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.