For Muslim refugees in migrant detention, another dark and isolated Eid holiday
Muslims across Australia are preparing to celebrate Eid al-Fitr – “the fast breaking holiday” which marks the end of Ramadan.
Eid usually involves prayers at dawn and gatherings to share food and gifts. Family and community are at the heart of these celebrations. This Eid will be especially important for many members of the Islamic faith, as COVID-19 curtailed the festivities last year.
Yet for Muslim refugees and asylum seekers in Australian immigrant detention centers, the celebrations will be silent.
Increased restrictions on visitors
It is not a new phenomenon. Since 2015, I have conducted over 70 interviews with regular visitors to Australian detention centers. Long before COVID-19, restrictive visitation rules separated detainees from their supportive communities.
Visitors should submit complex applications online at least one week prior to each visit. Group visits required additional approvals and took weeks to organize. Friends and family members with unpredictable work schedules, poor digital literacy or limited English have struggled to get to detention.
General bans on fresh food were also enforced, and inmates and visitors were forced to sit in assigned chairs under constant surveillance.
Read more: Refugees also need protection from coronavirus and must be released
These restrictions were introduced years before the pandemic – allegedly to ensure the safety and security of places of detention by minimizing risks such as food poisoning.
During the pandemic, the isolation of inmates became even more pronounced. Visitations have been completely banned for much of the past year, and detainees have gone for months without seeing friends and family.
Full visitation bans have now been lifted, but strict COVID-19 rules remain in place.
Group visits are still prohibited and the overall number of visitors is capped. Once these spaces are filled, all other visit requests are rejected. Foods of all kinds are prohibited, and visitors should sit in designated seats and stay physically away from loved ones.
For Muslim detainees, these restrictions will lead to a dark Eid. Christian detainees faced similar stresses over Easter, as did families wishing to celebrate Mother’s Day last weekend.
A festive atmosphere
The Australian detention system has not always been like this. As late as the mid-2010s, community celebrations were rife in detention. Visitors were allowed to bring fresh food to their tours and often prepared special meals to mark important occasions.
Moina *, one of my interviewees in Melbourne, for example, baked Women’s Weekly-style cakes for the birthdays of detained children and cooked home-cooked meals in the detainees’ home countries.
During the visits, inmates and visitors shared food and laughter. The inmates were free to move between the tables, making their “guests” feel welcome and offering them tea and coffee.
Larger festivities organized by community volunteers were sometimes permitted. As Hannah *, a volunteer in Melbourne, explained:
We organized Christmas parties, Eid, circus shows, groups. There was a sort of community liaison officer. I used to handle an annual Christmas shoebox call […] I would have the kids in our community decorate shoeboxes, then the adults would buy gifts and we would all fill them, and then we would go there with the Brigidin Sisters who made the food for lunch.
Interviewees in Darwin recalled visiting detention centers on Mother’s Day with armfuls of flowers for inmates.
These celebrations served a myriad of functions. They brought an element of normalcy to the visits, allowing inmates to maintain relationships with family and community friends. They also allowed members of the Australian community to show their support for those seeking protection here. And they have helped inmates mark important religious, cultural and personal events.
Read more: ‘People cry and beg’: the human cost of forced relocations to immigration detention centers
Perhaps more importantly, these occasions provided a brief respite from the angst and isolation of life in detention.
Mental illness and self-harm are rampant in detention. Measures that make connections and fight desperation are of critical importance.
As ex-detainee Farhad Bandesh shared on Facebook, refugees find hope and strength in “their families, friends and community members”.
The path to follow
Decades of research show that the detention of migrants causes profound harm. Limiting access to culture and community only aggravates people’s anxiety.
Stories like Moina’s show that immigrant detention shouldn’t be as harsh as it has become. Transforming these centers into quasi-prisons was a choice: a choice that could and should be undone.
If the authorities sincerely want to make detention safer, a dual approach is needed.
First, refugees and asylum seekers can – and should – be released immediately into the community. Detention should only be used as a short-term measure and as a last resort.
Second, the restrictions that have increased the isolation of detention must be lifted. Incarceration is inherently distressing; it should not be made more painful by tough institutional rules.
This is not to say that reversing these escalations would make detention humane. It wouldn’t. Restrictions on visitors are just one of the many hardships detainees face.
But these refugees and asylum seekers have committed no crime. At the very least, they deserve to celebrate special occasions like all of us: in freedom and safety, surrounded by the people they love.
The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect their identity.