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Issue #1642      June 11, 2014

Asylum seeker policy horrors deepen

Recent protests by asylum seekers on Christmas Island were suppressed, leaving many detainees injured. The Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison expressed regret for the murder of asylum seeker Reza Barati during the earlier brutal attack on Manus Island detainees by guards and local PNG police. However, he claimed the attack wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t protested.

The Abbott government’s report on the attack has confirmed that one detainee had his throat slashed, another received a gunshot wound in the buttocks, and one lost an eye. Barrati’s head was struck with a stick, kicked and smashed with a rock. More than 60 detainees were injured, including those who had not taken part in the protest.

The report revealed that the security firm G4S previously warned of rising tension because of lengthy imprisonment and the fact that the PNG government had processed no applications.

The firm also said the behaviour of the notoriously brutal PNG “mobile squad” was unpredictable, and they might resort to unnecessary force against the asylum seekers.

The Papua New Guinea government has denied its personnel were involved, but the report claims that citizens from both countries, (and one from New Zealand), took part in the attack.

However, the principal culprit is the government’s cruel offshore resettlement policy, and indeed the underlying policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing of applications for asylum.

Mental health

A study of 5,400 asylum seekers in mainland detention centres, Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru by medical consulting firm International Health and Medical Services indicates that the detainees’ mental health is deteriorating in proportion to their time in indefinite detention, and the problem is exacerbated by offshore detention.

The study found that 13 percent of asylum seekers in mainland detention centres and on Christmas Island were suffering extremely severe depression on arrival. A third of the Christmas Island detainees have major mental health issues, “indicating a high level of need for torture and trauma counselling services on the island”. The mental health of children, who make up about 13 percent of the detainee numbers, was of particular concern.

The number of detainees suffering mental health problems increased to 22 percent for those detained between four and six months and peaked at 44 percent for detention over 19 months. On Manus Island and Nauru approximately half the detainees exhibited symptoms of significant depression, stress or anxiety.

The study claimed that the number of asylum seekers in immigration detention who exhibit clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder now exceeds 1,000.

Manus Island has been without a full-time psychiatrist for six months. The study highlighted the need for specialist torture and trauma counselling services and for psychologists and psychiatrists to work in the detention centres, but made it clear the primary difficulty is the detention environment.

Dr Choong-Siew Yong, a former member of the immigration health advisory group (which the government has now disbanded) commented:

“People are coming as asylum seekers with a high level of mental health problems to begin with, and in the environment of the detention centres and the uncertainty about outcomes, and the fact they are often in detention for long periods of time, those problems remain and in some cases get worse, despite the provision of treatment.”

It can be concluded from the report that the current policies of mandatory detention, offshore processing, detaining and resettling asylum seekers in developing nations and forbidding them from ever resettling in Australia are vicious violations of the asylum seekers’ human rights.

National shame and disgrace

Offshore processing and mandatory detention policies impose a massive burden on the budget. The government claims it has saved money by shutting down some of the mainland detention centres. However, running offshore facilities is far more expensive than doing so on the mainland.

According to Fairfax reports the Manus Island security firm G4S made a pre-tax profit of $17,355 per inmate last year, and detaining an asylum seeker on Manus Island or Nauru is more expensive than accommodating them in Sydney’s most luxurious hotel.

But the government isn’t interested. Ignoring the fact that Papua New Guinea is notoriously unsafe for its own citizens, let alone unwelcome newcomers, Morrison rejects the idea that it is perfectly valid for those who have been subject to persecution to seek to live in a country that offers not only safety but also the best chance for their children’s future.

His statements imply that those who seek asylum but also express a desire to live in a developed nation may not have a genuine fear for their own safety in their homelands.

Nevertheless, there are some hopeful signs. Because the High Court previously rejected the Gillard government’s deal with Malaysia to detain asylum seekers, the deputy clerk of the Senate, Richard Pye, has advised the Greens that the government’s proposed deal to detain and resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia would have to be approved by Parliament.

The government says the High Court ruling only applies where asylum seekers are transferred from Australia, not from Manus Island or Nauru.

The Greens have enthusiastically accepted Pye’s advice and will challenge the Cambodian deal proposal. If Labor backs the government the deal could still be challenged in the High Court, but if Labor and the independents back the Greens it could be defeated in the Senate.

That would require a major rethink of Labor’s position. But why not? The current immigration policies are bringing Australia’s reputation into international shame, and the disgrace associated with our racist treatment of asylum seekers is beginning to resemble the national shame over the Stolen Generations.

The ruthless policy of resettlement in poverty-stricken developing nations, and the underlying policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing bring to mind that famous anguished declaration: “How long must I be with you, how long must I suffer you?”

How long indeed. It’s time to move on, and return to the humane policies of processing applications on shore and as rapidly as possible, accepting verified refugees, celebrating their presence and helping them contribute their skills, energy and culture to the rich mix of the Australian community.

Next article – Budget 2014-15 – Gap concern over big cuts

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