The increasingly deranged diary of a detention centre visitor
If the Department of Home Affairs was trying to stop detention centre visits with its new, punitive visitation procedures, then it may have worked.
Rebekah Holt Freelance journalist
Crikey Feb 9 2018
Last month the Department of Home Affairs changed the visitation protocols for Australian detention centres, provoking outrage and hunger strikes among detainees. Here, Rebekah Holt attempts to navigate the new system for her weekly Sunday visit.
Monday, Jan 29
12.37pm: I have to open an ImmiAccount with the Department of Home Affairs so I can make my bookings. I resist the urge to make my password “PeterDuttonSux” because I am a serious journalist.
12.45pm: It dawns on me how long this process will take. To visit more than one detainee I need approval from Border Force before I can apply to visit them. That sounds like a two-stage process, but it’s actually more like 500 steps because I have to fill in online forms for each individual I’m visiting, and each form is nine pages long.
I regularly visit three or four people at once. I call it The Card Club. It has become the way I spend most Sunday afternoons — playing vicious high-speed hands of Uno in a detention centre in Broadmeadows.
1.05pm: I need to sign an online form. My friend works out how I can do an electronic signature on my uncooperative laptop, but she starts to hate me when it takes six tries. I eat a biscuit.
1.15pm: I enter all my ID details (which is a task in itself considering the department’s record with data security) and answer questions about if I have a criminal record and if I plan to bring any restricted items into the detention centre.
Again I restrain the urge to declare that I would like to bring in humanitarian values in accordance with international treatment of asylum seekers. I eat two more biscuits.
1.31pm: A box won’t tick on stage eight for the third time.
1.45pm: I have finished and successfully submitted an application to visit three people who are seeking asylum in Australia.
7.50pm: I receive an email saying my visit is declined because I have not allowed five business days before the requested visit. There are no biscuits left.
Tuesday, Jan 30
10.10am: I email the detention centre and ask for help.
10.15am: When I am in the bathroom I get a call from the detention centre asking me to call back about my email.
10.17am: I call back on my landline so that I can keep using my mobile.
10:37am: I have been on hold for 20 minutes. I realise my landline has a handsfree feature. I do some stretches because my right hand has gotten a little claw-like.
11.12am: I look up YouTube videos on how to do winged eyeliner while I pluck my eyebrows.
11.22am: I start sending selfies of me and my landline phone to Crikey editorial staff as proof of life evidence.
11.30am: I email the detention centre to tell them I have been on hold for over an hour and ask for advice on if I should stay on hold.
11.33am: I touch the wrong button and think I have hung up. I haven’t but I begin to have a think about the life choices that have led me to this moment.
11.41am: I decide to wax my legs because one of the unbreakable rules of the universe is that someone will always call at the precise moment you are ripping hair out of your body with hot wax.
11.51am: Legs waxed, still on hold, unbreakable rules of the universe broken.
12.10pm: Two hours in. I hang up.
12.18pm: I get a call from the Serco guard from the detention centre who has read my email saying I am on hold. He sounds exhausted and like he has eaten all the biscuits, questioned his life choices and waxed his legs as well.
He says, “You probably need at least ten days, because it takes that long for Border Force to approve each visit”.
He says he will ask for Border Force to approve the visit I was declined on and I should reapply for the next Sunday (11 Feb) because then there will be enough time.
I ask if everyone is struggling with the new system. He says yes. I feel sorry for him. I want to tell him my ImmiAccount password is “PeterDuttonSux” to cheer him up.
Wednesday, Jan 31
12pm: Email from the guard with my approval for a visit.
Thursday, Feb 1
12pm: I resubmit all online forms and the three documents in PDF form for the following week. I do three online forms in 45 minutes. I eat two biscuits.
3.05pm: I get messages from two of my friends in detention. They wonder where I am. One of them offers to do the online applications for me because he has a degree in information systems and some time on his hands. I contemplate this option seriously.
Friday, Feb 2
11.30am: A Serco guard calls me just to ask about my visit application. He’s a different guard from the other one but he sounds exhausted too.
I explain all the details. He says, “I think you should try to book at least two weeks ahead for the group visits” and tells me he will send me my approval emails.
Saturday, Feb 3
1.30pm: I get a message from the other Uno playing friend in detention. He has significant mental health vulnerabilities and very little English. This is the first time he has ever messaged me.
“Didn’t have any visit. I can understand now is very hard, how is health?”
This is not a made up story people. It happens for us visitors to Villawood too. I never thought a Serco guard could become my hero but this week a poor exhausted Serco chap went out of his way and organised for my declined visit to be accepted (or should it be reclined) What I want to know is how Rebeccah gets past the security with her UNO cards-ours have been banned and we have resorted to playing draughts with lollies we bring in (they are legal) and twenty questions with sticky notes we smuggle in ! We all have fun but visitor deterrent policies are definitely on the rise.
Hacked Off Visitor
So visitor do you wax your legs while waiting on the phone? This would be very funny if it wasn’t so important for those you visit. Well done