A glimpse into the despair of detention

Maribynong IDC


When I visited a Melbourne asylum seeker detention centre recently, I was not allowed to take in a bunch of flowers for my friend’s birthday. No reason given except ‘it’s policy’. So instead, I sent her a photo of the flowers.

At Easter, the small chocolate eggs I wanted to give her were refused: “Foil not allowed,” I was told.

Lately I’ve been met with another refusal. My friend is now not allowed to bring her writing journal into the visitor’s room.

I’m an English teacher and I had been helping edit my friend’s writing. I am aware of the therapeutic benefit of writing and have encouraged her to write.

Finally she started. (I had given her a writing journal several months ago.) Her writing is powerful and persuasive, speaking of incarceration and loss. It is imaginative and metaphorical. And she is really pleased to be doing this.

She is alone. She is young. Her partner died in Nauru. Life in detention is lonely, confined, depressing, sad and boring. Time passes very slowly. She has trouble sleeping. She feels she has no future. She can’t go back to her country now and, as she has come to Australia from Nauru, there is no legal pathway for her, at this stage, to stay in this country.

Writing together passes the time in a fruitful and positive way. We even find things to laugh about. She tells me it is the best two hours of her week. It’s the time she forgets where she is.

We had looked forward to our next meeting so she could show me her latest writing and we could discuss, edit and refine it; important to her, especially as English is not her first language and she wants to get it right.

She is also a talented artist. In the past I had given her canvasses, paints and brushes, but she’s now not allowed them. They are locked away in ‘Property’. So she draws on paper but she is not allowed to bring any of her drawings into the visitors’ room to show me.

Three weeks ago on a small slip of paper I had written down some writing sites that I thought she may like to access (yes, she does have internet access). However on her way back to her room the paper was confiscated. It was returned, but days later. The moment was lost.

She is a person who loves to read and is working hard to improve her English. I am happy to supply her with books but have to go through an unwieldy way of getting them to her.

First, she has to make a request in writing to the authorities asking for anything she may want, like a book, a writing journal, an item of clothing. A written request will take up to 10 days for approval to be given (or not). And then, somehow, I have to find out if the approval has been given, so that I can deliver the item.

All the people I have met in detention are reluctant to ask for anything from those who visit. We can’t spontaneously take a birthday gift in. They rarely ask because they say they are simply grateful for the fact that we want to visit.

I have been visiting the two Melbourne detention centres regularly for about four years. To visit you need to state in writing or by phone whom you are visiting. There is a limit to how many people you can see each time and you must book the visit at least 24 hours in advance.

We used to be able to visit for the entire afternoon, but now we are limited to a two-hour slot which, by the time you get through reception and the ‘client’ is called, means there may only be an hour or less to visit. In the old days, young visitors, especially, would stay for hours, playing games, singing, playing guitars and sharing food around a table. We used to be able to take in musical instruments.

No longer.

Musical instruments were banned. When I asked what was the problem with taking in a ukulele the answer was “it could easily be used as a weapon”. No one at the centre takes responsibility for the constant change of rules. It is always a case of “I’m just following the rules”.

Now when we visit, we are allocated a table and are not supposed to move around. Open-toed shoes are not allowed to be worn in, and we are regularly drug tested. If a detainee needs a toilet visit during the time, they are not allowed back in the visiting room. If I realise I’ve left something outside in my car, I can’t go out and then come back.

Asylum seekers in detention are usually traumatised. They are regarded as ‘illegals’, even though it is a right to seek asylum, whichever way they arrived. They generally have no idea as to whether, or for how long, they must wait before their claim will be processed. Some men have been in detention for eight years. I have seen their hopes diminish and their spirits broken. Some have not seen their children or wife or parents or siblings for years. They no longer believe they will be reunited.

A person in prison has a much clearer idea of their release time. Good-behaviour may even shorten the time. Not so it seems for so many people seeking asylum. And it is especially so for those who came after 19 July  2013, when Kevin Rudd said they “would never be resettled in Australia”.

For me it is hard to visit as I cannot realistically offer hope. I can offer friendship and love and some time together to pass what is otherwise a lonely and despairing time.

There are things that can be done. Visit if you can. Tell others about the situation. Letters to politicians, newspapers, and Facebook help get the word around. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is an excellent source of information.

For more information go to: www.asrc.org.au

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3 Responses to “A glimpse into the despair of detention”

  1. Could it be clarified please, are these people in this facility “refugees” or illegal “boat people” arrivals? The two classifications are of course, very different and I know you would not want people confusing the two. Cheerio….God Bless!

  2. Tammy Hocking

    “Boat people” are not illegals, as stated by the UN:
    “Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they immigrants. The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents. The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered as illegal actions (e.g. entering a country without a visa) should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum. This means that it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as “illegal”, as they in fact have a lawful right to enter Australia to seek asylum. In line with our obligations under the Convention, Australian law also permits unauthorised entry into Australia for the purposes of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation.”
    Source: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/docs/news&events/rw/2010/4%20-%20Myths%20and%20facts%20about%20refugees%20and%20asylum%20seekers%202010.pdf

  3. Tammy Hocking

    Heartbreaking but important article. Bless your heart Helen for spending time with them.

    My sister works closely with asylum seekers (and ASRC), she’s developing a psychological screening tool to assess trauma levels in refugees so they can receive the help and services they need. Some of the stories I’ve heard are nothing short of horrendous. I hope one day the Australian government will be held accountable by international courts for our torture and abuse of these people.

    Incidentally, are you the same Helen Stagoll that taught at Footscray City? Your English and Psych classes were fantastic! I’m in Facebook if you want to say hello :)