“MITA is worse than jail. People are losing their minds,” Joey Tangaloa Taualii, a prisoner in the euphemistically named Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, told a Refugee Action Collective (RAC) forum on September 19.
Taualii was speaking by phone from the Broadmeadows immigration detention centre.
Taualii came to Australia as a child from Tonga in 1975. He has lived here since and now has 11 children who live here. He never applied for Australian citizenship, not realising he needed to do so.
Taualii has served a prison sentence, but when he was released last year he was taken to MITA.
He told the forum that efforts are made to rehabilitate prisoners in jail, but that “they aim to break us” in MITA.
Conditions are much worse in MITA, too. For a medical problem, detainees have to fill in a form and often wait three or four days before any action is taken.
Unlike prison, MITA does not acknowledge religious requests for different meals, such as halal food for Muslims.
Detention affects people’s physical and mental health.
Taualii said some people walk around talking to themselves. Some have died in detention.
Taualii is one of the hundreds of people detained under section 501 of the Immigration Act. Describing themselves as “501s”, these people are detained after their visa has been cancelled on “character” grounds.
Usually it is because they have been found guilty of committing a crime. However, some have been detained even though a court has found them not guilty, or their charges have been dropped.
Refugees are also being held in MITA.
Masum and Jhaidul, refugees from Bangladesh, who have been detained for nearly 10 years, addressed the meeting as did Naser, a refugee from Afghanistan, who has been detained for eight years.
They spoke about the effects of prolonged detention, including anxiety, sleeplessness, headaches and a loss of hope.
Alison Battisson, a lawyer representing many detainees, told the meeting that she had been hopeful changes would be made when Labor was elected. So far, however, there have been “no significant decisions”. She said the immigration department was still applying the former Coalition’s government’s approach.
Battisson said that MITA is, in effect, a private prison. It is run by SERCO and is not subject to any effective regulation: the Australian Human Rights Commission has no power to compel SERCO to do anything, except provide information.
Battisson also said officials are making decisions about refugee claims based on incorrect information about the countries from which people have fled, such as Bangladesh.
For instance, Naser’s claim for recognition as a refugee was rejected on the grounds that it was supposedly safe to return to Afghanistan.
[Refugee Action Collective Melbourne has called a Close MITA rally at 120 Camp Road, Broadmeadows on October 1 at 2pm.]