‘THERE ARE TWO BOLTED-DOWN CHAIRS, and that's where the applicant and their lawyer will sit,’ explains the man who sat on the other side of the table, in what he describes as a quite comfortable, adjustable swivel chair. ‘The walls are dark grey and there is a lot of security paraphernalia around’ – alarms, doors that go into lock-down, that kind of thing. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a situation where that’s actually been required.’
Shaun Hanns worked in such rooms for more than five years. Until late 2018, as a decision-maker in what’s now the Department of Home Affairs, he determined the fate of hundreds of people seeking Australia’s protection under the Refugee Convention. ‘The rooms got more and more unpleasant over time, actually,’ he says.
‘I had a client once say it's like walking into CSI Miami,’ recalls a lawyer who sat opposite with people seeking asylum. ‘The tables are stock white and it's got that blue-white lighting. It's just a government building. But for [someone applying for asylum], it's not friendly in any sense – especially the rooms with chairs bolted to the ground.’
Sometimes clients would ask Sarah Dale, now the Centre Director and Principal Solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), why the chair was bolted down. Safety, she’d say; because someone might hurt another person with that chair.
‘And of course they realise in that moment that it's not to protect them from the Department – it's to protect the Department from them. Which is really demoralising… when a client has been of no threat or consequence to anyone. Little things like that make a really big difference.’
Still, many people in the ‘legacy caseload’ waited years – some are still waiting – for the chance to walk into this power-imbalanced scene and to sit in the bolted-down chair. It is a crucial moment to put their case before a decision-maker. In official terms, it’s their protection interview. From this, a decision will be made about whether or not they are a refugee.
Generally the room is booked for two or three hours, but many interviews are shorter and some are much longer.
‘My interview took place for nine hours,’ explains Kumar, a man whose boat arrived from Sri Lanka in October 2012, and who was finally interviewed in Darwin more than three years later. ‘There were no meal breaks, but I had one glass of water.’