No. 16: July-December 2016


Deborah Zion


Asylum Seekers in Australia


Academic Foresights


How do you analyze the present situation of asylum seekers in Australia?


The present situation asylum seekers in Australia has attracted local and international condemnation. Not only do those who have managed to lodge an application in Australia for refuge live in a state of limbo, those who have sought refuge in Australia since 2012 have been imprisoned in offshore detention centres, on Christmas Island, Nauru, and Manus Island (PNG), where their conditions have been likened to torture. For example, in submission 95 to the parliamentary select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru, the submission details waterboarding, familiar to most as a torture technique at simulates drowning used by the CIA in places like Guantanamo Bay. It has drawn heavy international condemnation. There have also been reports of sexual assault on women and children, the use of solitary confinement for those experiencing mental illness, and shortages of food and water.


Furthermore conditions have been less and less open to scrutiny. In June 2015 the government passed the  Border Protection Act  which imposes severe penalties- up to two years jail- upon those who report what they have seen when working in detention.


How did this situation begin? It was a left leaning Labor government that introduced the idea of mandatory detention for all those seeking asylum who arrived by boat. However, detention itself was a discretionary matter, and a 273 day limit was imposed to process the claims of those who sought refuge. With the election of the Liberal government in 1996, conditions for asylum seekers became more and more restrictive, and increasingly in conflict with the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.


As the asylum seeker flow increased from 1999, particularly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, increasingly harsh measures were put in place including the now defunct Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) that created uncertainty and barred family reunion, and the ‘Pacific Solution’ which saw asylum seekers placed in detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). Under the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard (19962007), the main sites of detention in Australia itself were remote locations in Western Australia, South Australia and Christmas Island, with many people languishing for years in the facilities.


Despite the election of a Labor, who governed between 2007 – 2013,  the regime of mandatory detention remained.  And it was in fact Julia Gillard in 2012, who reopened Manus Island and Nauru, where asylum seekers now languish, far from the scrutiny of human rights institutions, such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, (HREOC) who offered some protection, when detention camps were located in Australia. Nonetheless, HREOC managed to publish two reports about the conditions facing children in these settings, A Last Resort. National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2004) and The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014). These reports, although written ten years apart, show that there has been no improvement in the conditions in detention. There is evidence that healthcare professionals have also colluded inhuman and degrading treatment, including participating in force feeding and chemically constraining people for deportation.


In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?


It is hard to know how the situation will change in the next five years. Both major Australian parties have clearly stated that they are committed to “ border protection” and “stopping the boats.” There have been several policies put in place to resettle those incarcerated on Manus Island,  Nauru and Christmas Island. (Currently 1679 persons ). All of these, however, have been based upon the policy of deterrence. That is, countries that have been asked to resettle refugees who sought assistance from Australia are impoverished and subject to their own internal political and social issues, such as Cambodia.


Currently there have been moves to change the process of offshore detention by countries who actually house the prisons. For example, in May this year, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention  of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal. However, while the camp has been opened, it is unclear what the fate of those living inside will be, as there has been progress towards settling those living there, and many have been subjected to violence from the local population and from the guards who still run the camp.


It would seem nonetheless, that given the level of abuse and suffering, there is a humanitarian imperative for Australia to take up its obligations under the refugee convention, and settle this population. Despite the border protection act, there have been recent reports of extreme self harm, including asylum seekers setting themselves on fire through desperation.


The most recent report, published in The Guardian newspaper details an account of despair from the psychologist Paul Stevenson’s time working in offshore detention, based upon incident reports. These include

•Six boys, held on Nauru without parents, tried to kill themselves en masse, using the same razor blade.

•One woman attempted to kill herself seven times in five weeks, threatened to kill her own daughter, and had to be sedated to stop her repeatedly bashing her head into the ground.

•A woman, held on Nauru with her son, but facing permanent separation from her husband in Australia, carved his name into her chest with a razor because it “releases the feelings in my heart and I feel better”.

•An asylum seeker carved open his own stomach in protest at not being allowed to see or speak with his cousin, who was standing on a roof, threatening to jump.

•A three-year-old boy was allegedly molested by a guard, but his mother was too scared of reprisals to report it until months later, when she was medevacked to Australia for a medical emergency.

•A refugee found naked and distressed – and who told authorities she had been sexually assaulted – was taken to the police station instead of the hospital. It was more than five hours after she went missing that she finally saw a doctor. ( The Guardian, 20/6/2016)

The Australian population is not generally sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers. However, recent concerted efforts by activists, healthcare providers, members of the judiciary and artists have made some impact, especially those efforts that actually display visual imagery of life in offshore detention. These include a recent Australian Broadcasting Commission 4 Corners program entitled Bad Blood and Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum.


What are the structural long-term perspectives?


There are currently more displaced persons in the world today than at any time since 1946. Given Australia’s prosperity, and the fact that it is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, there is an ethical obligation for Australia to settle refugees already in the region in considerable numbers. There is a precedent for this. In the 1970s more than 70,000 refugees arrived in Australia from Vietnam, Cambodia and other South East Asian countries, many of whom had been in third countries such as Malaysia. Nonetheless, there seems little political will to settle even the small number of people waiting in offshore centres, let alone address a regional solution.


The question remains: How will our children and grandchildren look back at this period, when those who sought our help were treated in a way that caused unjustifiable suffering, and how can we ensure that the story is told accurately? One mechanism that has been employed is through public witnessing by those who have worked closely with asylum seekers in the detention setting, in particular those engaged in healthcare, now at some risk to their own safety and liberty. This witnessing not only leaves a record for the future, but assists in restoring justice to those who have undergone such shameful treatment.


As the psychiatrist Brian Stagoll has written:

 “[r]eversal of torture is particularly done by testimony, the making public to a group what the torture did privately to shame and humiliate the victim. Testimony can overcome the spell of ‘being broken.’” .

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Deborah Zion is the Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee at Victoria University  in Melbourne, Australia. She has spent many years researching issues relating to ethics, human rights and vulnerable populations, and for the last twelve years has been conducting an investigation into the ethics of healthcare for asylum seekers in Australia.


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