Huyen and her baby. Image credit: Rebekah Holt.

On Monday, Crikey published my story about Huyen, a Vietnamese woman living in Melbourne immigration detention with her five-month-old baby. Border Force did not reply to requests for comment on the mother and child’s welfare and living conditions, which were submitted on Sunday (this is not an unusual occurrence).

However, after deadline, they did provide me with something else:

While it is not appropriate to comment on the specifics of individual cases, the Department can confirm that this individual is not being detained at MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accomodation]. This individual is being housed, with her child, in an alternative place of detention (APOD).

An APOD may include temporary accommodation such as a hotel or motel room, a suburban house, a hospital, or any accommodation that might be used to facilitate the administrative detention of an unlawful non-citizen.

At all times the safety and security of minors is paramount. A range of care, welfare and support arrangements are in place to provide for the needs of children and young people in detention. Service providers are contracted to provide age-appropriate health, education, recreational, and cultural services. Health professionals regularly engage with detainees in regards to their mental health and individuals have access to counselling services as needed.

I would find the response from ABF amusing for its doublespeak if there weren’t a mother and infant experiencing demonstrably negative mental health because of the circumstances of their detention, sorry, housingI last saw Huyen 10 days ago and spoke to her one day ago. I spoke to her husband this morning. What we know is that Huyen and her baby are definitely detained by the Australian government in a living situation that is, reportedly, harming them.

Professor Louise Newman, who prepared a psychiatric report on Huyen and her baby, tells me that detention in these conditions is directly related to developmental problems in infants including mood and attachment difficulties. “The immediate impact is increasing maternal depression and the emotional impact this has on the baby.”

[Exclusive: concern raised for baby in Melbourne immigration detention]

How do we know Huyen and her baby are being detained rather than “housed”?

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) legal team, who are in regular contact with Huyen, directly contest many elements of ABF’s supplied statement. They allege that the distinction is in fact down to a matter of arbitrary “terminology”.

Huyen is detained in an area which the Department refers to as the Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP) which is in the same vicinity as MITA. The Department has deemed the BRP to be an Alternative Place of Detention. The BRP is a compound with 10 houses which is surrounded by a fence and is under constant guard. Detainees cannot leave this area.

Huyen lives in a house by herself with her daughter. They both sleep in one room so she can look after baby. There is a Serco guard in the house at all times. Huyen is not allowed to leave the house without a guard. The guards have been instructed not to hold the baby. There is no one to help Huyen to look after her baby or even hold her for two minutes so that Huyen can have a break.

No one is permitted to visit Huyen in the BRP, including her husband and her lawyer. Huyen has to go to the MITA Visitors Centre to see visitors who must book their visits in advance and go through an extensive security vetting process for each visit. It takes around five minutes by car from the BRP to MITA. Huyen goes to the MITA Visitors Centre every evening to see her husband. She has to go through a security check every time she goes to the Visitors Centre — this involves a body pat-down, walking through a security screening machine and the guards checking baby’s pram.

Whilst Huyen and her baby are technically not in MITA according to the Department’s terminology, they are still in detention and subjected to harsh conditions contrary to international human rights standards, which have had a very negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

When I visit Huyen, I am in MITA’s main visit room with her, her baby, her husband Paul, and a variety of other detainees including three asylum seekers I have been visiting regularly for a long time.

The other detainees adore seeing Huyen’s daughter. One carries her about and when other visitors ask her age he answers exactly in months and days. While ABF may want to give the impression that Huyen and her daughter are housed at some distance from the immigration detention centre and are therefore more comfortable, the truth is that she is even more isolated than the detainees in MITA.

The other detainees I know would gladly assist Huyen with her daughter’s care so Huyen could shower or take a nap — help which all parents of babies need no matter where they live or are detained.

On Tuesday I asked the Department to respond to the ASRC statement and Huyen’s conditions of detention. I submitted the following questions to the ABF media team and asked for a response before 11am Wednesday:

  1. Could the department explain what services (as outlined in your response yesterday) are available to Huyen that are different to detainees in the main MITA facility?
  2. Could the department explain why Huyen cannot receive visitors (family and lawyer included) in the APOD facility?
  3. Could the department explain why Huyen receives no assistance from staff in regard to the care of the baby? I understand that when the department detains minors who I have interviewed, social workers/staff from NGOs are hired to accompany the minors. Is there any provision like this for Huyen so that she can take care of her own personal showering etc without having to take her baby with her?

They have not replied.