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‘We treat them as humans’

“We treat them as humans”, the immigration official said as we sipped coffees in one of Darwin's better cafes.  Clearly there was another option.The fact that we were even needing to discuss the everyday treatment of asylum seekers, their detention and despair, spoke volumes about the turbo-charged atmosphere created by activists and others of goodwill appalled with the human decay that passes daily as Australia's humanitarian response to illegal boat arrivals.

02 Apr 2012

“We treat them as humans”, the immigration official said as we sipped coffees in one of Darwin's better cafes.  Clearly there was another option.

The fact that we were even needing to discuss the everyday treatment of asylum seekers, their detention and despair, spoke volumes about the turbo-charged atmosphere created by activists and others of goodwill appalled with the human decay that passes daily as Australia's humanitarian response to illegal boat arrivals.

The statistics are mounting and you have the sense that the ‘official line’ is tired, unimaginative and delivered in a tone that speaks of a plea bargain - desperate for acceptance yet all too aware the justification was wafer thin.  Sure, the situation was complex and the predicament made all the worse with the fires of racism regularly fuelled by radio shock jocks and opportunists.

Undoubtedly, the 'real story' couldn't be told because political sensitivities muzzled officials and jeopardised marginal seats.  But the horror of the 'real stories' - the self harm and suicides, the violence and fear, reactions to the sinister, grinding regimen that does make people feel less than human - struggles to be heard within the layers of political spin, correctness, and ‘arse covering’.

The facts are compelling.  Every week, Darwin's hospital could deal with up to 10 cases ranging from attempted suicides to numerous self-harm injuries and associated acts of violence.  Every day, volunteers try to instill a personal lifeline to people mired in a hopeless fug of bureaucratic processing and time wasting.

There are medical services, and detainees are permitted to attend schools, churches and recreational activities.  But real life remains behind electrified fences with the nightly terrors and the ever-present fear.  A fear you can taste and smell.  It reeks of insecurity in one of the most guarded places you can find.  And this is a place that unaccompanied minors now call 'home'.  The beds are foreign, and so too are the carers.  Any comfort comes clothed in suspicion and dread.  What future for a six year old whose brother can’t share her room because officials can’t verify if he is her brother at all.  So a stranger must do!

Just imagine how long any of us would cope with a life drained of purpose, hounded by the guards, surrounded by strangers, and abandoned by the wider society.  What price liberty?

This only makes sense if you accept that the life left behind was worse.  The only sanity in this hellhole is the promise of freedom, of opportunity and new life.

Officialdom has begun to soften.  The processing of families appears to have accelerated, but children still remain behind barbed fences.  Community detention, a cute halfway house, is now more commonplace. So too are bridging visas where people are free to seek work, rely on Medicare, and begin to make a life.  But, in all, everything is so slow, so bureaucratic, so grindingly process driven.

Access to basic health care is widely considered to be a human right.  Denying this access should be regarded as a scandal.  Legal rights may be nuanced depending on a person’s official status, but this does not hold for health care.  Our moral duty to provide health care to others knows no legal limitation.

But the provision of health care cannot be tokenistic.  Real health care means tailoring resources to meet individual needs.  Take the children, for example.  Specialist paediatric opinion warns that, after a week, children placed in environments like detention facilities, even just locked up accommodation, are at risk of psychological harm.  The combination of anxiety and terror is a toxic cocktail.  But there are no regular paediatric assessments, evaluations, and ongoing supervision for children behind bars.  This, despite the fact that it is generally recognised that they, at least, are the defenceless victims in the system.

The Government has begun accelerating children out of fenced facilities.  But still close to 40 per cent of asylum seeker children have not been placed in community detention. Usually they will be in the curiously named ‘alternative places of detention’ where they are locked up in secure facilities, with fences and guards, and only able to leave under supervision.

Reports from these facilities in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Christmas Island indicate that these are not appropriate settings for children.  Places such as Leonora, in WA, are in remote and harsh locations, isolated from services and ill-equipped to deal with the array of health and other needs of asylum seeker children and their families.  Leonora’s remoteness makes a mockery of the need for a fence!

Public pressure has forced the authorities to make improvements to facilities and even move people from one to the other.  Ultimately for the children this is but a ‘band aid’ solution.  Incarceration in detention - even in more pleasant surroundings - is antithetical to good mental health and child development.  Evidence shows that even when the children have been shifted from the high-security facilities to other guarded environments, they are still presenting with similar health issues - attempted suicide, self-harming, anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic disorder.

The change that is occurring is far too slow.  It will be justified, but it can never be accepted.  It is sobering to bear in mind that close to most of all asylum seekers end up as Australian citizens.  This must not be the price of entry.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton and Secretary General Francis Sullivan visited the Northern Territory in March and met with doctors, activists, and health and immigration officials and were granted a tour of a detention facility.


Published: 02 Apr 2012