Border Force

Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs, appears to have started 2018 with some potent New Year New Me(an)-type inspo.

Dutton’s department has issued complex and punitive changes to visitor entry and application requirements for visitors to detention centres. Because of these changes, some detainees have gone on a hunger strike.

I began visiting Melbourne’s detention centre in Broadmeadows in 2016 because I wanted to see if there really were gross human rights violations happening (as the pesky UN sees it) approximately 15 kilometres from me and my latte in Brunswick. Short answer: yes there were, but they’re now getting grosser.

And just so I’m clear, people in detention on the Australian mainland are not living in some college dorm style relaxed holiday camp. Detention centers are prisons but with one important difference; in prison you know how long your sentence is.

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On the whole, you meet people who are seeking asylum status in Australia because they have fled from conflict, war, and persecution. Y’now, the big three. Some people have been caught up in the section 501 issues including a detainee I spoke to for this article who is imprisoned in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney and currently on a hunger strike, along with what he estimates to be at least 200 other men protesting the latest changes.

But crucially, only some detainees are safe enough to protest. Pamela Curr from the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project points out that people in the 501 visa category actually have some rights and protections that other asylum seekers don’t. Curr says that this other group of asylum seekers have been told by authorities that they will be sent to Christmas Island as a punishment if they protest — and she doesn’t believe this an idle threat.

What are the details of the latest changes and why do detainees object?

Last Sunday, visitors were given flyers advising of new changes to visits starting from January 22. 

Visitors will now require 100 points of ID and must have one approved form of ID with a colour photo. This isn’t as simple as it sounds if you are from a country that issues passports with black and white photos (like New Zealand) or you don’t have a drivers licence.

The other significant change is a new rule that there can only be one visitor to one detainee during a visit. This makes it difficult for families to visit and for someone like myself who would see four or five detainees in one visit.

Visiting more than one detainee means you can play a game of cards, have a chat, eat whatever crap food you are now allowed to bring in and generally be civilised for a few hours. This change is the one the detainees really object to, as it isolates them even further, forcing a high security prison condition onto a group of people who are refugees, rather than people serving a criminal sentence.

The information supplied by the department says if we want to see multiple detainees then we have to apply to the superintendent for approval. Early yesterday I asked Border Force and Immigration via email on what basis the superintendent will consider these requests. 

I also asked why has these changes have been introduced and what the department hope to achieve with this change. Additionally, I asked if the department considered how this change will affect the mental health and well-being of detainees. Then, just for a laugh, I asked if the department would be answering the questions I submitted last September any time soon. I have received no reply.

A Border Force spokesperson told Radio NZ these changes have been made in an effort to limit the spread of contraband such as knives and razor blades. Though it’s worth noting visitors are already vigorously screened for such items.

When I spoke to a detainee in Sydney he said that he felt the new changes are not about providing a safe and secure environment and cutting down on risk but instead are part of a plan by Border Force and Immigration to make detainees so uncomfortable that they sign the paperwork to self-deport, ridding the Australian government of its problem “voluntarily”.

That is not an option for this man who has been in detention for six years. His parents live in Australia and he has no tangible support in his country of origin having left the Middle East when he was a small child.

He also alleges that when Serco and Border Force introduced the changes to the food that visitors could bring in September, a large group in Villawood went on hunger strike and officials negotiated with the group and made some allowances and exemptions. 

He says that the detainees were told no further changes would be made and so they were shocked when they heard from their visitors on Sunday about the new regime. “How can we ever reintegrate into the community when they stop letting the community come to us?”