Issue 40 / 19 October 2015

AUSTRALIA’S hardline policies on asylum seekers are in the spotlight again.
It was revealed last week that a 23-year-old Somali asylum seeker who was allegedly raped on Nauru received no response to her initial pleas to authorities to be allowed to come to Australia to have the resulting pregnancy terminated. Abortion is illegal in Nauru.
That only changed after Fairfax Media publicised her case, leading to a public outcry. However, on Friday, the asylum seeker was flown back to Nauru without having had the termination, amid conflicting claims from government and her lawyer.
There has also been the much-publicised protest against detention of children by staff at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, which has attracted widespread support, including from some politicians.
The Age last week revealed doctors at the hospital had earlier refused to discharge an asylum seeker and her child from the hospital’s mother and baby unit unless the Department of Immigration agreed they would not be sent back to detention. 
The woman, aged in her 30s and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression, had been brought to Melbourne for treatment from the detention centre on Nauru late last year. An earlier attempt to discharge them to an immigration transit centre in Melbourne had led to a rapid deterioration in the health of mother and child.
Such actions are not without risk, as these doctors are surely aware. Authorities may be more reluctant to bring detainees to Australia for treatment in future if they fear this kind of publicity-generating action by medical staff.
In any other circumstances, the decision not to discharge a child into a harmful environment would hardly be controversial — and there can be little doubt immigration detention is not a safe place for children. 
The Human Rights Commission report into children in immigration detention released earlier this year found 34% of children detained in Australia and on Christmas Island had a mental health disorder severe enough to require psychiatric support. That compared with just 2% of children in the general community. 
Over a 15-month period in 2013‒2014, there were 128 incidents of self-harm in children, the report found.
At 30 June this year, there were 215 children in closed immigration detention facilities, according to the Human Rights Commission, down from nearly 2000 2 years earlier.
While the reduction in numbers is certainly a good thing, it’s hard to see a justification for keeping any child in a situation where, as Human Rights Commission President Professor Gillian Triggs put it, they are “exposed to unacceptable levels of assault, including sexual assault and violence”.
The most compelling argument in favour of Australia’s punitive detention regime is that it saves lives at sea, including those of children, by deterring people from getting on boats in the first place.
Clearly, nobody wants to see a repeat of the distressing scenes of 2010, when about 50 asylum seekers drowned off Christmas Island.
So is there evidence the current policies are saving lives?
It seems clear that fewer people have drowned in the attempt to reach Australia under this regime than under the slightly less harsh one it replaced, but is that the whole story?
To properly evaluate the effects of our border protection regime, we would need all-cause mortality data for this cohort of people. Even without the culture of secrecy our government has established around its immigration policies, that would seem an almost impossible task.
Figures for suicides in immigration detention give part of the picture, but the bigger and possibly unanswerable question is: If desperate people are no longer getting on boats to Australia, what are they doing instead?
Would we know if a refugee deterred from getting on a boat to Australia returned to the country he fled and was then killed? Or if a woman decided to put an end to her life rather than face an indefinite future in an Indonesian camp?
There are millions of displaced people in this world, desperate, suffering people who can see no realistic prospect of a future for themselves or their children.
I don’t know the answer to the problem, but I don’t think it will be found in current Australian policies.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

6 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Refugee quandary

  1. Glenn Rosendahl says:

    I worked as a doctor in Immigration Detention Centres in West Australia and Queensland.  I believe Australia has a moral obligation to bring those Hazaras from Afghanistan who have supported the Australian forces.  We will leave as we left Viet Nam.  Those who helped us will be slaughtered.  That has been going on for at least the past 4 years.  But as I left immigration detention work, Australia was being flooded with economic migrants.  One asylum seeker from India claimed refuge as he was homosexual – a condition, he said, not accepted in his home country.  Another, from Viet Nam, claimed entitlement because his family’s country estates were nationalized by the Vietnam in 1997.  (He would have been a young teenager then.)  An informed immigration officer estimated that the people smugglers, by 2012, had profited between half and one billion dollars in the preceding 7 years.  (The 40,000 asylum seekers we took in took about 13 billion Australian taxpayer dollars to process and settle.)

    If we provide a safe haven in Australia for asylum seeking women and children, the boats will again be on our doorstep in weeks, this time filled with women and children.  With only enough fuel to get halfway to Christmas Island.  Our navy will be expected to pick them up – or they will drown.  The half to one billion dollars in people smuggling profit was split between high level police and army officers, politicians, public servants and business people. Very little stayed in coastal villages.  Those who benefitted would love the cash flow to resume.

    Jane, you cop-out.  Please tell us your solution.

  2. University of Queensland - Central Library says:

    Incarceration without accusation or trial is abhorrent in any, but especially, civilised societies. We sleep at night in Australia knowing that we are mostly protected from random acts of violence and the impunity of the powerful. Citizens of many countries cannot say as much. Why then do we fail the universal litmus test of humanity: care for the weak and vulnerable? I say let’s gather evidence with systematic health studies of the effects on humans of immigration detention. There is already enough evidence to design large studies and, unfortunately, a growing number of subjects for these studies.

  3. Anthony Smith says:

    Thank you for this piece. I am continually embarrassed by our country’s policies about refugees. The secrecy surrounding the activities in the detention centres which has led many of our colleagues to stage protests is repugnant and impossible to defend if, as we have good cause to believe, people – including children – are subject to repressive and abusive activities which should not be tolerated from an allegedly civilised governmentt

  4. Dr Michael Nixon says:

    It is our humane duty to care for people in distress in the best way possible. This is NOT in off shore regional processing centres – We need to bring them on shore – provide for them in all aspects of their needs – One deterrent for future irregular arrivals is to say NEVER any citizenship. But temporary refuge until their country is stable.

  5. Dr Michael Gliksman says:

    The only quandary for Australia’s current crop of politicians is how to best balance cruelty and xenophobia in order to pander to the worst among us in search for the votes of marginalised voters in marginalised seats.

  6. Christoph Ahrens says:

    I have been pleasantly surprised by my home country Germany. The readiness of the majority of Germans, apart from some right wing idiots, to welcome refugees and care for them has been exemplary. I wish my second home country Australia could do at least a fraction of this effort. Unfortunately there is very little hope for this to happen as even the medical profession is full of racists and old boys club maffia. As an Australian citizen I’m compelled to work overseas in order to financially support my family, as AOA and RACS refuse to recognise my qualifications after 9 years of service to this country in a single surgeon medical practice operating in 5 rural hospitals. This type of protectionism reflects not only the culture and spirit of RACS and AOA but quite a lot of Australians. One doesn’t need to be a refugee to be treated unfairly.

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