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Darren England/AAP

For Muslim refugees in immigration detention, another sombre, isolated Eid holiday

Around Australia, Muslims are preparing to celebrate Eid al-Fitr – “the feast of breaking the fast” that marks the end of Ramadan.

Eid usually involves dawn prayers and gatherings to share food and gifts. Family and community are central to these celebrations. This Eid will be particularly significant for many in the Islamic faith, as COVID-19 curtailed last year’s festivities.

Yet for Muslim refugees and asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention facilities, observances will be muted.

Escalating restrictions on visitors

This is not a new phenomenon. Since 2015, I have conducted over 70 interviews with regular visitors to Australian detention facilities. Long before COVID-19, restrictive visiting rules were separating detainees from their communities of support.

Visitors have been required to submit complex online applications at least one week before each visit. Group visits have required additional approvals and taken weeks to organise. Friends and family members with unpredictable work schedules, poor digital literacy or limited English have struggled to visit detention at all.

Blanket bans on fresh food have also been enforced, and detainees and visitors have been required to sit in assigned chairs under constant surveillance.

Read more: Refugees need protection from coronavirus too, and must be released

These restrictions were introduced years before the pandemic - purportedly to ensure the safety and security of detention spaces by minimising risks such as food poisoning.

During the pandemic, detainee isolation has become even more pronounced. Visits were banned altogether for much of last year, and detainees went months without seeing friends and family members.

Complete visitor bans have now been lifted, but strict COVID-19 rules remain in place.

Group visits are still prohibited and overall visitor numbers are capped. Once these spaces fill up, all other visitation requests are rejected. Food of all kinds is banned, and visitors must sit in designated seats and remain physically distanced from their loved ones.

For Muslim detainees, these restrictions will make for a sombre Eid. Christian detainees faced similar constraints this Easter, as did families wishing to celebrate Mother’s Day last weekend.

A celebratory atmosphere

Australia’s detention system has not always been this way. As recently as the mid-2010s, communal celebrations were a regular occurrence in detention. Visitors were permitted to bring fresh food to their visits and would often prepare special meals to mark important occasions.

Moina*, one of my interviewees in Melbourne, for example, would bake Women’s Weekly-style cakes for detained children’s birthdays and make homemade meals from the detainees’ countries of origin.

During visits, detainees and visitors would share food and laughter. Detainees were free to move between tables, making their “guests” feel welcome and offering tea and coffee.

Larger festivities organised by community volunteers were sometimes permitted. As Melbourne volunteer Hannah* explained:

We would organise Christmas, Eid parties, circus performances, bands. There was a kind of community liaison person. I used to manage an annual Christmas shoebox appeal […] I’d get kids in our community to decorate shoeboxes and then adults would buy gifts and we would fill them all and then go in there with the Sisters of Brigidine who would do the food for lunch.

Darwin interviewees recalled visiting detention centres on Mother’s Day with armfuls of flowers for the female detainees.

These celebrations served myriad functions. They brought an element of normality to visits, allowing detainees to maintain relationships with their community-based family and friends. They also allowed members of the Australian community to show their support to people who were seeking protection here. And they helped detainees mark important religious, cultural and personal events.

Read more: 'People are crying and begging': the human cost of forced relocations in immigration detention

Perhaps most importantly, these occasions provided a brief respite from the anguish and isolation of detention life.

Mental illness and self-harm are endemic in detention. Measures that build connections and combat despair are of critical importance.

As ex-detainee Farhad Bandesh shared on Facebook, refugees find hope and strength in “their families, friends and the people in community”.

The way forward

Decades of research attests that immigration detention causes profound harm. Limiting access to culture and community only compounds people’s anguish.

Stories like Moina’s show immigration detention does not have to be as harsh as it has become. Turning these centres into quasi-prisons has been a choice: one that could and should be unmade.

If authorities are sincere that they want to make detention safer, a dual approach is necessary.

First, refugees and asylum seekers can — and should — be released into the community immediately. Detention should only be used as a short-term measure and last resort.

Second, restrictions that have increased the isolation of detention need to be reversed. Incarceration is inherently distressing; it should not be made more painful by harsh institutional rules.

This is not to suggest reversing these escalations would make detention humane. It would not. Restrictions on visitors are just one of many deprivations that detainees experience.

But these refugees and asylum seekers have committed no crime. At the very least, they deserve to celebrate special occasions like the rest of us: in freedom and safety, surrounded by the people they love.

The names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.

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