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Visiting detention is a political act

  • 12 June 2013

Mothers 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