The Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP), run by the Brigidine Sisters, took groups of children from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows out into the community for supervised day trips.
Sister Brigid Arthur said the program had run for four years until it was stopped by Australian Border Force (ABF) “about six months ago”.
“[We’d] go to the Collingwood Children’s Farm, go to the zoo occasionally, out to adventure playgrounds,” Sister Brigid told 774 ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine.
“Anything that actually can entertain the kids and give them some stimulation.”
The program also included occasional day trips for adults in immigration detention.
The types of activities and the places they were taking them to, we had no visibility of and no control over.Don Smith, Australian Border Force
Sister Brigid said the program had been suspended by the ABF, which said it was “under review”.
“We haven’t actually been able to resume it, so presumably the review has … had a negative outcome,” Sister Brigid said.
ABF Regional Commander Don Smith told 774 ABC Melbourne’s Rafael Epstein that he stopped the program because he was not comfortable with supervision levels.
“There were reports about some activities that were being undertaken by the nuns and the other members of the program where the levels of supervision for those activities weren’t to the standard that I was comfortable with,” he said.
He said the nuns would be welcome to join Serco officers on existing excursions organised for detainees.
“We welcome the nuns to participate in the excursions that we already have, we see that there is a degree of duplication in the activities, there was also a concern that we had insufficient oversight of what the activities that were being planned,” he said.
“It’s not the nuns … the nuns were part of a program called the Designated Persons Program, so it wasn’t just those nuns there were other members of the community who were interested in the welfare of people at the MITA, which of course I welcome.
“But the types of activities and the places they were taking them to, we had no visibility of and no control over.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Immigration Department confirmed the program had been reviewed and, on a number of occasions, the outings were “not deemed appropriate and there was limited supervision of the activities”.
“The welfare of all detainees, including children, is of paramount importance to the department,” the statement added.
“While this specific program has ceased, Serco will continue to offer excursions and activities in a safe and controlled manner.
“The department continues to work with organisations formerly involved in delivering this program.”
Sister Brigid said there were never any incidents or escape attempts on the outings.
“The outings were amazingly free from any incident. The people were so pleased to be out and about,” she said.
“Most of the kids don’t want to go with the officers, who are seen to be ‘security’ people.”
Children in detention ‘need stimulation’
Sister Brigid said children in particular become very bored when held in detention.
“Kids need a lot of stimulation,” she said.
Some would say it’s a form of torture to have [the children] cooped up.Senator John Madigan
“Just having other kids to play with, having things to do that are outside the norm … it’s so absolutely important for the welfare of these kids.”
Sister Brigid said one little girl fell in love with a goat at the Collingwood Children’s Farm.
“That was a magical day. We’d gone to the Collingwood Children’s Farm and that little girl was very quiet.
“Then when we went around to different animals she was a bit excited, but when we got to the goat, she just loved that goat.
“She just fell in love with that goat.”
Sister Brigid said detention was starting to have a negative impact on the 17 children held at MITA.
She said she had talked to an “incredibly caring” parent of a three-year-old boy held in detention who was concerned at changes they were seeing in their child.
“We don’t know what to do with him, he just gets so angry these days,” she recalled the parent as saying.
Rules becoming ‘more draconian under guise of security’
Victorian senator John Madigan said his office had placed a call to Mr Dutton’s office “to seek clarification” on the status of the Brigidine Sisters’ project.
“I’m totally bewildered … as to what the hell is happening here,” Senator Madigan said.
He said he could not understand what problem could be with taking children out of the detention centre for excursions to places like the Collingwood Children’s Farm.
“Some would say it’s a form of torture to have them cooped up,” the senator said.
Sister Brigid said the rules at the detention centre were becoming “more draconian … under the guise of security”.
She described the conditions for detainees at MITA as “worse than a prison”.
“They don’t know when they’re going to get out, what they’re going to get out to – it’s just an awful, awful situation,” she said.