in, I feel I’m doing something good and helping people, and I like the people I meet. They give me hope in the resilience of human beings.

–A detention visitor in Victoria

Many noted that through the visits they are connected to people with a shared concern. They felt that these connections pave the way for making change through collaboration and collective action.

The positive side of that is I connected to more than a hundred people. We created a group of actions, we do heaps of fundraising, providing material to support people and support people in the community after they are released.

–A detention visitor in Victoria

Many visitors and the people they meet in detention stay in touch after they are released. Both groups talked about the great value of this friendship and support.

I have got seven guys in the community who now visit my home, they are my family, and they are deeply cherished by me and I know that they really value my friendship and I certainly wasn’t expecting that ever, they are the most delightful people I have seen.

–A detention visitor in New South Wales

The burden of injustice

I constantly battle with a sense of hopelessness, with despair and depression, [thinking about] all that our country is doing to them. That’s the overwhelming negative, it is very costly. I think it’s unavoidable and that would be, I think, a shared experience by everyone that visits.

— A detention visitor from Victoria

For many detention visitors, it is the perceived injustice that negatively affects them. Many feel guilty and helpless when they can see how Australia’s deterrence policies directly impact people who fled persecution and conflict. Further, many feel like they are at an impasse when they see no effective avenues for complaints.

The negatives are definitely that it puts a strain on you… Sometimes I feel depressed and frustrated because I can’t say to them when they’re going to get out and what’s going to happen… I can’t give them false hope and I can only say that people are helping them, that we are doing everything we can, that we are supporting them. I feel frustrated, I feel angry at the government for treating people this way, so there have been times that it does get me down. I found sometimes after I leave the centre, it takes me a little while to re-adjust my head.

–A detention visitor from Queensland

The very real experience of re-adjusting when people come out of a centre is one we heard on several occasions. For example, the very few people who visited North West Point IDC in Christmas Island talked about the almost surreal contrast between the natural beauty and tranquillity of the island and the cold and ‘prison-like environment’ of the detention centre. Similarly, with a facility like Villawood IDC that is tucked in between the busy suburbs of culturally diverse Western Sydney, the contrast can feel like flicking a switch on reality when leaving the detention centre.
Moreover, visitors find it difficult to deal with the realisation that what they are seeing is happening in a country they are so proud of.

I’ve learnt a lot to date. This is horrifying.

– A detention visitor from Queensland

The mental health and wellbeing of visitors are greatly affected by the serious issues people in detention disclose to them, which at times require immediate action. These challenges, combined with increasing difficulties in visiting and in addressing complaints, can increase the risk of losing such an important support mechanism for people in detention.

Many of the visitors we spoke to have been visiting places of detention for decades. They have seen various cohorts of people in detention and therefore fully understand that at times rules need to change to effectively manage new cohorts. Their concerns, and their recommendations, draw from years of on-the-ground experience and expertise.

RCOA was extremely concerned to see that even the most resilient visitors broke down during the interviews. Pressures on visitors to detention have left many increasingly feeling hopeless and frustrated.

These concerns are powerfully reflected in a written submission provided by a visitor in South Australia. Reflecting on the experiences of community visitors and relatives of those in detention, he stated:

I have seen visitors come to be as broken as the ones they visit. I have seen marriages broken under the strain and visiting children put through damaging routines of daily or weekly separation from their parents when they leave at the end of the day. Some of those who have visited their brothers, friends or spouses have been saints, but in the end, they were broken by the strain… To be honest, while I go to the detention centre to bring hope, I often find nowadays I have, like the detainee, been drained of any hope.

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