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The death of a man in immigration detention has raised questions about the length of time people are being held onshore, and the impact of coronavirus on visiting and other rights. By Karen Middleton.

Daniel Harvey’s death in detention

Daniel Harvey, who died in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre.
Credit: Facebook

On the night before he died, Daniel Harvey looked off-colour. Grey was how a friend described him.

Harvey had seemed unwell for a few days, and his friend noticed the pallor as the 46-year-old fronted up to receive his evening dose of medication from the nurse at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre in Broadmeadows, on Melbourne’s northern rim, where both were being detained.

Someone asked Harvey if he was all right. He said he was.

The nurse was concerned enough to take his blood pressure. It was Sunday night and, as there is no doctor on duty at weekends, nothing more was done.

About 9pm, Harvey was heard asking if anyone had seen his medication, an anti-psychotic drug he’d been prescribed for schizophrenia and which he was supposed to have taken in front of the dispensing nurse. One detainee thought that seemed “weird”. Someone else commented he sounded a bit slurry.

About midnight, he went outside for a cigarette. Some of those who saw him then thought he looked a little bit better.

The next morning – Monday of this week – Harvey didn’t show up at the nurse’s station at 8.15am as usual. He was normally punctual for the twice-daily dose.

Staff had been scheduled to undertake welfare checks of his protective compound at 6.30am and had not reported anything untoward. It’s not clear whether they looked in on him.

When he didn’t arrive for his medication, compound officers were asked to go check.

About an hour later, Daniel’s sister Rae received a call from their mother, Pamela, who lives in Werribee, south-west of Melbourne.

The wife of another detainee had contacted her to say Daniel had been found unconscious. They thought then that he was still alive.

At 11.22am, Pamela phoned Rae again. Police were arriving at her door. They both knew it would be bad news. It was.

During his time in detention, Daniel Harvey had gained a lot of weight and his general health had deteriorated. There is no suggestion he took his own life.

His family say illicit drugs were getting into the centre, which has been confirmed by detainees. Ice, among other things, they say. They have their own theories about how this happens. Their unconfirmed stories include allegations of large sums of money changing hands.

The Home Affairs Department told a parliamentary committee recently that controlled drugs were reaching detention centres “by visitors, through mail, in person or by being thrown over the fences of the facilities”.

Members of the Harvey family want to know how that could occur, given all visitors have been banned since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March. They want to know whether in-person drug transfers have involved Australian Border Force personnel or contractors.

And they want to know exactly what happened to Daniel.

“My question is, if he was sick in the days leading up to it, and his face was grey, that doesn’t sound like suicide and it doesn’t sound like murder,” Rae Harvey says. “Why didn’t he see a doctor?”

There are 339 people held in the MITA north and south centres. MITA north, where Harvey was held, is where the Home Affairs Department detains most of those non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled following criminal convictions or been refused visas because the minister believes they are not of good character as determined under section 501 of the Migration Act.

Harvey had been in and out of jail for drug offences and sexual assault involving a minor. He completed his most recent jail sentence four-and-a-half years ago, and had been held in immigration detention ever since, transferred between centres and states as detainees often are, at short notice.

Harvey was born in New Zealand but had lived in Australia since he was eight, when his parents separated and his mother moved across with the children.

Because he had never done the paperwork to become an Australian citizen, his convictions meant he also became subject to the government’s uncompromising stance against foreign nationals who break Australian law and was slated to be deported. He had challenged the order and was awaiting a court ruling.

Acting Immigration minister Alan Tudge said Harvey, whom he did not identify by name, was being “evicted” due to a “very serious criminal background”.

“He was certainly a person that has had [a] very serious criminal history, and that’s all I’ll say at this stage,” Tudge told ABC TV, offering his condolences to the family and confirming the coroner would investigate. “… I have no information to suggest that any protocol was broken.”

Rae Harvey disputes Tudge’s description and objects to his tone. “I’m just really upset that the acting minister made it sound like they’d done the world a favour,” she says. “There was no mention of how long he’d been in there or what it did to him.”

Daniel Harvey relied heavily on his mother for emotional support. Along with all other immigration detainees, he’d had no visitors for five months.

