Asylum seekers: when does silence become complicity?

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Bruce Duncan

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Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre by DIBP images, flickr cc

Australians have been shocked by revelations about the appalling conditions of refugees and asylum seekers in detention camps, especially about the treatment of women and children. Recent testimonies provide evidence of cover-ups of abusive and degrading treatment of asylum seekers. We treat convicted murderers better than these asylum seekers.

Appearing before the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the detention of children, psychiatrist Peter Young on 31 July said that the Immigration Department was alarmed at his report on the numbers of child detainees suffering from serious mental health issues, and asked him to withdraw the figures. Young was the former director of mental health services for International Health & Medical Services, which had the contract for these services.

Young reported that there had been 128 instances of child detainees self-harming in 15 months, not including those in Nauru. One child had committed acts of self-harm on 16 occasions, but was still kept in detention and was not given specialist care. Children had tried to poison themselves, and banging their heads against walls was a common practice. More than 170 others had threatened to self-harm.

Others, including two doctors working on Christmas Island in 2013, testified to further unacceptable treatment, with people being denied basic health care, having their medication, glasses, and hearing aids taken from them and often not replaced, and being deprived of help for serious complaints. A former employee of the Immigration Department said that the aim of the detention policy was to dehumanise detainees and treat them badly so as to deter others from trying to enter Australia by boat.

There are currently about 659 children in Australian detention centres, down from 1330 a year ago, but with 153 still on Christmas Island. A further 185 are in Nauru. Among the 157 recent Sri Lankan asylum seekers were 37 children.

The president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, has shown dignified courage in standing up to Immigration Minister Mr Morrison. After a visit to Christmas Island, Triggs reported that most of the child detainees were ill, with many self-harming, and their conditions were worsening. “There were children with big lumps, untreated sores, red eyes. But most of them were coughing, had asthmatic conditions or stomach complaints.” In addition, thirteen women were under constant suicide watch.

Mr Morrison rejected her statements as “sensational” and untruthful.

Triggs called on Morrison to let Australians know the truth about what was happening to detainees, and especially to release the children into the community because they were being greatly harmed.

Growing opposition from churches

The Abbott government has significant numbers of committed Christians, especially among senior members. This is partly why church groups have been so dismayed at its harsh asylum seeker policies. Mr Abbott himself has a strong Catholic background, yet I have no doubt that his much admired BA Santamaria, himself a child of ‘economic refugees’, would be appalled at how the boat people are being treated.

The Australian Catholic bishops on 9 May made an exceptionally strong attack on the treatment of asylum seekers as shameful and cruel, bringing dishonour on Australia. “Enough of this institutionalised cruelty.” They said they had “intervened with Government in an attempt to make policy more respectful of human dignity and basic human rights, which today are being seriously violated”. They called on Australians to renounce these policies, and “say no to the dark forces, which make these policies possible”. The bishops supported their fellow bishops of PNG in opposing the use of Manus Island for detention, and called for humane solutions for asylum seekers.

Christmas Island Migration Detention Centre and the Lilac Compound by DIBP Images, flickr cc

All the major churches have voiced similar concerns. Representatives from nine churches focused on 30 July on the plight of unaccompanied child detainees, and criticised current policies as “state-sanctioned child abuse” which will warrant a royal commission. “There is no sustainable resettlement possible in Nauru. It is a painful façade offering no real solution.”

The 54-page report, Protecting the Lonely Children, was prepared by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and launched by Very Revd Peter Catt at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. It received wide publicity, especially for its call to separate the role as legal guardian of child detainees from the Minister for Immigration, since he is currently ‘guardian, judge and jailer’, leaving him with “glaring conflicts of interest”.

The chair of the refugee Taskforce, Anglican Dean Peter Catt said: “These children are held like animals in conditions that are inhumane, interrogated without support or representation, shipped around the country and offshore in the middle of the night, and denied basic rights, including education.”

The report called for all unaccompanied children to be removed from closed detention on Christmas Island and offshore, as “children are experiencing terrible physical and mental suffering”.

Following the Human Rights Commission hearings, three peak medical bodies called for an independent medical advisory body to monitor the treatment of detained asylum seekers. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and the Australian Medical Association all expressed their concerns about the revelations. In December 2013, fifteen doctors working on Christmas Island had written a letter complaining about ‘gross departures’ from standard health services for people in detention.

Many members of parliament across all parties are deeply concerned about the plight of asylum seekers. Mr Abbott is presumably conflicted about his policies. He said he was well aware of the situation of nearly 1000 children in detention, but the death of people at sea was even “more horrific”.

Indeed, noone wants to see people drowning at sea. Neither is it morally acceptable, however, to try to deter people by deliberately creating conditions to drive asylum seekers literally out of their minds, with hundreds self-harming or attempting suicide. The major parties have painted themselves into a corner with asylum seekers, and it is urgent proper solutions be found.

Regional processing centres

As John Menadue points out, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia in the second half of 2013 were more than we could handle realistically or politically. In 2012-13, there were more than 25,000 maritime arrivals, with numbers increasing significantly. Menadue had been Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs during the Fraser years, and has followed the asylum seeker issue closely.

He had supported setting up a regional processing centre in Malaysia, with involvement of the UNHCR, but this was blocked in the Senate by the Greens and the Coalition. In an article with Arja Keshi-Nummi in the Age on 13 December 2013, he set criteria for such a regional centre: asylum seekers would be guaranteed :

  • The principle of non-refoulement
  • Legal status and access to work and education
  • Help for displaced persons and host communities and
  • An increased intake from our region.

More recently, on 15 July, Menadue on his website called for :

  • Increasing our refugee intake to 25,000 a year
  • Negotiating orderly departure agreements with Sri Lanka and Afghanistan
  • Developing alternative migration pathways, eg 457 visas, for Iranians
  • Winding back mandatory detention, and
  • Allowing asylum seekers to work.

Menadue was reflecting the discussions in a high-level roundtable held on 11 July at Parliament House with a group of 35 policy-makers and experts, parliamentarians from three of the major parties, and a former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia.

The roundtable was organised by Australia21, the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the UNSW, and the Centre for Policy Development. They drew from the 53-page paper, Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: a Long-Term Policy for Australia, prepared by two former senior officials of the Immigration Department, Peter Hughes and Arja Keshi-Nummi.

Australia’s treatment of maritime arrivals has become a running sore which is gravely damaging our reputation internationally, especially with our regional neighbours. It is time to depoliticise the issue as much as possible, and for sensible parliamentarians in all parties to help us determine humane long-term solutions.


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