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Issue #1521      5 October 2011

Asylum seekers’ hopes still hang in the balance

Last week Matilda Bogner, the Pacific area representative of the UN Human Rights Commission, severely criticised Australia’s mandatory detention policy. She declared: “Thousands of men, women and – most disturbingly of all – children have been held in Australian detention centres for long periods, even though they have committed no crime”.

The government has a policy of releasing children into community housing, but about 401 children are still being held in detention. Of those held in the Northern Territory, 119 are being held in the Darwin airport Lodge, including 58 unaccompanied minors.

Ms Bogner commented: “I urge the leaders of all Australian political parties to take a principled and courageous stand to break this ingrained habit of demonising asylum seekers.

Mental cruelty and child abuse

Ms Bogner’s comments were made in response to a statement on behalf of the Australian Medical Association by Dr Peter Morris, to the effect that detention of children in detention centres was equivalent to child abuse.

Addressing a federal commission of inquiry, Dr Morris pointed to an alarming incidence of mental health problems among children held in detention centres, which has led to a rising rate of attempts to commit suicide. In one most unusual case an unaccompanied nine-year old boy recently attempted suicide while being held in detention in the Northern Territory.

For a number of reasons statistics are not available for suicides of children under the age of 15. According to the Bureau of Statistics for 2009 (the most recent date for which figures are available) young people between 15 and 19 who committed suicide represented a large percentage of all those who died from all causes in this age category, but they were nevertheless the smallest age group of all people who committed suicide.

The rising rate of suicide attempts by young detainees is therefore a matter of deep concern. Dr Morris claims that a third of the children held in detention are suffering from depression. The federal immigration health service provider, International Health and Medical Services, has requested that more psychiatric services should be provided for detainees in the Northern Territory. This might be a good short-term move, but it ignores the fact that the major underlying cause of the deteriorating mental health of detainees is the policy of mandatory detention.

Splits in the ranks

The Gillard government’s latest advertising campaign is intended to pressure the federal opposition into supporting the government’s proposed offshore processing policy, under which asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat would be forcibly transported to indefinite detention in Malaysia.

The government is blocking its ears to all objections over its immigration policies of mandatory detention and off-shore processing of applications for asylum. The federal opposition is continuing to attack the government, with good cause, over the abuse of human rights involved in the Malaysian proposal. Nevertheless, the opposition still intends to tow back asylum seeker vessels to sea, even though they are unwanted in the nations from which they sailed, and might drown in the attempt to find a port that will accept them.

A number of federal MPs from the two largest parties have been exhibiting signs of discomfort with their party’s immigration policies. One of them is Senator Eric Abetz, who has spoken out in support of asylum seekers from Iran, the majority of whom are Christians who fled religious persecution. After receiving reports of a death sentence passed by an Iranian court on Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Betz talked of “the extreme nature of the religious intolerance in Iran” and commented: “One can understand why people are fleeing Iran”.

In marked contrast, the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, has stated openly that he had tried repeatedly to reach an agreement with the Iranian government to accept the return of Iranian asylum seekers detained in Iraq, even though they would “simply be killed” by the Iranian regime, as the chairman of the Iranian Community Association remarked bluntly.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, is conducting an investigation into the rising rate of self-harm among detainees. There were 1,132 attempts or threats of self-harm in the past year, including 20 incidents on Christmas Island in one week last June, which occurred while Asher was inspecting detention facilities on the island.

The situation there is so bad that detention centre staff have been requested to carry knives at all times, to cut down detainees who have attempted to hang themselves. Detainees are not allowed to have razors. If they want to shave they must request a razor, and hand it back to staff afterwards.

The government has introduced into parliament an amended bill to enable the Malaysian proposal to go ahead, but a vote on the bill is not expected to take place for several weeks. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has promised to examine the Asher report seriously, in order to determine the proper course of action.

Meanwhile, she should bear in mind the advice of Louise Newman, an independent adviser to the government on mental health in detention centres. Regarding the current evidence of deteriorating mental health among detainees, she stated during a recent ABC TV interview:

“The government is not wanting to consider, at the present time, the fact that mandatory detention itself, prolonged detention of vulnerable people, is producing this damage. I think that’s a very unpalatable and difficult political message, but it’s certainly one … that is absolutely vital for us to consider.”  

Next article – Barossa Council EBA dispute

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