Silenced Voices: Community Detention in Australia

Asylum seekers from Afghanistan and elsewhere are participants in Jesuit Refugee Service sponsored community detention. These men can participate in group activities, like football games, while awaiting their status determination. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Asylum seekers from Afghanistan and elsewhere are residents in a government funded  community detention program delivered by JRS. (Photo: JRS)

“The suspension of processing asylum claims has clearly undermined the effectiveness of the program.”

This story starts with silence. Not because its protagonists have nothing to say, but because they fear the consequences of speaking out – or are convinced it won’t make any difference.

The absence of their voices from this story speaks volumes about their treatment by the Australian government, yet the asylum seekers I am writing about are among the luckiest in this “Lucky Country”. They are some 3,038 men, women and children who have been approved to live in community detention, Australia’s alternative to closed detention. A further 6,504 – 747 of whom are children – remain behind barbed wire on Australia’s mainland and in the country’s two offshore processing centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru.

The history of community detention in Australia

JRS played a key role in the establishment of community detention in 2010 by lobbying the government for a humane alternative to closed detention. The result was a pilot program allowing unaccompanied minors to be released from detention centres to live under supervision in the community while awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications.

That program has been largely successful due to a higher level of financial and material support which allowed for more intensive ‘out of home’ care and casework support and because most of the young people may live in the community on bridging visas once they turn 18. However, a similar program for vulnerable adult men and families has ended in a cul-de-sac of debilitating incarceration.

A protracted wait

When the program was first established, the positive elements – relative freedom of movement; a more natural environment for children; increased autonomy; access to schools, community services and support networks – outweighed the negative impacts of closed detention.

However, the inordinate length of time asylum seekers have had to wait for a decision on their protection applications undercuts the original aim to “minimise harm” and “support well-being of those awaiting resolution of their immigration status”.

Since the Australian election in September 2013, refugee status determination (RSD) has effectively been suspended for asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. The government is determined to grant refugee status to eligible asylum seekers only if they can be granted temporary protection, as opposed to permanent visas. Up to now, all attempts to introduce temporary protection have been blocked by the courts or the parliament. So most asylum seekers in community detention who arrived in the past four years have been left in a protracted legal limbo.

A cage without bars

Described by some asylum seekers as “a cage without bars”, community detention has proved disastrous for those trapped behind its invisible walls. While not physically incarcerated, they are denied a visa. Although free to stroll around the neighbourhoods they so desperately want to join, they are forbidden from undertaking paid work or studies that lead to qualification.

Asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas don’t have it easy either. They are now required to sign a code of behaviour warning against “anti-social” behaviour such as “spitting or swearing in public”. Breaches of the code are rare but may lead to the cancellation of a visa and return to closed detention. Asylum seekers in community detention are not required to sign the code, but the resulting fear has affected them and they have withdrawn further into their suburban prisons, and themselves.

While RSD and detention are separate processes, asylum seekers do not distinguish between them, regarding both as adversarial, opaque and arbitrary. They feel a strong sense of injustice when they see friends and even family members granted protection visas under the previous government while they remain detained.

Community detention might allow a degree of autonomy but the central issue for asylum seekers is their visa status. The frustration of waiting and of ongoing detention, anxiety about family members left behind, and past trauma have sucked many into a spiralling trajectory of deteriorating mental health, hopelessness and disengagement.

The conflict between care and collusion

Asylum seekers in community detention often express confusion over the many layers of bureaucracy and dizzying array of people in their lives – JRS caseworkers, immigration case managers, counsellors, doctors and lawyers – and frustration at a caseworker’s inability to assist with visa applications and legal support.

“Staff cannot secure visas or release for our clients, and we are specifically barred from assisting with their claims or other legal matters,” said Justin Glyn SJ, a Jesuit regent in the program.

Community detention has undergone considerable change since 2010: there’s a growing sense that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has increased its surveillance of asylum seekers in the program. Although always a form of detention, the program’s initial objectives aimed to “enhance” the “wellbeing, resilience and self-agency” and respect the “human worth and dignity” of asylum seekers.

This language has been progressively stripped back, with agencies instructed to refer to asylum seekers as “detainees” and to support “detainees to comply with the conditions” of their detention.

Several agencies, including JRS, have refused to adopt the term “detainees” when referring to asylum seekers held in community detention. Others have quietly acquiesced.

The attitude of asylum seekers has also changed. Once they spoke positively of the increased levels of independence experienced through, for example, being able to shop for groceries, plan and cook their meals. Now they are reluctant to engage and sceptical about the future.

Solace in accompaniment

While some caseworkers have resigned out of frustration, others have taken solace in their ability to accompany the asylum seekers.

“All that is left is for us is to walk with them, being present, listening to what they have to tell us and, where possible, helping them come to terms with a deeply uncertain existence,” said Justin.

Accompanying asylum seekers in community detention is uniquely challenging because agencies contracted to implement the program must cooperate with the government as a condition of funding. Staff are required to monitor and report the whereabouts of asylum seekers, especially those who abscond, and this inhibits trust. So interactions are more contrived than in other JRS programs because staff are inevitably seen as cogs in the department’s systems.

Meaningful for whom?

Agencies that care for adults and families are not allocated any resources for recreational and educational activities. With the generous help of an indefatigable army of volunteers and with community organisations, JRS has organised activities like sports days, picnics and barbecues; English, computer and cooking classes; music lessons; play sessions; and yoga.

Asylum seekers have repeatedly expressed their gratitude for this. However, they still lack personal agency, namely the ability to manage their journey to their primary goal: a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. Some vent their frustration by exercising their autonomy in the only way they can – by refusing to participate.

Community detention remains a viable model for other governments considering alternatives preferable to closed detention. However, the suspension of processing asylum claims has clearly undermined the effectiveness of the program. Many caseworkers feel an ethical responsibility to voice the asylum seekers’ concerns, but this may conflict with their obligations to their employer – who are contracted to deliver the government funded program.

Furthermore, while those in the program are desperate to be released into the community on Bridging visas, release means limited or no casework support, no work rights, and no housing assistance, ultimately leaving people significantly worse off and more vulnerable.

Things may well get even worse as parliament considers a law that gives practically no hope of permanency to refugees but instead legalises temporary protection with limited rights. JRS will continue to speak out on behalf of all those detained, to advocate strongly for the reinstatement of processing, while never losing sight of the difference that our presence can make in the lives of those we serve.

By Oliver White, Head of Policy and Advocacy at JRS Australia


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