New challenges for visitors
The increased security and the enforcement-centred approach of the Australian Border Force have changed the detention environment for both those in detention and for their visitors. This section of the report records the issues that visitors have faced in continuing to play their crucial role.
Constantly changing and inconsistent rules
All detention visitors who spoke to RCOA expressed concern about the inconsistent and rapidly changing rules and regulations. Several research participants felt that the constant change of rules both confuses and frustrates visitors and people in immigration detention. Our research has also found that the rules are often applied inconsistently, not only between different detention facilities but even within the same centre, depending on the staff implementing the rules.
RCOA was informed that ABF is working towards a national detention visit policy, which will be made publicly available once endorsed. RCOA is encouraged to hear this and hopes this document becomes available for detention service providers and public as soon as possible. The lack of such national guidelines results in the current inconsistent and discretionary practice of the staff at local detention facilities. It also reduces the accountability of the staff. As many people who spoke to RCOA observed, visitors currently have no knowledge of whether they have been asked to follow the right procedures, because there is nothing that sets out those procedures publicly.
According to the feedback we received, one of the rules that has regularly changed is the number of people one can visit. Even during the six-month research and consultation period for this report, RCOA was frequently contacted by the detention visitors who wanted to provide an update on the new number of people they could visit. Table 1 in section 8.4 provides an overview of the current number of people visitors can visit in each immigration detention facility and the capacity of visitor rooms.
Furthermore, while we understand the official policy is for immigration detention facilities to request 24 hours advance notice to book a visit, Yongah Hill IDC continues to request 48 hours. RCOA raised this issue with ABF but understands that the 48-hour notice remains a requirement and those who provide a 24-hour notice (in line with the national policy) will have their visit requests refused.
The need for some stability for those struggling with an environment filled with uncertainty is often overlooked. Community visitors told us they see the impact of those changes on people in detention and therefore make sure that their visits are at least regular:
We try to never miss a Thursday. We try to be very stable in that regard. The constant changes and barriers may make it difficult to keep this stability- they probably don’t care or see how important it is.
-—A detention visitor (state deleted to ensure they are not identified)
While outside of the scope of this research, it should be noted that the ever-changing rules and their inconsistent application are not limited to visit procedures. People in detention frequently report changes to the rules relating to their access to different areas of a detention facility, rules relating to how programs and activities are run, and how they receive their medication.
In raising issues about the inconsistent application of the rules, RCOA is not singling out frontline staff but rather is identifying a systemic issue that can result in staff not being fully aware of the rules they should follow. Many of the people we spoke to told us about professional encounters with the staff who tried to assist, although not always successfully. For example, according to one of the lawyers we spoke to:
Most Serco officers are only doing their jobs – they are all courteous and professional with me. I don’t have any issues them, but the rules and inconsistencies, as there seem to be few established written rules, makes the whole process problematic.
By advocating for more consistent application of the rules, we are not recommending that the same rules are applied to all detention facilities, irrespective of their infrastructure or the population they accommodate. What is of concern is the constant changes to the rules and requirements, especially within the same centre, without consultation or warning. As mentioned, the lack of a national visit guideline also undermines accountability.
Taking food items into visits
During our discussions about the inconsistent rules, visitors frequently talked about the confusion about the food items they could take into detention facilities. For years, detention visitors generously took various types of food into the detention facilities to share with people during the visits or to leave with them to enjoy later. The food they used to take in varied from home-cooked meals to snacks, or fruits and vegetables.
The comfort of culturally appropriate food helped people overcome the feeling of homesickness and added more diversity to the limited food options available in detention. However, the recent changes in rules and regulations have severely limited this practice. Furthermore, the relevant rules are applied inconsistently depending on the staff on duty.
Currently, in all detention facilities, the food brought by visitors has to be consumed during the visit. This is reportedly to comply with food safety standards. However, people who were previously in detention and long-term visitors remembered that in the past people could have those food items labelled and taken to their rooms. The food not consumed within a certain period would then be disposed of.
People reported that due to deteriorating mental health, some people could not eat at the specified time in the detention dining hall, some did not want to be in a busy area, and some could only fall asleep during the day. For that group, having food from the visit in their room was quite helpful as they had familiar and healthy alternatives, rather than resorting to instant noodles or a toast. Currently people in detention are not permitted to take even a packet of biscuits back to their room to have it later, if they are partly consumed during the visit.
For food to be allowed in, it must now be completely cooked, sealed and pre-packaged. In Melbourne ITA for instance, visitors can no longer give people fruits and vegetables. In Villawood IDC, each visitor can only take food in for a maximum of four people. The inconsistency of these regulations burdens visitors as they are unsure if they would be allowed to take in the food they brought. One week, for example, they are allowed to take in raw vegetables and another week they are not. When it comes to soft drinks, there is no consistency about the size and type of drinks allowed in.
Many detention visitors RCOA spoke to, found these inconsistencies frustrating and confusing:
I do not understand the rationale, how that would impact on operational matters within MITA or among SERCO staff, I just cannot see what the justification for that is, other than to provide another layer of discomfort and control [over] these people.
–A detention visitor to Melbourne ITA
Furthermore, in some detention facilities like Melbourne ITA and Brisbane ITA, people are no longer allowed to share food during the visits with people sitting at other tables. As one of the visitors of Brisbane ITA mentioned, for years sharing and offering food was a means of connecting to people and developing friendships. It is a gesture considered a sign of respect in many cultures.
When asked about the reasons for this relatively new policy, visitors were not given any satisfactory answer apart from the vague and repeatedly used ‘operational reasons’. It is, however, difficult to understand how such practices can impact the operations. A visitor to Brisbane ITA shared an example of one visit during which they were approached by a security staff who took notes in an intimidating way of the fact that they shared food with those sitting at another table:
It is very distressing that such a fundamental thing is now being used as a tool to distress them further. It’s beyond cruel, it’s inhumane. I just cannot see what the justification is for those changes at all.