Refugee Council of Australia
Carving of man trapped in box

Unwelcome visitors: Challenges faced by people visiting immigration detention

Arranging a visit

From the responses provided to our interview questions, it was clear that the processes of securing a visit and entering an immigration detention facility have become increasingly bureaucratic and strict. Stricter rules requiring more paperwork, body searches and drug testing delay visitors and cut down the time they can spend with people in detention. We have received many reports of instances where booking confirmations could not be located by staff at reception desk and visitors needed to wait for a long time while staff were looking for their forms.

During the course of consultation, it was valuable to hear from those visitors who could compare their visits to immigration detention facilities to other detention facilities, such as juvenile detention. As one visitor in Victoria noted:

I have attended the […] in Melbourne – a juvenile detention facility for general crime, which has external security administered by […], and internal security provided by youth justice workers – and have not encountered the same level of disorganisation or bureaucratic hurdles apparent at MIDC [Maribyrnong IDC], despite there being similar security needs at both facilities.

This is not an isolated comparison. Many people who spoke to us who also visited prisons stated that, in their opinion, it is now harder to visit immigration detention facilities than prisons and other types of detention facilities.

Booking and communication pre-visit

Many of our participants commented that they found the process of booking a detention visit challenging. In many detention facilities, insufficient visiting space means that visit spots are quite limited.

To book a visit, visitors need to write down the names of those they would like to visit. This creates an obstacle for people who want to start supporting men and women held in incarceration, as a social visitor. More importantly, it does not allow visitors to come across those who are isolated and need support. If no one asks for a person in detention, they are unable to go to the visit area.

As one of the visitors in New South Wales outlined:

Unless somebody actually gives you the name, there is no way to find out if somebody has no visitor.

People with limited English language skills, those who may have less engagements with others due to their declining mental health, people from certain nationality groups who have less peers in detention, and people transferred from offshore detention facilities are more affected by this rule. In brief, it disproportionately affects those who are more vulnerable. Given the fact that visitors provide people with emotional support, resources, and referrals to legal advice and other support, those vulnerable groups will miss out on this much-needed opportunity for support.

We have found people hidden away in the back blocks of that detention centre who don’t know that they have to make applications through lawyers, they don’t know how to apply and they just get left behind and forgotten. [having more people who are going unnoticed] is my biggest concern.

–A detention visitor in Victoria

In the past, there were more opportunities for relaxed and less regulated community visits. Visitors could strike up a conversation with new people in the communal areas. They could engage in activities such as gardening or playing board games in communal areas with people in detention. However, the new rigid visiting arrangement does not allow those interactions in most detention facilities. Now, in most detention facilities, separated rooms or tables and arbitrary rules deprive visitors of a chance to get to know other people in detention, to find out about their needs (or those of their friends), and to lend them support.

We were encouraged to hear that some community organisations can book the whole visit room in Yongah Hill IDC once a month and have a chance for more relaxed interaction. In our recent discussion with ABF, we welcomed their report that in Brisbane ITA the concept of cultural nights was recently introduced. We were informed that these events allow visitors and people in detention to spend a few hours socialising in a less regulated environment. However, the feedback received so far from the visitors to this detention facility has been that many of them have not been informed of this initiative and that these events occur very infrequently.

In general, while these initiatives are positive, they do not adequately compensate for the highly regulated visits, especially for people who are considered of lower risk and visitors with no history of non-compliance. Nor are these visits currently available in all detention facilities.

The difficulties in booking a visit raise concerns about how urgent visits could be accommodated. While there is an official notice requirement of 24 hours (except at Yongah Hill IDC), many detention visitors told us that at times they waited much longer to have their visits approved. Visitors to Brisbane ITA, for example, at times waited over two weeks to have their visit requests approved. Visitors to Melbourne ITA commented that they send in their applications at least a week before their planned visit to ensure their application is approved. These hurdles and requirements all create challenges to arranging an urgent visit. Given that the wellbeing of people detained can deteriorate rapidly, urgent visits could be life-saving, as they provide people with an opportunity to speak to those they know and trust.

Participants also observed incidents of poor communication between different staff who process visitor applications. There were numerous instances where applications were misplaced and errors were made on essential details, often resulting in a visit being refused. Many visitors told us that they often keep thorough records of their communication with staff and bring in their own copy of a booking confirmation to ensure they gain access on the visit day. Nevertheless, visitors have been refused the visits they have booked due to administrative errors on countless occasions.

We were told of occasions when confirmations of booking were either not sent to visitors or sent a few minutes before the start of the visit, signalling yet another flaw in communication. People reported that due to these experiences, sometimes even if they have not received a booking confirmation, they visit the detention facility, in case their requested visit has been accepted but Serco failed to notify them. This clearly disproportionately affects those who need to travel from interstate, need to make child care arrangements or take time off work.

People also reported that they struggle to get any information from the reception staff when they call the detention facilities. We heard time and time again that the staff ask more questions from the callers about who they are and why they are asking the questions than answering any of their queries.

