Immigration detainee not given new food because maggots ‘just on the vegetables’, report finds


A meal with maggots on it was served to immigration detainees at the Park Hotel in Melbourne in 2021, a report by the commonwealth ombudsman says. Photograph: @mohammedJoy73

An immigration detainee served a contaminated meal was not offered an alternative because the maggots were “just on the vegetables”, a report by the federal watchdog has found.

The claims by the commonwealth ombudsman – which are denied by the Australian Border Force – come in a report into conditions inside federal detention centres as part of Australia’s obligations under a UN anti-torture treaty – the optional protocol to the convention against torture (Opcat).

The report made 18 recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs and detailed several incidents, including how fire extinguishers were deployed against immigration detainees on Christmas Island last year in a “planned and systematic use of force”.

The report also uncovered two “holding cells” – rooms with just a mattress on a concrete slab – in New South Wales’s Villawood immigration detention centre were being used without any time limits or consultation with health or mental health staff, despite a toilet, sink or running water being a requirement for inmates kept for any significant amount of time.

Josephine Langbien, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the report laid bare the “inhumane” treatment people experienced in Australia’s immigration detention.

“This is exactly what Opcat, the anti-torture treaty, is designed for – to shed light on the abuse that thrives behind closed doors,” she said.

“Over many years and countless reports, the commonwealth ombudsman has uncovered the daily indignities that people are subjected to in both detention centres and supposed ‘alternative’ places of detention like hotels.”

The ombudsman confirmed with Serco staff a previously reported incident of maggots being found in food served to a detainee at the Park hotel in Melbourne in 2021 and recommended staff should have sourced alternative options.

“During our discussions with the Serco staff who were working at the time of the incident, it was clear there was insufficient appreciation of the significance of the contaminated food, and how important it is for people in detention to have confidence in the quality and safety of food provided,” the report said.

“Staff advised us at the time of the incident, sourcing an alternative was not considered by staff because the maggots were ‘just on the vegetables’.”

The ombudsman recommended contingency plans be in place to source alternative meals if food is unfit for consumption.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said the incident was “symptomatic of the treatment inside the hotel”, where tennis star Novak Djokovic was briefly detained before his high-profile deportation in 2022.

But an Australian Border Force spokesperson said an independent investigation into the incident “determined that the department complied with its WHS obligations and acted in accordance with the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code”.

“The ABF strongly refutes any suggestion of mouldy bread or food with maggots being provided to detainees,” the spokesperson said.

In April, the last remaining detainees were released from the Park hotel but the ombudsman noted the release did not “address our concerns” regarding the use of hotels as alternative places of detention.

The fire extinguisher incident occurred in the first three months of last year at the North West Point immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The watchdog concluded, via video footage of the event, that firefighting equipment was used to control the movement of people and not in response to any active fire.

“Firefighting devices were discharged directly on to people in detention and, in one disturbance, into enclosed areas where people had retreated, including people who had not been involved in the disturbances,” the report said.

The ombudsman also noted that incident reports into the event “appeared incomplete”. Home Affairs in November informed the ombudsman that the use of firefighting equipment was unauthorised and action had been taken to prevent it occurring again.

Under Opcat, independent bodies are granted access to places of detention including prisons and police cells to prevent torture and mistreatment. But despite ratifying the protocol more than five years ago, Australia risks being placed on a human rights blacklist for failing to establish an independent body in every state and territory.