Saturday afternoon, November 23, 2019.
A woman in uniform kneels beside 19-month-old Isabella, feeding her small pieces of pineapple. I kneel on the other side of them watching the pineapple disappear.
The woman, who I don’t know, says to Isabella, “Oh aunty did well, she got you some food you like,” while putting another piece in the toddler’s mouth.
I nod out of relief, holding another container of pineapple ready to replace the first and explain: “She picked all the pineapple out of some fruit salad on Wednesday, so I found some with just pineapple that were sealed so I could bring it in.”
We are two women looking at a little child who has lost weight and gone off her food.
We are two women trying to crack a puzzle — and after a minor victory we want to know how we did it so it can be repeated.
We could be nurses, mothers, teachers, or sisters, but we aren’t.
We are a Serco guard and a journalist.
We are in the visiting room of the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), Melbourne’s immigration detention centre, where Isabella has spent her entire life.
On November 4, Isabella’s mother Huyen Tran was given a deportation notice by Border Force staff. It said that Huyen would be deported to Vietnam on or after November 25. Today.
Alison Battisson, a lawyer for Huyen and Isabella, promptly lodged a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which confirmed it was investigating the case. Battisson says Huyen and Isabella have been subject to human rights breaches including their right to a private life and the right for a child not to be separated from family.
As Crikey has reported since last year, Huyen’s husband (Isabella’s father) has a visa to live and work in Australia, but that visa does not currently allow him to sponsor his wife. Huyen arrived in Australia in 2011 but after marrying Paul she was taken into immigration detention while pregnant, and has remained there.
On November 16 the UN committee responded to lawyers, saying it had asked the Australian government not to deport Tran while it considered her case, and requested that the government “take all necessary measures to prevent physical or psychological or irreparable harm to Ms Tran and [Isabella], having particular regard to [Isabella’s] needs as a child”.
Late on November 20, a case manager from MITA called Battison and said the deportation had been cancelled while the Australian government conducted its own investigation separate to the UN process.
But by late on November 22, lawyers and this journalist — despite several requests — had no confirmation in writing from the department of Home Affairs that an investigation would actually take place, who would conduct it, or how long it would take. All lawyers received was a one line email stating that this week’s planned deportation had been cancelled. Another query from lawyers as to if it has been rescheduled has gone unanswered.
Over the last three weeks Huyen and Isabella have both lost weight while waiting to know if their family would be separated. Huyen has stated that if she is deported she has no idea if she would be detained upon arrival in Vietnam and so concludes it would be dangerous to take Isabella with her, besides which the deportation notice makes no mention of her daughter.
Which is why I find myself kneeling on the ground beside a Serco guard, extremely invested in what food Isabella will eat. Huyen tells me that another guard has also implored her to eat more after the call to lawyers midweek saying “you need to put on weight, you have more fighting to do now”.
After her two lots of pineapple, Isabella walks an assured circuit of the visit room, a space she knows extremely well. She plays peekaboo with guards and deftly takes a biscuit from a guard’s lunch box while his back is turned.
I tell him what happened and offer to replace it, but another asylum seeker who has been watching says “the baby, she is just taking her tax from you”.
And we all go back to watching the baby who has grown up in an Australian detention centre.