Collateral damage of immigration detention: new research

31 July 2022

Visitors to immigration detention facilities are also harmed by the experience

Australia's policy of indefinite mandatory detention is harming detainees' friends, family and supporters, according to a new study by the Sydney Centre for Healthy Societies (SCHS) at The University of Sydney.

Published last week, Visiting Immigration Detention: Care and Cruelty in Australia’s Asylum Seeker Prisons documents the experiences of regular visitors to onshore immigration detention facilities around Australia.

The new research comes just before Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is expected to reintroduce the ‘Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Detention Bill’ to Federal Parliament.

“A large body of evidence already exists concerning the devastating impacts of prolonged detention for people who are personally detained,” SCHS sociologist Dr Michelle Peterie said.

“We already know that immigration detention contributes to a range of health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This study shows that immigration detention also imposes collateral harm beyond the detainee.”

Woman holding a sign that reads 'we can be better than this'

The five-year study – which involved more than 70 in-depth interviews with people who visit immigration detention facilities as friends, family members, advocates, volunteers or activists – highlighted the corrosive impacts of even temporary interaction with Australia’s detention system.

“Most study participants reported a reduction in their mental health and wellbeing as a consequence of their experiences in detention. Stress and sleep disruptions were almost ubiquitous,” Dr Peterie said.

“By the end of the five-year study, multiple visitors had received clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder which they directly attributed to their visitation experiences.”

Visiting immigration detention is often deeply distressing.

“Detainees’ relationships are targeted and weaponised within detention. Gaining access to these facilities in the first place is difficult and intimidating, particularly for people with histories of trauma and torture, and people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

“Within detention, visitors are treated as quasi-prisoners and made to feel their powerlessness. Many visitors are haunted by the avoidable suffering they witness within detention.”

Visiting Immigration Detention

Dr Michelle Peterie discusses the content of her new book.

Dr Peterie described the practice of regularly relocating detainees between interstate detention facilities as “particularly insidious”.

“Families and support networks are being torn apart,” she said. “This practice is extremely harmful for detainees. It increases the isolation and desperation of detention spaces.”

“But it is also distressing for the friends, loved ones and supporters who are left behind.”

Visitors play an important role within immigration detention facilities, Dr Peterie said.

“Visitors offer social and emotional support to people who are extremely isolated and at high risk of self-harm or suicide. They assist detainees to access legal and medical help. And they fulfil an important informal oversight function.

“When visitors are harmed by their experiences in detention, it is detainees who ultimately suffer.

“Australia’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention harms detainees. It also harms members of the Australian community. Policy change is long overdue.” 

Sally Quinn

Media Adviser

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