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Detained refugees denied access to library services

Library services are yet to be provided to refugees detained in a Melbourne facility, despite efforts from librarians and City of Melbourne councillors.

Concerns have been raised that this places Australia in breach of multiple United Nations Conventions.

In December 2020, a group of refugees were relocated to the Park Hotel in Carlton, as part of the Medevac program. Since then, librarians from City of Melbourne libraries have made attempts to provide the 45 refugees who remain in the hotel with access to the libraries’ online and physical collection.

However, these attempts have been met with a lack of cooperation from the Australian Border Force and Serco, the private corporation contracted by the Federal Government to manage detention centres.

When interviewed about the matter, City of Melbourne Councillor Dr Olivia Ball said:

[Librarians] have sent multiple requests to Border Force and Serco, asking for access and have not had a reply. We need the Federal Government to cooperate.”

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In an effort to clarify matters, the City of Melbourne Future Melbourne Committee unanimously passed a motion extending municipal library services to immigration detainees in the municipal community on 7 September. However, this motion is yet to encourage any progress on the provision of these services as of 22 November.

Dr Ball said that the intention of the motion was “to remove any doubt for our librarians that we wanted them to take this action”.

During a discussion of the motion, Dr Jane Garner, a researcher whose work has focused on the role of libraries in prisons and underprivileged communities, highlighted the human rights issues at hand, citing the ‘United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners’ and the ‘UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.

Under the ‘United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners’:

‘Every prison shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked… and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.’

Dr Garner noted that:

“To deny or refuse to facilitate such access is a breach of that fundamental right. I think we can be judged quite harshly for allowing that to occur.”

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In addition, the ‘UNESCO Public Library Manifesto’ of 1994 states that:

‘The services of the public library are provided on the basis of equality of access for all… Specific services and materials must be provided for those who cannot use the regular services and materials, for example… people in prison.’

Dr Ball believes that these UN conventions indicate that the Federal Government should have been implementing these services since the refugees’ initial detainment, “without local government offering to do it”.

She said:

“Either Border Force and the Federal Government should be doing it themselves or they should stand aside and allow our librarians at a municipal level to do it.”

Dr Garner explained that detention conditions like those of the Park Hotel have “enormously detrimental effects on mental health and wellbeing, leading to destructive behaviours and depression”. Access to library services can assist in alleviating these issues.

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Dr Garner went on to say:

“These are the only prisoners we have that don’t really know why they’re there or if they can ever leave. Every other prisoner has a determined sentence as a result of an offence that they’ve been judged guilty for. Therefore I believe we should be doing everything we can to make that life more bearable and this is one very simple way to expand their worlds and fill their days.”

Adam Bandt, leader of the and Federal MP for Melbourne, said there was no reason to keep the men detained and that a number of issues, including the provision of library services, would be resolved if they were given proper pathways to residency.

It has been suggested that library services were not provided due to Victoria’s lockdown restrictions but Dr Ball emphasised that these restrictions were not sufficient reason to block these services:

“A great deal of those needs and interests can be met online, contact can be made online. There is nothing inherent in the lockdown preventing contact.”

Bandt suggested that Serco “believes cruelty is key to winning government ”.

Both the Department of Home Affairs and Serco were contacted for this report but did not provide comment.

Concerns regarding the management of the detention have also been raised recently due to an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Park Hotel. 

Marlon Toner-McLachlan is a student at the University of Melbourne, studying Politics and Spanish.

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