We spoke to a young woman in Sydney whose relative was detained in Victoria. She told us that when she called the detention facility to find out how far in advance she needed to submit her visit request so she could start preparing for her interstate trip, she was asked a number of questions about who she was. She was eventually told by the staff that he could not provide her with an answer and she needed to submit her application “as soon as she can”, advice that she did not find helpful.

There have also been instances where people in detention are allegedly not informed that they have visitors. Visitors are told their friend is not available while the person in detention either was not informed of the visit or was not escorted to the visit area.

You can go through all these procedures and not see the person that you want to see because no one let them know that you are there, it can be very frustrating. There is no interest, no feeling from the officers that they are going to put themselves out to let the refugee knows you are there.

–A detention visitor in New South Wales

If this happens and the person in detention does not arrive, the visitor is asked to leave, being stopped from having conversation with other friends and getting to know new ones.

Many visitors find the steps required to secure a visit exhausting and at times intimidating. Most of the people we spoke to were Australians driven by the spirit of humanity and volunteerism.

Almost all spoke English fluently and were well aware of how to interpret new regulations. They were often part of a network of peers who could support one another. Yet these visitors are often unsure if they are following the right steps.

RCOA is concerned about the friends and families of those in detention who do not speak English fluently, who are new to Australia and unfamiliar with all the bureaucratic hurdles, rules and regulations, who are isolated, and on many occasions live in a different city or even state from where their loved one is detained. Apart from limited information available in the translated visitor forms, there is no other translated material or support for these visitors to ensure they understand the process. RCOA is concerned that these group of visitors are far more severely disadvantaged than the rest.

Searches

Section 252G of the Migration Act 1958 allows an officer to request a person about to enter a detention facility to walk through screening equipment and have the items in their possessions screened. If there is reasonable ground for suspicion, the officer can also inspect those items and conduct a more thorough search. If the person does not comply, the officer can refuse entry.[11]

For years, searches before entry were a routine part of the reception process. However, recently those searches, and in particular body searches have become much more rigorous and at times quite intrusive.

Visitors reported that they receive inconsistent messages about what items they can take in to the visitor area. To name a few examples, people at times have been requested to remove their rings or prevented from taking in books or writing material. They were sometimes allowed to take in a number of papers stapled together and sometimes were asked to remove the staples. Sometimes they were allowed to take in flowers they purchased for people in detention and sometimes were not.

They have even been asked to remove the aluminium foil from chocolate bars they were taking in, or were told they were not allowed to take in chocolate bars. None of these requirements have been consistent, even in one facility.

In a letter to the Age newspaper, one of the visitors talks about these inconsistent messages. She states that as an English teacher, she used to assist her friend in detention to practice her writing. She reported that her friend valued writing as it helped her express her emotions. In the last visit, however, the woman in detention was prevented from bringing in her journal to the visit area and was not able to take in a piece of paper given to her by her visitor containing the names of some writing websites.[12]

Drug tests

Currently, individual searches have expanded to include drug tests (including oral swabs) and pat downs.[13] We have received numerous reports of drug tests that were not reliable and not conducted correctly. Visitors identified a number of flaws in the way the tests are conducted that could cause external contamination and make the process unreliable. They include:

  • Officers wearing cotton gloves instead of disposable plastic gloves
  • Officers re-using disposable plastic gloves
  • Officers storing swabs in their pockets
  • Officers putting their hands in their pockets while wearing gloves and before conducting the tests
  • Officers touching other items while wearing gloves and before conducting the tests, and
  • Instances of packets of swabs being exposed to open air.

Detention visitors told us of the extreme measures they take to reduce the risk of external contamination and false positive reading. They told us they try their best not to use public transportation to get to the detention facility, change their clothes just before entry, do not put on perfume, do not use the toilet in the reception area (even after a long drive to get to the facility) and do not even sit on the chairs in that area.

As mentioned, all these precautions can be futile as the way the tests are conducted could result in false positive readings. Detention visitors reported that in some facilities they had success in advocating locally by suggesting measures to address some of the issues, for example for officers to use plastic gloves instead of cotton ones. However, local advocacy has not been successful in all facilities. They also commented that in some facilities, despite the use of new scanners, an increasing number of false positive readings is recorded.

RCOA is conscious of the fact that the increased number of people in detention who had been in prison may justify more rigorous tests before entry. For example, those who had spent time in jail for drug offences and their visitors can present some challenges which may require more thorough scrutiny and tests to manage the potential risks.

However, the result has been the blanket application of rigid and intimidating reception rules to all visitors, irrespective of the risk profile of the people they visit and their visit history. We see that tests are not conducted correctly, everyone is treated with extreme suspicion, and people feel stressed and humiliated after being denied entry. People are not told about their rights; guidelines for conducting the tests are not publicly available; and some people experience stress as they are unsure if positive readings could have wider implications beyond being denied entry to the detention facility.

On several occasions, elderly Australians, including nuns, have been refused entry for allegedly testing positive to cocaine and other drugs. These denials of access do not only affect visitors. They also mean people in detention are denied the opportunity to see their family and friends.

He [person in detention] is treated like a drug user and me like a drug smuggler every time I set foot in the place.

–A detention visitor [location deleted]

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