The inquiry into the proposed works at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation
On Thursday, 1 December 2016 the Minister for Small Business, Hon Michael McCormack MP, asked the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works to inquire into and report on the Proposed Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Project, Broadmeadows, Victoria.
The Committee invited interested persons and organisations to make submissions addressing the terms of reference by Friday, 10 February 2017.
In the 2016-17 Budget process, the Government announced the closure of three immigration detention facilities over the next 24 months. It also announced investment in three key facilities in the detention network to manage increasing numbers of people in detention considered to be higher risk. These are the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre (Yongah Hill), and Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. The timing of some facility closures is linked to the establishment of new higher security capability at these three sites.
The Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works will be inquiring into the proposed upgrades to MITA and Yongah Hill. The Refugee Council of Australia made a submission to the inquiry into MITA, but decided not to make one in relation to Yongah Hill.
Our key concerns
RCOA is concerned that the hardening of immigration detention facilities, including in Victoria, will further limit the capacity of the detention network to accommodate people who have been assessed as low risk. This will create a need for more frequent transfers to the detention facilities in other states with appropriately equivalent risk ratings. These moves are financially costly and damaging to people’s wellbeing as they are moved away from their support network.
Many detention facilities have high and low-security compounds. RCOA is further concerned about the impact of securitisation of the detention facilities on people who continue to reside in lower-security areas of the detention facility. These concerns include: a more restrictive detention environment; limited programs and excursions; and increased limitations for visitor access.
Co-location of people in detention
RCOA understands that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection may also consider people who are at high risk of harm to self, and high risk of escape as a ‘high risk cohort’. When RCOA refers to a high risk cohort, we are primarily referring to those who pose a high risk to others.
RCOA is in regular contact with individuals and organisations that support people in detention, including the legal representatives of those in detention. We have received consistent feedback from these people that the shift in the detention population and the increase in the number of people with high and extreme risk ratings have created a number of issues.
RCOA has regularly received reports on the subject of co-location of high and low-risk people in residential areas, and/or instances of shared educational, sports, medical and common facilities. These instances created tensions inside detention facilities and exacerbate the perception among people seeking asylum that their detention is punitive rather than administrative, as they see themselves detained alongside people who had committed criminal offences. People seeking asylum have complained of the introduction of a ‘jail’ culture inside the immigration detention facilities.
People seeking asylum consistently report an increasing fear for their safety and some have significantly reduced their movements around the residential compounds and common areas and their participation in activities as a result. This has resulted in those affected becoming isolated and consequently compounding mental health issues.
The current proposal of DIBP puts in place mechanisms to separate people in detention based on the level of risk they pose to others, including separating residential areas and rostering access to shared facilities. While these positive developments are welcomed by RCOA, not all operational details have been outlined and the implementation of these unknown procedures could negatively affect the experiences of people in detention.
Balance between low and high security compounds
RCOA acknowledges that, with the increase in the number of people with a high risk rating and in order to separate people according to their risk ratings, there is a need to upgrade immigration detention facilities. This upgrade could mean hardening of some of the compounds.
On the other hand, people continue to be detained for overstaying their visas, breaching their visa conditions and for other reasons. Many of these people are assessed as having a low risk rating. Despite the reported efforts of the DIBP to process these people in the community, some will be placed in immigration detention facilities. In the absence of legislation prohibiting their detention, this group has included children.
Currently there are two immigration detention facilities in Victoria: Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre (MIDC) and Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). According to the submission made by the Department to this committee, MIDC is due to close.
MITA has four compounds: Avon, Eildon, Bass and Caldor. The current submission of DIBP proposes that Eildon and Caldor compounds will be redesigned and upgraded to high-security areas. The new proposal and the past redevelopments will leave the Avon compound as the only place left in Victoria to cater for the needs of a low-risk population in detention. It is unclear how many people can be accommodated in the Avon compound.
RCOA is concerned that this will result in the transfer of low-risk populations to other immigration detention facilities in other states that are able to accommodate larger numbers of low-risk people. Not only are transfers expensive, they have also been proven to have a number of significant negative impacts on people in detention.
People who have spent time in immigration detention facilities, their legal representatives, friends and supporters have told RCOA that being moved away from the state they used to reside in and where their social and support networks were based resulted in isolation and negatively impacted on their mental wellbeing. It also disrupted their relationships with legal service providers or resulted in them missing important dates for appeals or seeking help.
Impacts of hardening the detention facility
Even though a detention facility has low and high-security areas, the hardening of the facility and its increased securitisation can affect all people in detention. For example, the Australian Border Force (ABF) has introduced a number of measures that affect all those detained, including creating restrictions for visitors, more invasive room searches and significant reduction of excursions.
RCOA is conducting national research into the experiences of those visiting the facilities and the challenges they face.
The concerns we have heard about MITA included the need for people in detention residing in different compounds to make a formal application to the detention service provider and to use the limited capacity of the visiting room to meet each other. The people who are currently detained were previously able to meet and socialise in common areas, during classes and excursions and at meal times.
Visitors also raised concerns about the increasing invasive screening of all visitors, including drug tests, and ever-changing and inconsistent rules about what items they can bring to the visiting area and which items people in detention are able to take back to their accommodation area.
People in detention also spoke about more frequent and invasive room searches, which were seen to be implemented in response to the increase in the availability of drugs in detention facilities caused by the changing cohort.
After the Bass compound was transformed to a more secure one, RCOA heard a number of concerns from people in detention. They included that the compounds felt cramped and confined, and that people had very little outdoor space where they can walk and engage in leisure activities .
Additionaly, the number of people eligible for excursions outside of the facility has been reduced. Therefore, RCOA emphasises the importance of adequate outdoor space inside the detention facility.
The importance of outdoor space has been highlighted in the Detention Guidelines published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Given the feedback received by RCOA about the inadequate outdoor space in Bass compound, we remain concerned about this issue in any future development.
- There should be a balance between low and high security compounds with enough low security beds available to people detained in the state of Victoria without the need for their transfer to other states. This could be achieved by the expansion of Avon compound.
- All efforts should be made to prevent further transfer of long-term vulnerable detainees who have established support networks in the state of Victoria, unless they request to be moved to another state.
- The committee should inquire about the exact capacity of Avon compound and the number of low security beds MITA provides and whether or not that meets both the current and planned requirement of the immigration detention network, without the need for frequent transfers.
- The security mechanisms employed to maintain the good order and safety of the facility should correspond with the risks different detention populations present.
- The scrutiny of visitors to immigration detention should be proportionate to the risks of the cohort they are visiting. DIBP is proposing to create a new visiting area. This area could be used for people with a high risk rating and their visitors while the old visiting area could be used for low risk group and their visitors. Such a practical solution has a precedent in New South Wales as the high security compound of Villawood IDC (Blaxland compound) has its own separate visiting area and screening process. People who are assessed as presenting a low risk and their visitors should face fewer restrictions in terms of the socialising and screening process, similar to how the practices were before the shift in the detention cohort.
- With the reduction of opportunities for people in detention to leave the held detention environment for excursions, further outdoor space needs to be developed inside the facility. RCOA recommends using the area next to the new Eildon compound marked for “future expansion” or any other suitable space for this purpose.
- All people in detention should have equitable access to outdoor space inside the detention facility.