With no one her own age to play with, Isabella spends her days watching children’s TV shows on her mum’s phone.
Occasionally, she goes outside to play on a slide placed incongruously on a narrow strip of grass inside the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation detention centre (MITA).
But mostly, mother and daughter stay inside, away from the risks of COVID-19. Their most regular visitors are Serco guards who do a headcount four times a day.
Isabella is now 28 months old and has lived at the centre with her mother Huyen Thu Thi Tran, an asylum seeker, since the day she was born. The facility is in the suburb of Broadmeadows which is currently under lockdown due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the area.
Huyen, 31, is Catholic and says she fled religious persecution in rural Vietnam in 2011.
She landed on Christmas Island by boat and was detained for more than a year before being moved to community detention. In 2014 she ran away from the community housing in Adelaide, she says, after seeing other young Vietnamese asylum seekers in the same group being deported without warning.
She was placed in MITA in November 2017 when she was four months pregnant. She has no criminal convictions.
Days before Isabella was born, Huyen was told by MITA staff that she had to sign a form saying her baby could stay in detention with her as a “guest” if she wanted to be able to keep and breastfeed her.
“I was scared they would take my baby away from me so I thought I had to sign that paper. I didn’t know what to do but I signed it because I wanted to make sure they let me keep my baby,” she says.
Last year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said this action was “nothing more than an attempt on behalf of the authorities to circumvent the prohibition of detention of children in the context of migration”.
Paul Lee is Huyen’s husband and Isabella’s father. He lives a 15-minute drive away from MITA but he hasn’t seen his wife and daughter since March.
He’s used to booking daily visits online and – after passing through metal detectors and having drug tests – spending two hours with his family in the centre’s visitor room, amongst other guests and guards.
But the pandemic has stopped all that.
“It’s over three months now since I have seen my wife and my daughter,” the 33-year-old says.
Paul is usually a quiet man but now gets visibly angry and frustrated by the lack of communication from authorities.
“There are no other children to play with Isabella in the detention centre and this puts a lot of stress on my wife and my daughter, and the only thing I can do is a phone call,” he says.
Paul came to Australia with his family from Mauritius in 2014 and is on a 457 visa. He works as a mechanic and met Huyen while she was in Melbourne. The couple married in 2017.
He says: “It was love at first sight for me. My wife is very beautiful and a kind person. I thought to myself, ‘I really need to impress her!’”
Paul hoped he’d be able to sponsor Huyen’s visa after their marriage but learned it was not possible because she arrived in Australia by boat.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have repeatedly said there are no children in detention in Australia, something that frustrates Paul.
“If you compare Australia to other countries, this isn’t right. To keep a mother and baby in detention when they have family support, other countries would never do this for years,” he says.
Along with Isabella, two Tamil sisters from Biloela in Queensland remain on Christmas Island.
Paul says no-one from Serco or Australian Border Force have contacted him about access to his daughter after visits were stopped in March, or when Isabella was hospitalised for a week with influenza last year. She wasn’t immunised.
“No one told me to go to hospital. My wife had to call me,” he says. “None of the Serco or Border Force staff call to tell me what happened or where she is or where she is going. It’s just secret.”
Special screens have been constructed in the visitor room at MITA, but as yet, Paul has not been able to visit his family.
The UN has previously called for Australia to release Huyen and Isabella immediately and pay them compensation, but in November 2019 there was a repeated effort by the Australian Government to deport them.
The family’s lawyer Alison Battisson challenged this through the UN Human Rights Committee which granted interim measures requesting Australia does not separate mother and daughter.
The same UN committee then lifted those interim measures early this year after the government suggested to the UN that they could be deported together. Ms Battisson says she strongly disagrees with this course of action because it would result in Isabella’s separation from her father.
Paul is in the process of seeking permanent residency in Australia and while he hopes this could provide a way for him to sponsor his wife, he doesn’t know what will happen.
