ABC News is reporting the death of an Afghan man at the Curtin detention centre at Derby in northern Western Australia. He is believed to have killed himself, and the story also reports other attempts at self-harm (Update: there are more details of recent deaths in this ABC online piece).

Below are two timely articles, reproduced from the latest Suicide Prevention Australia newsletter, drawing attention to the appalling effects of mandatory detention policies upon asylum seekers’ health and wellbeing (written before this latest death).

In the first article, psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman argues that Australia is facing a “significant moral crisis” over our treatment of asylum seekers, and that we need to rethink our fundamental values.

The second piece is an interview with Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

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Australia’s harsh policies demean us all

Professor Louise Newman writes:

Asylum seeking and the quest for safe refuge is a world issue affecting up to 20 million persons. Australia plays a small part in terms of global response but has taken a relatively harsh approach to vulnerable people with the use of mandatory detention and other policies of deterrence in a consistent and unwavering way.

Changes in government have done very little in terms of a rethink of our fundamental obligation to respond humanely to the world problem of the dispossessed. The debates in this country about an appropriate response to this world issue and our place in the regional response have largely been framed in terms of cultural anxiety and risk.

There has been little chance to have a discussion about values, humanity and crisis response.

To this day infants and children are detained under conditions of restriction on both the mainland and in offshore processing centers to the concern of all international refugee agencies.

Seemingly, Australia perceives a need to maintain harsh policies and a risk in not doing so, even if this is political risk rather than risk in terms of international response.

The asylum seeker question has now become one of the most politicised issues in contemporary social discourse and intrinsically related to issues of Australian history, cultural identity, geography and self-determination.

Cultural anxieties around our place in the world, multiculturalism and population and the metaphor of invasion risk are not new but presented in a new guise – the risk of the new asylum seeker and their values and potential impact on a self-defined homogeneous population.

The legacy of the White Australia policy and attempts to maintain a myth of cultural purity remain.

We have only recently been confronted with images of asylum seekers drowning in the attempt to reach Christmas Island. Images of children floating, a submerged woman arm outstretched, the helpless witnesses and the images that have scarred them – as one person stated repetitively, ‘I saw children, I saw children.’

The realities of asylum seeking, the dangers, the plight of those with no hope but to take risk and their desire to protect their children were brutally highlighted.

For some, this raised serious issues about our policy, again focused on the discussion about pull factors and a so-called more lenient approach to asylum seekers, policies of deterrence and the politics of stopping the boats, a simple rallying cry for those made anxious by the small number of arrivals.

Sadly we had just recovered from an election campaign where there was very little to distinguish the major parties in terms of a broad approach to the ‘asylum seeker question’, and nothing much offered in strategy other than raising anxiety in a familiar way and then offering further off-shore processing.

The fear factor seen previously in the Howard era resurfaced but was this time bipartisan, no real counter being discussed other than by the Greens.

For those of us around during the Howard/Ruddock approach and aware of the impact of this on asylum seekers and children’s mental health, this has been deeply disturbing.

Sadly we are now again seeing some of the harm resulting from detention and predictable, and therefore preventable, negative effects on psychological health.

Factors such as increasing processing time, increased rates of return, limited support and explanations of bewildering legal process all contribute to anxiety, confusion and ultimately despair.

Self-harming, protest and behavioral break down are not at all surprising in these circumstances.

We have also seen lives lost to suicide – three in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre over a three-month period – and self-harm and protest of various sorts.

This situation raises fundamental questions of what is acceptable on a human level even in the face of other objectives. How much damage is tolerable and what price do we pay in tolerating it at all?

The fair go and welcoming nation is not one which readily accepts that it has policies which cause severe psychological damage. This is a significant moral crisis for Australian politics and deserves a good deal more reflective discussion – a rethinking of values and dealing with conscience and collective responsibility.

The issue of detention of children over and above all others galvanised many community members to question government policy. The message was clear and simple – harming children is unacceptable and morally indefensible.

