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Visiting detention is a political act


Overhead view of Melbourne Immigration Transit AccommodationMothers sit and chat, babies in arms or in prams. Toddlers and young children run amok. A group of teenage boys sit together, chatting and playing cards. It is 7pm on a Wednesday in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne's northwest.

The toddlers have recently arrived from Syria, where civil war has displaced 1.5 million civilians. The boys are Sri Lankan Tamils. They are nervous tonight as they are being flown to a Tasmanian detention facility for unaccompanied minors. One asks me if it will be cold.

——— studied at university in Iran. She speaks good English but better French. She explains that when she went to university she realised she did not believe in religion. Now, she says, her government wants to kill her. She is seeking asylum with her sister.

I am a visitor at MITA, Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation. It is a detention centre, despite the name. Opened in June 2008, the compound shares an entrance with an Australian Defence Force barracks. It is fronted by two-storey apartment-style accommodation and backed by rows of iron bungalows that visitors cannot access.

There are currently over 300 asylum seekers being detained here, including young Iranian men, families headed by single mothers, and Sri Lankans with negative ASIO security assessments detained indefinitely.

Today two people tried to commit suicide. One jumped off a roof and the other was found trying to hang himself. An ambulance is parked outside when we arrive.

Many asylum seekers detained at MITA arrived after 13 August 2012, when the expert panel on asylum seekers handed down its report and recommendations designed to stop deaths at sea. This date is key: the application of the 'no advantage' principle means these claims won't be assessed for several years.

One thousand people have lost their lives seeking asylum by boat in the past decade. Deterrence is not working. Since the expert panel recommended the reopening of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island as 'circuit breakers', almost 20,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat in Australia.

In line with another of the expert panel recommendations, the Australian Government announced on 22 September 2012 that refugees who arrived by boat would not have access to family reunification through the Special Humanitarian Program. This means the families of asylum seekers found to be refugees have little chance of joining them in Australia. Family reunification is only possible under the General Migration Program, which carries significant financial costs and uncertain waiting periods.

In an effort to deter people from risking their lives at sea, the expert panel and the Government may in fact have encouraged more people to take the dangerous journey, by closing off avenues for families to be reunited.

This time last year, MITA's detainees were exclusively male, mostly young men from Iran and Afghanistan. Since then, the centre has been expanded to a capacity of 372 people, and the demographics of people seeking asylum has changed from unaccompanied young men to family units. As of 30 April 2013 there were 381 people detained at MITA: 144 men, 103 women and 134 children.

——— is an Afghani Hazara recently arrived at MITA. He is 14. The family speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia, having lived in Java for years before coming to Australia via Christmas Island. In Indonesia, they lived in International Organisation for Migration detention and were given a basic stipend. They are seeking asylum in Australia because despite being found to be refugees by UNHCR while in Indonesia, they were not resettled by any country.

——— is also from Afghanistan. He left five months ago, with his wife and daughter, passing through Indonesia before arriving in Christmas Island by boat. His daughter is just ten months old. She crawls but is yet to walk.

Perversely, the presence of children and families in the detention centre normalises the place, the energy and guilelessness of children distracting adult asylum seekers from the depression and anxiety pervading detention. It is perverse because it is widely accepted that detention damages children's mental health and wellbeing.

Visiting a detention centre is a small act. It is an act of civil society — to say that the Australian Government's policy of detaining asylum seeker men, women and children is not in our name.

Nik Tan headshotNik Tan is a lawyer and former DFAT officer who has lived and worked in both Indonesia and Timor Leste as a teacher, interpreter and UN election observer. He was overseeing coordinator of the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program between 2008 and 2012.

Topic tags: Nik Tan, asylum seekers, detention centre, Nauru, Manus Island



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Existing comments

I used to visit detention but eventually stopped because my mental health deteriorated so much being exposed to so much trauma. Not being able to do anything for people was the biggest problem I think. It also felt like detainees were being fought over by various church people, socialist activists & random volunteers; often being promised things that were not delivered. We need to end detention. Visiting helps as well as hinders.

Lynda | 11 June 2013  

I started a process in SA when I worked as a researcher for the Woomera lawyers. I told all of them to report every child to the local child services branch as being at risk due to the prison every time they walked out. We have to do this or Gillard will just get crueller and crueller. The so-called experts were not experts, they were three old public servants who told Gillard what she wanted to hear.

