Don’t tangle with Border Force? Lessons from the Djokovic mess

Jan 14, 2022
Djokovic and refugees
(Image AAP / Joel Carrett)

Only the wealthy stand a chance of overturning the arbitrary rulings of Border Force officials. Ordinary detainees and their visitors stand no chance.

The Djokovic debacle has exposed the way in which Australia Border Force operates as a law unto itself, thriving only because of a lack of transparency and accountability.

The court process, which released the Djokovic Immigration interview transcript  exposed the authoritarian and unreasonable way Border Force operates.

After considering Djokovic’s application and the documentation he provided Judge Anthony Kelly rightly asked “… what more could this man have done?”

Apparently, a lot more according to the Border Force officers hiding behind their anonymous screens interrogating Djokovic in the early hours of the day.

The transcript contrasts sharply with the television propaganda programs shown on free-to-air television that create the impression that Border Force is a fair and professional organisation.

Only a wealthy high-profile individual stands any chance of exposing and overturning the arbitrary rulings of Border Force officials.

Ordinary detainees and those visiting them stand no chance.

At September 30, 2021, there were 1459 people being held in immigration detention facilities.

Of these 53 per cent have been held for more than a year.

The government’s policy of refusing to allow refugees who arrive by boat to settle in Australia has resulted in around 70 medevac asylum seekers in immigration detention, with about 32 in the Park Hotel where Djokovic was detained. Offshore, roughly 124 asylum seekers remain in Papua New Guinea and 100 in Nauru.

Under the Migration Amendment (Clarification International Obligations for Removal) Act passed last year, the government has the power to detain refugees, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Currently 8 per cent of the 1459 detainees have been held in detention for more than eight years!

About 86 per cent of these detainees have been placed in detention after serving time for a crime or crimes that carried a cumulative sentence of more than a year in jail.

Although these non-citizens had done their time, the government cancelled their visas and imposed a second penalty.

Refugees who would face persecution in their homeland and cannot be sent back may be detained indefinitely.

Because these non-citizens have a criminal record it is difficult to make a case that will win public sympathy.

There may be a matter of principle here but there are no votes to be won and there’s little sign that Labor will take up the incarcerated refugees’ cause.

Border Force and its delegated private sector contractors operate behind barbed wire with little scrutiny.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office has a role in overseeing immigration detention and produces anodyne reports on the facilities and the treatment of detainees.

But unlike the Australian National Audit Office, it shows no willingness to highlight the failings in immigration detention.

As I have previously pointed out, paranoia, suspicion and hostility are the hallmarks of the organisation.

Inmates who have experienced both prison and immigration detention will tell you that immigration detention is worse.  In jail the term of confinement is set and there are rehabilitation, development and sporting programs.

The detention centres have no interest in development. It suits them to create the impression that the inmate has no future in Australia.

The objective is to get the inmates who may well have spent just about the whole of their lives living in Australia to agree to return to their “homeland.”

Visits are essential to make life bearable for detainees.  But according to the Refugee Action Coalition, for over a year, due to a fear of Covid, the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre at Broadmeadows has banned visits even though a Covid-safe visiting area has been built inside the facility.

Even before this ban petty and arbitrary rules applied.

For example, in the visitors’ meeting room I attended the blinds were pulled down blocking out natural light. As a middle-class visitor I moved to raise them only to be ordered to keep them closed.

Many visitors, from Salvation Army chaplains, to nuns, social workers and ordinary little old ladies have had been refused entry over the years because they tested positive for drugs on the facility’s Smiths Ionscan 600 drug detector.  The detector has a worldwide record of inaccuracy and producing false positives.

But the Border Force and Serco guards deny entry to visitors who test positive, even if they offer to be strip searched. Clearly the objective is to make the inmates’ incarceration as miserable as possible.

It certainly is not drug prevention. I was amused to watch a number of Border Force officers arrive at the entrance desk and screening machine where one after another they handed goods across the desk to an officer and then trotted through the detector and then happily picked up their goods.

If you’re looking for a possible drug entrance point this might be a lead.

On one occasion even though I had a formal written prior approval for a visit, on the very morning of the appointment Border Force/Serco officials would not tell me which facility the man I was to see would be in. They planned to move him that day and an hour before the due visiting time they still would only say that maybe he would be in Maribyrnong or maybe he would be quite some distance away at Broadmeadows.

Security guards have also applied arbitrary processes preventing visitors from giving inmates items such as books. When I was not allowed to deliver a book and some plain paper to an inmate I wrote to the Border Force and received a reply which stated: “If you are unsure whether an item is prohibited or controlled, you should declare that item to the inspecting officer before entering the detention facility.”

I pointed out that I had declared the book to the officer on the desk. I also said that there was no way I was unsure if it was a prohibited or controlled item. I was quite sure it was a perfectly inoffensive book.

It wasn’t a Bible I had sought to bring it but I did point out that if they stuck to their policy they would be banning people bringing one in.

Perhaps realising the potential embarrassment they had created for themselves they responded: “Following your feedback, I wish to advise that we will make a bible available within the visits centre that you can utilise during your visit.”

I’m an atheist and this wasn’t really my objective but with Border Force you have to take what you can get.



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