Fifteen or more friends were seated around a row of small tables and a voluminous spread of food being shared. Each new visitor arriving was invited to join in. “Take a seat. Eat.” This is how I met Linh’s community support group. I arrived unexpectedly, but was quickly seated and eating as though celebrating at a friend’s home. Yet we were in a detention centre. These friends had gathered to offer Linh and other detainees support.
Linh, the longest serving detainee, needs this support. She relies on it for some relief from the crushing routine and confinement, alongside the torment of legal misrepresentation and the insult of regular sexual propositions. The visits help her persevere while awaiting conclusion to her asylum claim – a claim that has been inconclusive for over three years.
This communal gathering of friends happened a year and a half ago. In the time since there have been significant changes to Australia’s immigration detention centres, notably changes to visitation rights. Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) used to have visiting hours that allowed visitors to drop-in and spend time with detainees, but as of April 20, 2015 all detainee visits need to be booked by phone at least 24 hours ahead. An impromptu visit to detention, as was my arrival in the shared feast with Linh, is no longer possible.
Leading up to April 20, Serco administered a “Notification to visitors – Enhanced Visits Process”. It stated clearly that “Visiting hours have not changed, they remain 2-8pm.” Yet it also stated that “Bookings will be taken for two hour time slots.” There is a clear contradiction in these two statements as visiting hours have obviously changed, reduced from the possibility of six hour visits to heavily restricted two hour visits.
“Requests for extended time slots may be available upon request.” The length of a visit is now monitored – it is no longer a discretionary act privately negotiated between the visitor and the detainee, nor enacted by the detainee’s free will. What should happen on a particular day when a detainee has the need for company and someone to chat to beyond two hours, yet a request for an extended time slot had not been made? Will an “extended time” request at the time of visitation be denied because it was not booked at least 24 hours earlier?
The introduction of appointments to MITA immediately impacted a detainee’s Sydney-based lawyer who flew into Melbourne for the day, shortly after April 20. He arrived without an appointment as he always had, but upon arrival at MITA he was turned away without consideration or exception and with no period of grace offered to him as a legal interstate visitor who had not learnt of the recent changes to visitation.
Serco’s “Important Notice” could only be known to visitors who were already visiting the detention facilities in the lead up to the changes and picked up the notice at the procedures desk. There was no other method of formal notification to the public.
One might assume that public notifications such as these would be available on the Serco Asia Pacific website, but it contains no procedural information related to immigration detention centres. It does have available Annual Reports on profit performance to satisfy current shareholders and attract future shareholders worldwide; the website is a corporate advertisement.
Many visitors are saying that the MITA booking line is often busy, making it difficult to make an appointment. Some visitors have reported making a visitor booking, but when they arrived as arranged they have been told there is no record of an appointment and have been denied visitation.
Prior to these recent changes there were no restrictions on detainees entering the visitor area. The free movement of detainees is how I was able to meet new detainees and their visitors. One particular long-term detainee made a habit of coming into the visiting area, offering guests “coffee or tea, anything to eat?” It was his way of “just passing the time, meeting new people.” With these new MITA changes, only the detainees who have a booked appointment are able to enter the visitor area.
The man who passed his time as the visiting area’s host cannot enter this area anymore, unless an outside visitor has booked an appointment with him. And his only opportunities to meet new people are when his visitor brings a friend.
“I am told the visitor area is not full any more. There used to be a lot more people visiting.
Now there are fewer friendly outside faces.”
I ask the detainees about the recent changes to the visiting area. Everyone quietly responds, “It is not good”. But why am I asking? I want to be told more, but what am I thinking? Detainees are not able to openly criticise the detention system they reside in. They are awaiting security clearances and visa approvals from the government. These are sensitive issues and it is clear they have restrictions on what they can say.
I am told the visitor area is not full any more. There used to be a lot more people visiting, with more activity and more people. Now there are fewer friendly outside faces. Despite the greater capacity of the visiting area only a certain number of bookings are taken, and after this callers are told bookings are full.
While waiting in the visitor area, a detainee asks: “Who are you waiting for? Your client?” He is laughing. Serco staff refer to detainees by boat number and their compound number; they also call the detainees “clients”.
The new visits processes have been detrimental to the detainee who was unable to meet with his interstate lawyer and discuss his protection case; to the detainees who cannot freely enter the visitor area and meet new guests; and to the community of visitors who would frequently visit to show support and concern for their fellow human beings experiencing indefinite mandatory detention, despite having committed no crime.
I wonder how the 14 or so detained children interpret the changes to the visiting area? The area they used to enter freely to play and meet people from the outside now has new “rules”.
“But we can’t keep living like this. We are not in detention. We are in a cemetery.”
Suzana Jacmenovic is a writer, social worker and Right Now columnist.
Image courtesy of Amnesty International: North West Point Detention Centre, Christmas Island
This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its funding and advisory body.