Push to allow detained refugees access to library services

Standing in solidarity with the imprisoned refugees. Photo: Refugee Action Collective (Victoria)

Library services are yet to be provided to refugees detained in a Melbourne facility, despite efforts from librarians and City of Melbourne councillors.

Agroup of  were bought to Australia for medical treatment under the Medevac program and have subsequently been detained in the  since last December. Since then, librarians from City of Melbourne libraries made attempts to provide the 45 refugees with access to the libraries’ online and physical collection.

However, Australian Border Force and Serco, the private corporation contracted by the federal government to run refugee detention centre, have not cooperated. “[Librarians] have sent multiple requests to Border Force and Serco, asking for access and have not had a reply,” City of Melbourne Councillor Dr Olivia Ball told Green Left. “We need the federal government to cooperate.”

In an effort to “clarify matters”, the City of Melbourne Future Melbourne Committee unanimously  on September 7 extending municipal library services to immigration detainees in the municipal community. However, as of November 22, there has been no progress on allowing refugees access to the library services.

Ball said that the intention of the motion was “to remove any doubt for our librarians that we wanted them to take this action”. During discussion on the motion, Dr Jane Garner, a researcher whose work has focused on the role of libraries in prisons and underprivileged communities, highlighted the human rights issues, citing the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.

Under the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners “every prison shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked … and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.”

Garner noted that “to deny or refuse to facilitate such access is a breach of that fundamental right ... I think we can be judged quite harshly for allowing that to occur.”

In addition, the  states that “the services of the public library are provided on the basis of equality of access for all. Specific services and materials must be provided for those who cannot use the regular services and materials, for example … people in prison.”

Ball believes that these UN conventions mandate the federal government to implement these services “without local government offering to do it”. “Either Border Force and the federal government should be doing it themselves, or they should stand aside and allow our librarians at a municipal level to do it.”

Garner explained that detention conditions, like those of the Park Hotel, have “enormously detrimental effects on mental health and wellbeing, leading to destructive behaviours and depression.” Access to library services can assist in alleviating this.

“These are the only prisoners we have that don’t really know why they’re there, or if they can ever leave,” Garner said. “Every other prisoner has a determined sentence as a result of an offence that they’ve been judged guilty for. Therefore, I believe we should be doing everything we can to make that life more bearable and this is one very simple way to expand their worlds and fill their days.”

Adam Bandt, leader of the Greens and federal MP for Melbourne, said there was no reason to keep the men detained and that a number of issues, including the access to library services would be resolved if they were given proper pathways to residency.

It has been suggested that library services were not provided due to Victoria’s lockdown restrictions but Ball said these restrictions were not sufficient reason to block these services. “A great deal of those needs and interests can be met online, contact can be made online. There is nothing inherent in the lockdown preventing contact.”

Bandt suggested that Serco “believes cruelty is key to winning government contracts”.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Park Hotel, about the detention centre management have only risen.

The Department of Home Affairs and Serco were contacted for this story but declined to comment.