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Issue #1656      September 17, 2014

Hopes crushed amid asylum seeker policy chaos

The death of 24 year-old Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei has put paid to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s claims about the “outstanding care” available for detainees at the detention centre at Manus Island. A cut on his foot that was left untreated for five days became septic necessitating a dash to Brisbane’s Mater Hospital for desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) treatment. Hamid’s was a needless death caused by neglect. His family in Iran gave consent for the donation of his organs to help those in need in Australia.

The case sent shock waves through the community in Australia as the full horror of the federal government’s “stop the boats” policy continues to sink in. “Like Reza Berati [who died during a violent invasion of the camp in February], Hamid is a victim of the offshore processing regime run by the Coalition government,” said Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition. “There are 1,000 potential Hamids on Manus Island. Infections and skin disease are endemic in the detention centre. It is unhygienic and unsafe.”

Reports of some other grim realities of Manus Island are seeping out. The Sydney Morning Herald carried a report on leaked papers detailing the functions of the “Chauka” compound in the centre. This is where allegedly disruptive detainees are housed in a collection of shipping containers and subjected to a harsh Behavioural Modification Program. Witnesses report detainees being kept on a diet of bread and water for up to three days and forced to sleep on muddy ground. Arbitrary judgements are made about “non-compliant” and “anti-social” behaviour among asylum seekers.

Peter Young, who until July was director of mental health for International Health and Medical Services (the private contractor operating in the network of detention centres) is not surprised at the reports. “What we are talking about here is a total institution where there is no scrutiny of what goes on and we know that, within these types of institutions, abusive practices inevitably arise,” he said.

Self-harm is rife at the camp as it is elsewhere in the detention centre regime. The scale of it at the Christmas Island facility is taking its toll on staff. One female Serco staff member attempted to take her own life and a male is considered at serious risk of self-harm.

“The pressure of being with clients, for 12 hours a shift with no relief, and seeing slashings and attempted hangings is taking a toll,” a Fairfax source said. Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs recently noted there were 13 mothers on suicide watch on Christmas Island.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that the bill for the government’s month-long detention of 157 Sri Lankan nationals aboard a prison ship has come in at more than $12 million. That includes the cost of a five star stay by Immigration minister Morrison in Delhi where he tried to convince the Indian government to accept the return of the refugees. It also includes the two cricket bats valued at $695 each for Indian officials. So much for the cost benefits of the “stop the boats” policy.

The unfortunate asylum seekers at the centre of the fiasco have been taken to Nauru to the last man, woman and child. The Coalition’s fanatically protected record of zero boat arrivals was thus shattered.

The government has failed to stitch up an agreement with PNG for resettlement of asylum seekers in that country. The hairbrain scheme drew the attention of the incoming United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein. In his maiden speech to the Human Rights Council he criticised Australia’s policy of intercepting and turning back ships at sea and the idea of resettling refugees in “countries that are not adequately equipped.”

Elsewhere, the defence force chief in charge of border protection under Howard, Admiral Chris Barrie, has called Scott Morrison’s handling of his portfolio a “mess that reflects badly on all of us.” At the launch of a book by Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong entiltled Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies are Not, he questioned the use of the term “mandatory detention”.

“I’m not sure we should continue to use the term ‘mandatory detention’ when we actually mean jail,” Admiral Barrie said. “At least in Australian jails the incarcerated have rights of access to legal support and representation. In these jails no such rights exist.”

As the Abbott government rushes to join the US’ latest military adventure in the Middle East with its inevitable bi-product of waves of refugees, it is simultaneously making a ham-fisted hash of its indefensible and illegal asylum seeker policy. Too many have suffered and died at the alter of the Coalition’s “fortress Australia”. Hamid Kehazaei’s death must not be in vain. “All the detainees on Manus Island must be brought to the mainland,” Ian Rintoul said. “While we mourn for Hamid, we are determined to fight for justice and continue the fight to close Manus Island.”

Next article – Labour turnaround on East-West Link

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