If you’re thinking of visiting any of the 1300 refugees locked up in Australia’s detention centres, you’d better know the rules. They’re getting tougher all the time.
Don’t try taking board games in; they’re banned. Don’t expect to socialise with a small group or have a game of cards, because nowadays you can only visit one person at a time.
Don’t take a camera; photos aren’t allowed. Make sure you’ve got your 100 points of ID handy, and definitely don’t take in home-cooked meals; they’re against the rules too.
These are just some of the new restrictions put in place by the Department of Home Affairs in January. And they’re demoralising the refugees, and frustrating their families and friends in the community, according to supporters.
Restrictions Making Visits Even Harder
In Refugee Week (June 17 to 23), Hope 103.2 spoke to Geoff Lattimore, one of the many Aussies who considers himself a friend to refugees. He’s a member of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, and heads down to Villawood Detention Centre to spend time with detainees every Wednesday afternoon.
Before the new restrictions came into force, Geoff used to nominate up to four people at a time to visit, and would put his form in 24 hours before his trip. But now, the one-person-per-visit rule means that if your nominated friend is unwell, or not up for a chat, your trip is wasted. You can’t just choose another person to sit with, because five days’ notice is now required; instead you have to put in another form and try again next week.
“People who’ve been there a long time get depressed and don’t always want to talk, so it was good to nominate four people; that guarantees that somebody who wants to chat will get the opportunity,” Geoff explained.
“But now they’ve tightened up the rules, there’s often more visitors than detainees who come out to see you. It’s unfair for those refugees sitting in a room who might like a visit, but you haven’t been able to nominate.”
Refugees Made to Feel Like Criminals
Journalist Rebekah Holt, who often visits refugees in Melbourne’s Broadmeadows detention centre, wrote in Crikey that the one-person-per-visitor rule is the one detainees object to the most. It “isolates them even further”, she says, and makes them feel even more like criminals serving time in prison. The tightened rules even caused some detainees to go on a hunger strike.
Geoff Lattimore believes many of the new restrictions are simply mean, and designed purely to remove hope.
“We used to be able to bring home-cooked meals, but now we can’t,” he said. “No reason was given. Taking board games in is something we used to do all the time. It was an escape for them. Now we can’t do that either.”
“We used to be able to bring home-cooked meals, but now we can’t. Board games were an escape for them. Now we can’t take those either.”
Even Australian Border Force staff at Villawood seem exasperated by the rules they’re now required to enforce, and the changes have increased the despair and anger among the detainees.
“They think it’s very vindictive,” he said. “They’re just people who are silent, they’ve done no wrong. It angers me that these people are treated in such a way. They’re treated worse than criminals in some ways. Criminals at least know how long their sentence is, and are given an opportunity to gain vocational skills in prison. No such opportunities are given in detention centres.”
One of the most upsetting practices that Geoff has learnt about from his refugee friends, is the inhumane movement of detainees around the country. He says it’s not unusual for someone to be ordered out of their room in the dead of night with no warning, and shipped off to the other side of Australia.
“They might be there at Villawood in their room asleep, and woken at three in the morning, and told to pack their things,” Geoff said. “They’ve formed friendships, and they can’t say goodbye. They are moved on to another centre in Western Australia or somewhere. It’s rare that they’re given prior notice.”
Security is now so tight that even long-time visitors are being treated like a potential danger: “One day I forgot to take my passport with me for ID,” Geoff said. “I’d been going every week for 12 months and the staff knew me but they still wouldn’t let me in. It’s awful.”
An Expression of Christian Faith
Geoff is a former employee of the University of Western Sydney and began doing refugee advocacy and support work after he retired. He first developed an interest in refugee issues 17 years ago during the Tampa affair, and is a committed Christian who sometimes speaks at his church in Richmond about the cause. He sees it as an important element of his faith.
“It was Jesus who said if you’re helping the poor and the hungry and the disabled, you’re serving me,” he said. “There’s hundreds of verses in the Bible about giving aid to those in need. I think that’s a really important and vital part of being a Christian. It’s very much at the heart of the gospel.”
“It was Jesus who said if you’re helping the poor and the hungry…you’re serving me.”
In a bid to reform Australia’s treatment of refugees, on Monday (June 18) Independent MP Andrew Wilkie introduced a new Refugee Protection Bill into Federal Parliament that make Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers more humane. He called it “an alternative to the current cruelty” happening in detention centres. The bill has been developed in accordance with UNHCR guidelines and international human rights law. It proposes an end to mandatory detention, and the establishment of a network of centres across the Asia Pacific where asylum seekers can be registered, have their humanitarian needs met, and nominate a preferred country of re-settlement. It also calls for time limits on processing of refugee cases.
Refugee Week is an initiative of the Refugee Council of Australia and is supported by sponsors like the Sydney and Melbourne City Councils, Amnesty International and the Australian Red Cross. For more information head to the Refugee Week website.
To learn more about the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group head to their website or Facebook page.