“The biggest stress on my brother’s life was not being able to see my mother,” Rae Harvey says.

He did not know anyone in New Zealand, including any extended family, and if he were sent there, Rae and her sister were encouraging Pamela to also migrate so he wasn’t alone.

It’s not clear why Daniel Harvey had been detained for so long since completing his jail sentence. He was one of 1550 people being held in immigration detention centres around Australia, many of whom have been detained for much longer.

Some are convicted criminals of foreign nationality, some are visa overstayers and at least 505 are asylum seekers.

Some may have been found to be refugees but because the government is concerned about their backgrounds, or because they came by boat, it will not accept them.

The ABF and Home Affairs say the demographics in immigration detention have shifted since people stopped arriving in large numbers by boat. A higher proportion are now convicted criminals with foreign citizenship, it says. The system does not separate them.

Advocates and lawyers persistently press the government to move faster to resolve the cases of people left in limbo, and to release people they argue are being held unreasonably.

In light of the coronavirus, a coalition of support organisations, including the Australian Refugee Action Network, have assembled groups of volunteers who are willing, between them, to house 500 refugees and asylum seekers in private homes, to get them away from crowded centres where the risk of infection is high.

There are already more than 9000 asylum seekers on bridging visas living in the community. The government appears unlikely to accept the latest offer.

Instead, the ABF announced last week that it was reopening the Christmas Island detention centre and transferring some section 501 detainees there to make room for others being moved from prison into detention at the end of their jail sentences.

Covid-19 physical distancing means more space is required in mainland centres.

“The cohort being transferred consists of those who have been convicted of crimes involving assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences,” the ABF said in a statement. “This cohort is detained because of their risk to the Australian community.”

The ABF briefed MITA detainees last week about the Christmas Island transfers. Many were upset at the prospect of being far from family and friends, in a location where internet and mobile phone service are poor. Daniel Harvey spoke of trying to get some kind of injunction.

As another detainee says: “Daniel was worried about it. He was freaking out.”

The Saturday Paper confirmed this week that anyone being transferred to Christmas Island will be required to first spend 14 days in quarantine at the Yongah Hill detention centre in Western Australia, under an arrangement with the WA government.

Some Yongah Hill detainees were expected to be transferred to the island late this week.

Also this week, the Federal Court ordered that a 68-year-old man who is being held at MITA should no longer be detained there because of the Covid-19 risk to his health.

The deadline was 1pm on Thursday. On Wednesday night, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton indicated he would be transferred to Yongah Hill instead.

The man’s lawyers objected, asking how that would fulfil the government’s duty of care not to endanger the man’s health.

The judge extended the orders until both parties could present arguments on Wednesday next week.

Under international law, immigration detention is supposed to be administrative and temporary, not punitive.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned the government that it may be acting unlawfully by holding people indefinitely who have either committed no crime or who have served their designated sentences.

Last week, the government deported 30 New Zealand citizens from immigration detention. They are now in what NZ calls “managed isolation”. An NZ quarantine spokesperson told The Saturday Paper that there had been four such flights since mid-July. A special centre is housing them in Auckland.

On Wednesday, the Australian government deported another 12 detainees to Britain and Italy.

“I honestly believe that our country’s just safer for them not being here and … no doubt some of their family members aren’t too happy with me,” Dutton told 2GB on Thursday.

“… Equally, if Australians commit crimes overseas, then we would expect those Australians to be deported back to Australia, whether we wanted them or not. It is our international obligation to take our residents back.”

The government has taken measures including stripping Australian citizenship from dual nationals to avoid taking back overseas Australians who are linked to terrorist groups. This group includes Melbourne-born Neil Prakash, who is in jail in Turkey for terrorism offences and who the Australian government has refused to accept, arguing he should go to Fiji, where his father was born.

Daniel Harvey’s mother says her only solace is that her son now won’t have to go through the stress of deportation. His funeral will be held in Melbourne next week.

Because of the coronavirus, his sister Rae, a wildlife carer who lost her home near Mogo on the New South Wales south coast during the January bushfires, won’t be able to attend.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2020 as "What happened to Daniel Harvey?".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.