In a positive sense, this opened the way for a broad discussion about the apparent determination of government to maintain the routine practice of child detention including unaccompanied minors in remote facilities and with substandard basic provisions needed for child development and well-being.

Australia has the dubious honour of being the first developed nation to have a policy of mandatory detention for all ‘unauthorised’ arrivals for an indefinite period of time (Silove, Austin and Steel 2007). Detention of children has highlighted what may be seen as a fundamental tension between the priorities of immigration law and the rights of children to care and protection.

Although Australia is a voluntary signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child we remain fundamentally in breach of this and related conventions.

The use of remote facilities for ‘processing’ asylum seekers in effect detains all child asylum seekers and does not allow for community detention placements of families with infants and children.

Similarly so-called ‘alternate places of detention’ on the mainland are in effect restricted places of detention with very little substantive difference from a named detention facility.

In the midst of debates about the appropriate responses to asylum seekers, infants and children have become caught in a system that is unable to provide adequate protection or support for families who have already experienced significant trauma.

The recent High Court decision that ongoing detention of four young Hazaras is acceptable even in the face of clear evidence of mental harm and deterioration is remarkable.

In and of itself this defines the dangerous place we find ourselves in, where damage to children is acceptable collateral damage and where border protection and control are seen as the higher goals beyond humanitarian values.

Mandatory and arbitrary detention may be challenged legally and constitutionally but needs also to be challenged in terms of psychological harm and distress. This is the legacy and long-term impact of harsh detention practices.

The dilemma facing the detention system now is one of a reform of values, implementing a psychologically supportive approach based on a realistic understanding of the vulnerabilities of asylum seekers, particularly those who have experienced torture and trauma.

Not to do so damages individuals and also undermines values, builds a culture of blame and hostility towards the dispossessed, and demeans us all.

• The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and not necessarily those of SPA.

• Professor Louise Newman is Director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology and Chairwoman of the Detention Health Advisory Group to the Department of Immigration. She is a practising infant psychiatrist with expertise in disorders of early parenting and attachment difficulties in infants and was recently awarded a Member of the Order of Australia. She is an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers and is the Convener of the Alliance of Health Professionals for Asylum Seekers. She represents the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists on issues relating to asylum seekers’ mental health and is the coeditor (with Sarah Meares) of “Acting from the heart: Australian advocates for asylum seekers tell their stories”.

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Interview by SPA with Dr Graham Thom, the Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

Q: You have now made three trips to Christmas Island detention centre and in October 2010 you warned that ‘morale within Australia’s detention facilities is getting worse, leading to incidences of self-harm and attempted suicide… The mood on Christmas Island is particularly despondent with grown men reduced to tears and showing blatant symptoms of a system that is failing the people it is suppose to protect.’ Can you please describe the mental health care now available to detainees?

A: On Christmas Island there are a number of people trained to provide counselling, including two psychologists and ten mental health nurses on staff. Unfortunately this cannot meet the demand, given the number of people currently detained in the centre and elsewhere on the island. Detainees told of the delays in being able to meet someone and when we visited there were only two rooms available for counselling. Others were interviewed either in the corridor in the medical centre or outside in full view of other detainees. There is no local psychiatrist on the island.

Q: In the same report you say about 5,000 asylum seekers are now being held in unacceptable conditions in centres across Australia. Amnesty International is calling on the government to urgently rethink the policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing. In your view, what would be the most humane and effective system for processing asylum seekers?

A: Detention should only be used as a last resort, to undertake health, character and identity checks. When it is clear someone does not pose a risk to the community they should be released. This is the policy for those asylum seekers who arrive by plane with valid visas (usually entering on tourist or student visas) then seeking asylum. However, those arriving undocumented (usually by boat) are subject to mandatory and indefinite detention. By penalising one group, Australia is in breach of its international obligations and a far more humane approach is to treat all asylum seekers equally, in keeping with our international obligations.

Q: You have visited many detention camps throughout the world and are familiar with the systems that work. Can you give an example of a system that deals effectively with asylum seekers in a just and humane way?