Huyen says if she is forced from Australia by deportation then it would not be safe to take Isabella with her because she has no idea what will happen if she is returned to Vietnam.
The family’s lawyer points to the case of Chau Van Kham, the 70-year-old Australian democracy activist who has reportedly “disappeared” inside Vietnam’s prison system. No one from his family or the Australian government has seen or spoken with Van Kham in nearly five months.
Australian Border Force has previously denied Isabella is being detained and said she can stay with her family in the community. Paul says the conditions of his work visa mean he can’t stop work to care for her.
“My visa … means I have to work full time. That means I can’t look after my daughter during the week. I can’t break the rules of that, I signed a contract.”
Huyen is also upset that, as a Catholic, Isabella remains unbaptised.
Father Peter Carrucan, a Catholic priest who conducts a weekly service at MITA and has been supporting the family since they were detained, has sent multiple applications for this to happen at a church only one kilometre from the centre, but he has had no success.
There is also no dedicated room for Christians to pray at the centre.
Until December last year, the family’s legal advice was never to separate Huyen and Isabella, as there was no guarantee Huyen would not be deported if even briefly apart from her. But in late 2019, Ms Battison received a letter stating seven days notice would given if another deportation of Huyen was planned, so Paul could finally take his daughter into the outside world at the weekend.
Paul describes taking Isabella to the shopping centre on her first day out with him.
“She was like, ‘oh wow, this is a new world’,” he says.
“I could see her first impression, it was like a blackout. She didn’t know where she is or why so many people, and I felt a bit sad as well.”
But the pandemic bought those weekend visits to an end after only three months. Isabella had also been attending a playgroup with her mother and accompanied by Serco guards once a week.
Psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman has accessed Huyen and Isabella twice since 2018 and says their case “is a clear example of the longterm implications of neglect, deprivation and poor care”.
“I’ve seen this child at the age of four to five months already showing the impact of having a very distressed and depressed and anxious carer,” she says.
“By the time I saw her again, at roughly 18 months of age, she had precisely developed the difficulties in attachment and relating, that, sadly I was able to predict.”
A recent report written by clinicians at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital where Huyen and Isabella have been seen several times this year also says: “Isabella presents with symptoms of an attachment disorder … a significant factor in this presentation is that Isabella was born in, and has only ever lived in, detention.”
“The environment within the detention centre could be described as neglectful … Isabella has limited toys and opportunity to play, is exposed to numerous unfamiliar people on a daily basis, and has become used to observing abnormal human interactions including body searches and people in distress.”
“Despite her mental health difficulties, Huyen has the capacity to provide loving care for Isabella with the attention and security she requires.”
Ms Battisson maintains there are a range of options for the family that would reunite them and wouldn’t be seen as breaking Australian government policy.
“Huyen could be released on either a temporary visa or community detention placement, which means that she has to reside at a particular place with Isabella and that could remain in place until a sustainable permanent solution for this family, either in Australia or overseas options, are worked through,” she says.
“This family are no threat to Australia’s borders and no threat to the immigration policies of Australia as it pertains to asylum seekers.”
The Home Affairs Minister could also use his ministerial discretion to overturn the current situation.
Reuben Saul, a lawyer and migration agent said the protracted processing times for protection visa applications mean many asylum seekers have now been waiting in Australia for almost a decade.
“In this time, they have become entrenched in their local communities, many have found partners here, and some have even had children here. Cases like this demonstrate the need for the government to take a practical, common-sense approach to resolving complex cases, especially those involving children born in Australia.”
The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions about Isabella and Huyen, including about their detention conditions, their health, and any efforts to reunite the family with Paul.
A spokesperson for the department has previously said: “a range of care, welfare and support arrangements are in place to provide for the needs of children and young people in detention”.
Paul fears for his wife and daughter’s welfare, especially as COVID-19 cases increase around them.
“Nothing can replace my family if anything happens to them,” he says.
Rebekah Holt is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.
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