Visiting Australia’s immigration detention centres: The 2018 policy changes and their impact on detainees and supporters
In January 2018 the Department of Home Affairs introduced several changes that has made it harder for visitors to access people detained in immigration detention centres on Australia’s mainland. The changes include the introduction of an onerous, two-step application form that must be completed five working days before every visit; a limit of one detainee per visitor for a designated visiting period, unless special arrangements can be made; new restrictions on bringing food and other material support.
In 2018 I conducted interviews with people who have visited immigration detention centres in Sydney and Melbourne regularly and over a long period of time. The project aimed to assess the impact of these changes on detainees and their supporters. For ethical reasons, I did not interview detainees or their family, and nor did I ask visitors any personal details about the people they visit. The research was approved by Deakin University’s Human Ethics Research Committee, and supported by the Alfred Deakin Institute Research Dissemination Grant Scheme.
The changes have resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of visitors who visit detention centres. This has deep significance for people detained: in addition to social and psychological support, visitors provide material support, and important assistance through the legal and bureaucratic processes to which detainees are subject. Visitors also become vital support networks for people once released from detention. More broadly, the ability of visitors to access detention centres – even if it is only to the visiting rooms – is an important element of independent external oversight over closed institutions.
Most importantly, there is clear evidence that the changes – especially the onerous online application – has proved an insurmountable hurdle for many family and friends of people detained, with the effect that families have been separated.
Many people subject to immigration detention on Australia’s mainland have been there for years – in some cases up to seven or eight years. Some children are still being detained on an ad hoc basis. The 2018 changes have made life in detention much harder, and are yet another demonstration of the punitive effects of this ‘administrative’ form of detention.