Recent changes to the application of food policies in Australia’s immigration detention centres mean detainees will no longer receive fresh food, such as home-cooked dishes, fruit and vegetables, from visitors.
Benevolent groups such as Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS), whose members have been providing interpersonal contact with asylum seekers at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, including weekly food deliveries, believe these changes will adversely impact the lives of already despondent detainees who face indefinite detention. Since the group’s inception in 2013, SASS members have been responding to specific food requests for culturally significant items and fresh produce not readily available inside the centres. Members have been preparing home-cooked dishes and spending their own money shopping for foods for detainees. The group also provides advocacy and connective assistance to navigate the immigration and visa process.
A spokesperson from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection tells SBS that the new food policy reflects health and safety concerns.
“On 11 September, the Department introduced a new outside food policy in all immigration detention facilities (IDFs). Visitors were informed of the new policy prior to 11 September via fact sheets upon arrival at IDFs and updates to the border.gov.au website.
“Under this policy, visitors can only bring in food that is commercially packaged and sealed with a valid expiry date. These foods are only allowed within designated visitors’ areas.
“These measures will ensure crucial food health and safety standards are maintained and will enhance the security of detainees, staff and visitors.
"Food items have been used to smuggle contraband into IDFs in the past. In the last few months, visitors have attempted to smuggle in quantities of cocaine, marijuana, opiates and a smart phone into IDFs concealed within food items.“
Co-founder of SASS, Anna Buch, says the group worries about the impact of the changes on the mental health of detainees or their families: “Culturally relevant food was also brought in by people in community detention visiting their family members in detention. This was the one time they could sit and share a meal together, often with their children. And that experience [shared meals] is no longer available.”
The department spokesperson tells SBS that the department provides food for more than 80 different nationalities within the immigration detention network. “Menus are prepared on the basis of cultural and nutritional needs and detainees are able to contribute with their suggestions to the creation of menus.”
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection website says that only commercially packaged and labelled food will be permitted, although “detention service provider may permit visitors to bring certain ‘controlled’ items into the facility where prior approval has already been sought and obtained”.
Examples of food that can be taken into an IDF include commercially packaged dried fruit, nuts, confectionery, cereals and biscuits. Exceptions apply for certain foods such as birthday cakes but they must meet strict packaging and size requirements. Special purpose foods for medical conditions and baby formula are also allowed with prior approval and screening before entry.
Anna Buch believes there are small advantages in this new policy; “We bring in birthday cakes and that’s a really good thing. The Department formulated exactly what size the cake had to be and I could bring in a bigger cake than before, so that was a positive.”
But there are also losses. Until the changes came into force on 11 September this year, SASS members visited Iggy’s Bread in Sydney’s Bronte to pick up donated wheels of freshly baked rolls to take to the detainees at Villawood. SASS member Monique Corah believes the detainees will notice its absence: “They love it! And the wheel works well because there are three centres at the Villawood facility, so we can break it down and take a portion of the bread into each centre.”
Detainees that SBS spoke to about the policy were unwilling to speak on the record.
Andrea McDonald, manager at Iggy’s Bread, says, “When you hear they can’t have fresh food it’s so disappointing. Monique brings the detainees into the store once they’ve been released and they’re always so appreciative of our efforts. At the end of the day, they’re human beings.”
Anna Buch hopes the Department may change the rules in the future. “I’m hoping we can bring fresh food back in.”