27 Jul 2015

Child trauma mars Australia's refugee policy

8:25 pm on 27 July 2015

Prospects for refugees processed on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea look bleaker than ever.

These are the so-called "boat people" who fled from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka to undertake dangerous ocean voyages organised by people smugglers in attempts to reach Australia and start a new life. They didn't reach their goal and are unlikely to ever do so.

Under the Australian government's 2013 agreements with PNG and Nauru, any unauthorised maritime arrival entering Australian waters is sent to Manus or Nauru for offshore processing and resettlement in a participating regional state, but not Australia.

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Detainees at offshore processing camps are "de-humanised and generally suffer violent deterioration of mental health" Photo: AAP

In Manus, of around a thousand detainees, 87 have been found to be refugees.

But they have been languishing in a transit facility for months while the PNG government drags the chain on administrative matters around them fully entering the community.

The hundreds already found to be refugees on Nauru are typically unable to support themselves, struggle with a mercilessly hot climate and integrating into a local community with mixed feelings about them.

A small number of these refugees were desperate enough to take up Australia's recent offer of resettlement in Cambodia which has a history of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to China at gunpoint.

While processing moves at a glacial pace, asylum seekers and those already found to be refugees live in very difficult conditions with great uncertainty about their future. These conditions have become increasingly evident in the past two years, but were underlined in the past week through a report on Manus by Human Rights Watch and testimony on conditions at Nauru for a Senate Inquiry in Canberra.

Refugee Asylum Seekers children take part in protest on Nauru

Refugee children take part in protest on Nauru Photo: supplied

Inquiry hears about impacts on children detained on Nauru

Transfield Services, which runs the Nauru camps, said there have been 67 child abuse allegations at the facility but not a single staff member accused of abusing an asylum seeker has been charged for an offence.

A former child and youth recreation worker at Nauru, Samantha Betts, told the inquiry she submitted numerous reports to her employer Save the Children and contractor WIlson Security in relation to the emotional and physical abuse at the camp.

"Within the camp, children were directly exposed to lip sewing with staples, attempted suicide by hanging, attempted suicide by wrist slitting, mothers attempting to terminate pregnancies through starvation, high rates of depression and other mental health issues, as well as verbal and physical violence between members of the camp."

"I know this," Ms Betts said, "because the children told me."

It merely confirms the disturbing experiences outlined earlier this year in an Australian Human Rights Commission report, The Forgotten Children, which found children detained indefinitely at the camp on Nauru are suffering from extreme levels of distress.

The report found 233 assaults involving children and 128 incidents of children harming themselves.

Drawing by preschool age girl, detained 420 days, Christmas Island, 2014

Drawing by preschool age girl, detained 420 days, 2014 Photo: SUPPLIED / Australian Human Rights Commission

Limbo in Manus

Signing the Manus offshore processing deal in 2013, the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that PNG would resettle all the refugees.

However his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill has increasingly distanced his country from this commitment.

Furthermore, assurances from PNG immigration officials that the first groups of processed refugees will be initially integrated into the Manus community have come to nothing and uncertainty among detainees is growing.

Having just visited Manus, Human Rights Watch's Elaine Pearson says mental health problems are rife among this group which includes skilled workers such as a doctor and an engineer.

"I think some of them are resigned to the fact that they're never going to make it to Australia and they're really trying to make the best of a bad situation," said Ms Pearson.

"They're trying to sort of contact companies, they want to move on with their lives, they want to get jobs. However for some of the men, particularly those who were traumatised by the riots and the violence that they experienced last year, the night that Iranian Reza Barati, was killed, I think for a lot of those people, they're still very fearful of locals, they think that it's an unsafe environment."

An asylum-seeker holds a picture of Reza Barati who died at the detention centre.

An asylum-seeker holds a picture of Reza Barati who died at the detention centre. Photo: AAP

23-year-old Mr Barati was killed during clashes at the asylum seeker detention centre in February last year.

While police have charged two PNG nationals over the killing, they are still asking for Australian Federal Police help to have three expats who are suspects sent back to PNG to be charged as well.

Meanwhile, the Governor of Manus Charlie Benjamin says the local community has been unfairly portrayed as hostile to the refugees.

"You just need to come to Manus and see how freely they walk around, go to the markets, go to the shops, some of them even go and have drinks with some of these gentlemen, even late in the night, so I don't think that's really true."