Marilyn | 11 June 2013  

Keep writing Nik, and other writers who are on the side of the angels. But we really need a Dante to express the full horror of what we are doing.,

Jim Jones | 12 June 2013  

Great article Nik. Well written .Articulates how many would feel I suspect. There must be better ways to deal with the issue than locking detainees up.

Tony Kerin | 12 June 2013  

Thank you, Nik. Over time, small acts of solidarity make a difference, to ourselves and to our society, and, hopefully, to those we stand with.

Denis Fitzgerald | 12 June 2013  

I remember visiting Villawood detention centre several years ago. I remember the obstructive attitude of staff and the sad eyes of children - and a playgym outside the fence where the children could see iit but not play on it. Visiting detention centres puts human faces on the numbers

Cathy | 12 June 2013  

The comparatively small number of refugees surviving to reach Australia makes absolute nonsense of the "over kill" and over reaction of politicians. There is no major onslaught taking place .... just some ordinary, frightened people looking for safety. I am an Australian living in Kabul and can tell you that right now there are more internally displaced people (people who can live in their place of origin) living on the outskirts of Kabul than the total number of asylum seekers who have reached Australian in the past 10 years. In Iran there are more than 1 million Afghan refugees. These figures, too, make nonsense of Australian politicians making a political issue out of human tragedy.

Anthony | 12 June 2013  

I believe this politically fraught issue of how to respond to people desperate for asylum should be 'depoliticised' and instead, addressed by a properly constituted,decision-making council of competent persons working directly in conjunction with the UNHCR.

Caroline Ryan RSM | 12 June 2013  

This is one of the dark shadows hanging over this country today - I feel ashamed and so sad for our racism and cruelty.

cecile yazbek | 14 June 2013  

So "we put a human face on them", so what? They already had a human face. We've been visiting and wringing our hands and preaching the facts for 12 years+ and the policies have only gotten worse. I think visiting helps people to feel like they're not alone and that Australians care about them; visitors also help with bringing resources like phone cards or food. But it is nothing on its own and wastes a lot of people's time and mental health on both sides of the walls. being "allowed" to visit just makes the government look good ("see, we allow visitors, it's not as bad as refugee advocates say" - just look at the things dept spokesperson Sandi Logan says every day on social media). Let's not get carried away with romantic notions of visiting being somehow radical. It's witnessing and comforting sure but has arguably done absolutely nothing to change the policies. Which is what needs to happen.

Lynda | 14 June 2013  

.The wish to draw attention to a tragic and disturbing consequence of the sustained rhetoric against refugees arriving in Australia, especialy by boat but also by plane. I refer to the rise in unprovoked attacks on overseas students. My wife and I are sponsors for her Brasilian nephew, 21 yr old Renan, who is a student at a local Gold Coast Language School. On Wednesday last, while riding his bike to school, he was shot at twice from a nail gun. One 5cm nail glanced off his back pack and the second penetrated both walls of his back tyre. The first would have severely damaged his spine or torso and the second, his legs or worse, had the nails found their mark. Renan is of middle eastern appearance, like many Brasilians (you will remember the Brasilan shot and killed in London, who was mistaken for a terrorist) but is one of the most pacific of people and did absolutely nothing to provoke the attack, which was reported to local police. The Language School reports that harassment of overseas students is on the increase and they are concerned, not just for the students, but for future enroments as word gets out - which it certainly will. There is no doubt that the Hansonite elements in the community have taken the shameful moral debacle over 'illegal immigrants' and 'unwanted boat people' as a remit or permission to attack people of middle eastern or indian/asian appearance - Cronulla was just one flash point among many.. The present government will be held to account on Sept 14 and will be found wanting for its unethical and destructive policies on these matters. However, the present opposition cannot be differentiated from Labor on these issues and that is equally shameful. The major political parties must stop pursuing cheap and nasty votes with xenophobic, Hansonist policies and must provide genuine, courageous and moral leadership on these issues Individual politicians must take a principled (and pragmatic) stand on refugees and asylum seekers in order to support the peace and social fabric of their local communities, strengthen the economic future for regions such as the Gold Coast, especially as centres for tourism and education exporters and to call a halt to racist behaviour and racist language in their electorates and in the nation. No more attacks on foreigners, no more anti-Muslim rhetoric, no more fear on our streets, no more nail gun attacks.

Michael Nelson | 15 June 2013  

Nik, how can I volunteer to visit the Broadmeadows Centre? Currently I do a 24 hour fast, weekly, in solidarity with asylum seekers - until I start doing something pro-active.

Vince Corbett | 17 June 2013  

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