manus asylum seeker refugee

Due to my long-term intolerance and inability to produce hand crafts and a more specific allergy to how Australia treats people seeking asylum, I have been forced to find other ways to spend my recreation time since arriving in Melbourne from New Zealand. 

I visit refugees in the detention centre at Broadmeadows. Until last week I was able to take a container of fresh fruit and some chicken and salad when I visited. 

At reception my food would be checked by Serco guards, and I learned that it was easiest for everyone concerned if I put everything I bought into clear plastic containers where the food was clearly visible and could be seen not to contain a security threat. 

No metal or glass objects are allowed in, but that was workable because you haven’t really lived until you have tried to carve up a roast chicken for someone from a persecuted minority group using only two plastic teaspoons. It really is dinner and a show.

But this week Border Force banned visitors from bring fresh fruit and non-commercially produced food to detainees in Australian Detention centres. As the minister signs off on further malevolent and inhumane moves that effectively suck any tiny opportunity for people to demonstrate kindness to those in detention.

[Of all the things we have taken from asylum seekers, the worst by far is hope]

Visitors now have to bring only commercially produced food that has been sealed and has a date stamp for expiration. Border Force (See illustration) says this is because the Department’s top priority is to provide all detainees with a safe and healthy environment in immigration detention.

In a notice posted in the reception area at the Broadmeadows Detention Centre (MITA), it was also stated that the department aims to reduce the risk associated with visitors bringing in food that could compromise the safety, security and good order of immigration facilities. 

Which arguably could be seen as very admirable priority until you talk to people who have been in detention about the quality of food provided by Serco. Like I did.

Q, a man in his 30s who was in detention for two years in Australia’s onshore facilities, says visitors bringing food was actually the only way to maintain a vaguely healthy diet. He prefaced this conversation, as did another detainee I spoke to, by saying: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but you have to tell people how bad the supplied food was so they understand how important visitors bringing food was.”

He says the catering by Serco, which runs all of Australia’s immigration centres, was largely unhealthy “and heavy in fat and oil”. According to both Q and J, a woman in her 40s,  there was no consideration or provision made for vegetarians, people with diabetes or other health conditions.

Q says sometimes people just stopped eating because the food available made them feel sick. He says knowing that friends would visit and bring fresh fruit and meals containing vegetables was vital.

Greens Senator Nick McKim received a letter and petition from one of the regular visitors to MITA. Ocea (aged 10) of Melbourne made food every Friday night to take to the Broadmeadows centre. Upon hearing she could not bring home-cooked meals in anymore, Ocea asked her classmates to sign a petition, which McKim will table in Parliament. The government can choose to respond to it — or not.

McKim said: “Minister Dutton is trying to make detention centers more like prisons, which is outrageous because these are not prisoners and these people are not in detention centers because they committed a crime.”

I submitted the following questions to Border Force on Wednesday, the day after the ban was implemented, desperate to know if my $20 of bananas and melons posed either a significant security threat and/or imminent risk to the “good order” of the immigration facility. Or perhaps Dutton has discovered that my filthy Kiwi bananas are “unAustralian”? 

  • Can Border Force explain the concerns they have about food and fruit being bought in?
  • I am specifically interested in what food contamination hazard or security issue fresh fruit poses?
  • Can Border Force outline any incidents in which detainees have been ill as a result of eating home cooked food or fresh fruit during visits?

[Why is the government kicking asylum seekers out of their homes?]

But this whole issue isn’t just about gastro and good order. Nick — another visitor to detainees — wrote a letter to Border Force about why he believes the food bought in is important for detainees beyond basic nutrition reasons. “My parents and I make this food together. My mother and I are of Sri Lankan descent and it is the Tamil men in detention that I believe really benefit from what we take in. The physical and mental health effects are really apparent to me; this small gesture can raise the affect and mood of detainees. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or dietician for that matter to know how important people’s relationships with food are, and how food can be used to positively impact someones life.”

Nick also suggested to Serco and Border Force that he and other visitors would be willing to do an online food handling course so that Border Force and Serco could be assured that visitors and families were also prioritising the health and safety of detainees. He has yet to receive a reply to his letter.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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