However the Governor is frustrated at the government's slowness in finalising a refugee resettlement policy, saying the community could use the skills of some of the refugees.

"Well definitely, we need them in Manus, we need them in Papua New Guinea," he laments, "but it's the administrative matter which the minister and the immigration (are handling) and how they're dealing with this that is delaying all of these things. Even I am not quite happy with what is happening but... like I said, it's something that is probably beyond me."

Canberra stands by offshore processing

Australia's government has rejected suggestions that it is putting children in unsafe situations. One of those fronting the senate, the secretary of the Immigration Department, Michael Pezzullo, described such suggestions as fabrications by opponents of offshore processing.

The United Nations refugee agency has voiced concern about the processing arrangements and conditions at both Manus and Nauru. The UNHCR, which is notably not involved with either processing facilities, highlighted that the detention practices are harmful to the physical and psycho-social well-being of transferees. It has also raised concern about Canberra's policy of turning back boats.

Asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers who take dangerous ocean voyages to Australia to flee conflict zones are not allowed in to Australia Photo: Barat Ali Batoor

The Tony Abbott-led government has consistently emphasised how offshore processing saves lives by deterring people from taking dangerous voyages on overcrowded boats to Australia. Canberra has signalled no intention to change its offshore processing model which it credits for the drop-off in boat arrivals. But government attempts to control the flow information have not been so successful

A former social worker at Nauru, Natasha Blucher, was ordered off the island last year after Australia's immigration minister at the time, Scott Morrison, fingered her and other Save the Children workers for coaching detainees to harm themselves and fabricate abuse stories. An independent review later cleared the workers, finding no evidence.

She told the inquiry there appears to be a significant disconnect between the understanding of the Nauru facility's management who are located in Australia and the actual implementation of policy on the island.

Ms Blucher says the conditions are extremely difficult for detainees who are de-humanised and generally suffer violent deterioration of mental health.

"And when I talk about violent deterioration, I refer to people collapsing and screaming, people going into states that seem to me to appear to be psychosis, people with incredibly frequent suicidal ideation; people unable to get out of bed, unable to move; you would walk around the camp and you would see people sitting outside their tents and just staring vacantly into nothing."

A small group of Muslim refugees pray at sunset while other refugees (background) participate in a football match at a camp for the asylum seekers on the small island of Nauru, 20 September 2001.

Asylum seekers on Nauru Photo: AFP

While detainees at both Nauru and Manus have been experiencing mental health problems and suffering from extreme heat, medical staff are being discouraged by Australia's government from talking about healthcare of asylum seekers. The Australian Border Force Act came into effect this month and provides for up to two years in jail if workers disclose information about conditions at detention centres. The law was roundly criticised by the medical fraternity. The World Medical Association described it as a striking conflict with the basic principles of medical ethics.

Business as usual

A vocal minority of whistleblowers and refugee advocates continue to alert the outside world on what's going on in Manus and Nauru.

In the latest dispatch, the Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul has spoken about a mother and son who tried to commit suicide at Nauru last Thursday. The incident is connected to a sexual assault on their sister who is a refugee living outside the detention centre.

Mr Rintoul says in particular, single refugee women living outside the detention centre are living in fear.

"There are now a number of documented assaults. Allegations of assaults, statements have been made to police and in some instances the victims have actually identified the perpetrators but there is no action," he said.

Mr Rintoul aligns the inaction with a complete climate of indifference among those running the camps.

"They go through the motions, a police car might show up, they'll tell them to come in and make a statement the following day, they do and that's the last that happens. The fact that they can act with impunity in this way has just meant that there has been an escalating number of assaults and reports of assaults that have been happening over the last few months."

Nauru President Baron Waqa and Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Nauru President Baron Waqa and Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: AFP

The rights situation at the Nauru camps has also not been helped by the crackdown on freedom of expression by the local Baron Waqa-led government.

Australia's reliance on regional partners like Nauru to process asylum seekers has unfortunately left it supporting a regime presiding over a breakdown in democracy.

And while PNG's government is taking its time resettling refugees, Canberra may be unwilling to push the O'Neill government too heavily to speed things up.

There are few other regional countries willing to take on Australia's asylum seeker issue for it, so Canberra has little room to move. That is, unless it changes its policy and returns to onshore processing of refugees. The ball is in Australia's court.

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