A: Having seen detention centres in Australia, South East Asia and elsewhere around the world it is always a depressing experience. What is lacking in Australia however is the ability to challenge the ongoing need for an individual to be detained, which exists in virtually all other Western democratic countries. Coupled with being detained in remote locations and with limited contact to the outside world, the indefinite nature of detention in Australia is what ultimately begins to break people down. Most European countries have strict time limits on detention and a number of countries like Sweden and France are continuing to develop alternatives to detention, which are far more humane and ensure that if people are either accepted as refugees or returned home, they are not psychologically damaged.

Q: It is government policy not to detain people more than 160 days*. In a media release in December 2010 you warned that people were being held for much longer than that. ‘I think it is too long even if it is only 160 days…The fact is we’re now seeing self-harm and suicide attempts, it shows how quickly people can deteriorate in detention.’  In your view, if the mandatory detention system remains in place and certainly both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot have stated that it will, what is an acceptable limit of time in detention before mental health begins to deteriorate?

A: Detention should always be for the shortest period possible and only where it can be demonstrated there is a specific need to detain someone. While the longer people spend in detention the more likely it is to have disastrous psychological effects, it will impact on different people in different ways. Of the three individuals who took their life in Villawood last year, one had been in detention for a very short period while the others had been there for over a year. Many of those we met on Christmas Island who had begun to self-harm had been in detention for over a year. Its impact on women and children we met also varied. For women who had recently miscarried, detention clearly exacerbated their depression and sense of loss.

Q: What, if anything, can be done to improve the mental health of detainees within the present system?

A: For the most vulnerable, including torture and trauma survivors and children, the government must find alternatives to detention as a matter of urgency. For other detainees, the use of remote isolated detention centres should be avoided. The ability for people to receive visitors, go on excursions, undertake meaningful activities and access appropriate counselling services is also vital. Ultimately though, no matter how beautiful the cage, long-term indefinite detention breaks even the strongest individuals.

Q: Do you have any thoughts as to why many Australians have such a fear and animosity towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat – given they only constitute 30% of total refugees and that this year we have the lowest humanitarian intake (6.6% of the total migration program) since 1975? And if so, how do you think this emotive reaction, which drives politicians to retain the system, can be changed?

A: Unfortunately it is very easy to demonise and create fear when it comes to the ‘unknown’ and certain politicians have seen an opportunity in getting political mileage by playing on these fears. Linking what is essentially a humanitarian response to rhetoric around ‘border security,’ ‘queue jumping’ and so on has helped shaped the public’s negative attitudes to those fleeing violence and seeking our help. Politicians will only change the system when public attitudes change. It is important people are aware that it is not ‘illegal’ to come to Australia and seek asylum by boat and that the numbers coming here are still very small, not only in global terms but even when looking at our own migration intake. Those coming here are fleeing serious violence and most are found to be in genuine need of protection. Damaging them psychologically in detention centres before expecting them to contribute productively in our society is not only inhumane, it is unnecessary and represents seriously flawed public policy at its most abhorrent.

• PostScript. Since this interview, the government has now stated that the policy on trying to keep the detention period to 160 days no longer applies for asylum seekers who come by boat.

• For over ten years, Dr Graham Thom has been working on behalf of individual asylum seekers as well as on broader human rights issues relating to refugees. He has visited refugee camps and detention centres throughout the world and in 2010 visited Christmas Island for the third time. For the past three years, Dr Thom has represented Amnesty International at UNHCR’s Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement in Geneva. He completed his doctoral thesis on post-war migration at the University of Sydney in 2000.

Croakey thanks SPA for allowing this republication.

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For help and more information

If you require immediate help please contact either Lifeline on 13 11 14 or (if you are under 18 years old) Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800.

Both of these services can help you or, if necessary, refer you on to appropriate mental health support networks.

GROW Support Groups (National) – 1800 558 268

Suicide Call Back Service (National) – 1300 659 467

Help/Information Lines:

beyondblue info line (National) – 1300 22 4636

SANE Australia Helpline (National) – 1800 187 263

Australian Psychological Society Referral Line (National) 1800 333 497

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