Thirty-seven-year-old Daniella Olea sits in a modest Roxburgh Park townhouse sipping coffee and describing her latest project.
This most recent endeavour, a collage of videos and photos from the nearby Melbourne Immigration Transit centre, is another step in a 17-year long career of activism.
It’s a career that started when she heard news of the 2002 Woomera breakout in which about 40 asylum seekers escaped from the remote South Australian detention centre, a shocking jolt to her personal reality that drove her to seek change through personal action.
Since then Daniella has been inside and outside all the detention centres in Australia. Places that, as of the 31 January this year, 1269 people were held within – some for as long as 10 years.
She has participated in sit-ins, protests, refugee visits, and has played an integral role in the ongoing battle to demand humane treatment for detainees in both onshore and offshore facilities.
It’s a battle that is important now more so than ever before, with recent videos coming to the surface during an investigation by The Guardian showing blatant physical abuse and corruption occurring within Australian facilities.
This battle is one that Daniella believes is getting harder to fight for, as the Department of Home Affairs constantly puts up new barriers for visitors to attend facilities and meet with their refugee friends.
“The current visiting process is one of the most ridiculous that I’ve ever come across, and I’ve been doing this for 17 years. The whole point is to get you not to go.”
Some of the issues that Daniella faces when visiting detainees include having to apply five business days earlier to visit, extensive searches and pat downs, invasive and inaccurate drug tests and bans on homemade food.
The entire process seems to be designed to feel as sterile, uncomfortable and uninviting as possible.
“Back in the day you could just rock up, there was no time limit, there was no ridiculous online process, it was definitely easier back then and, remember, in the end it’s not supposed to be a prison.”
These pains were also experienced by myself while applying to visit a refugee in detention – with my first attempt to visit being rejected the day before I was supposed to enter, and a reschedule only allowed two days later.
My second application was even more unsuccessful. After having to contact the detention centre administration the day of my visit, I found out my request had been rejected and the staff at reception were unable to advise me why.
I was given an email to contact for more information. They never replied.
These barriers are nothing new – with a report coming out in 2017 by the Refugee council of Australia outlining the obstructionist policies adopted by the Department and enforced by their main detention service provider, British-owned company, Serco.
The report says, “The current barriers to access immigration detention facilities not only deprive people in detention of a much-needed support mechanism, they negatively impact the visitors.”
This report also included recommendations such as: more recognition by the Department and Serco of visitors and the role they play; better rules to mitigate risks; more consistency to the rules applied across all centres; better drug testing; and more relaxed visits.
Since the report was raised and the recommendations listed, Daniella says the conditions for both visitors and detainees have only gotten worse.
“Many of my friends in detention centres have seen the level of abuse lifted,” she said. “The border force people and their power trip are just insane and it’s because there is no scrutiny.”
These concerns were shared by another frequent visitor to the Melbourne detention centre, who requested to be referred to as ‘Lexie’. She feared her real name being published would cause the Department of Home Affairs to reject her requests to visit, or worse, cause reprisal by detention centre guards towards her friends in detention.
She’s been going to the Melbourne detention centre for five years now and has seen the situation devolve over time.
“I provide informal support, informal counselling and really just friendship to some of the people who are detained there,” she says.
Through her many visits to detention centres, Lexie says she has heard several stories of detainees being provoked or insulted by guards.
“My friends in detention have definitely experienced verbal abuse, really inappropriate stuff about people’s backgrounds and all sorts of disgusting comments.”
Like Daniella, Lexie describes the situation as worsening inside the Melbourne detention centre and pronounces the new rules applied to enter as overbearing and draconian.
“In the past we were pretty much able to go for an almost unlimited time on a given day, we would arrive around 4PM and be able to stay until 8PM. It used to be quite an inviting space with couches; You could bring musical instruments, home cooked food, board games…” Lexie says.
“Over the last five years it’s increasingly become quite highly securitised. They took away the couches and then musical instruments weren’t permitted anymore; now homemade food isn’t permitted. It’s pretty appalling.”
The opinions and experiences of both Daniella and Lexie conflict with Serco’s public website.
“All our immigration specialists are trained in, and committed to, ensuring the wellbeing, safety, compassion, and respect for the people entrusted to our care,” the website claims.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, is also concerned about what is occurring to the refugees entrusted into Serco’s care.
“The border force ideology has created a situation where the people in detention are treated every bit as poorly as people who are in prison, with the implication that they are some kind of threat to society.”
His organisation, Refugee Action Coalition, is a grassroots campaign group that has been campaigning for refugee rights since 1999.
Ian has had personal experience with the difficulties visiting refugees and the issues encountered with working around the Department’s current rules. Despite these difficulties, he feels that the role of visitors attending detention centres is as important now as it has always been.
“Obviously visits from people on the outside to people who are in detention is a lifeline to the community. It’s a lifeline to legal help and to community support. I believe that people who do visit play an important role in supporting the people who are being wrongly held in detention.”
Daniella agrees with Ian on the importance of visits by outsiders and affirmative deliberate action.
“There’s a fight there and it can be done, and it must be done, you can’t just sit on your couch anymore, you have to get out and do something. People might say it’s a small topic but it’s huge, you’ve got multinationals coming in and making huge amounts of money, guards doing what they want, it’s crazy,” she says.
Daniella understands it’s a daunting task and activism can be a struggle, but she has decided to keep her head high and find strength in the work she does.
“It’s a sad and horrific topic but I can’t focus on that. I always look at the bright side and the hope and the victories and they may seem small to me but for the refugees it is huge.”
When contemplating why she struggles, she finds herself remembering a personally revised version of the mid 20th century poem by German pastor, Martin Niemöller.
“It’s like they say, ‘First they came for the refugees, then they came for the gays, it’s the vegans now and then they’ll come for me.’ You have to remember you’re not detached from this.”