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Call for humane government response to plight of asylum seekers in detention

25 February 2016
The consequences of detaining asylum seekers in foreign countries

Professor Elizabeth Elliott has called on the Federal Government for a more humane response to the plight of 267 asylum seekers held in offshore detention centres.

In a recent speech to an AMA Forum on the health of asylum seekers, she spoke about the serious mental and physical harms affecting a majority of adults and children being held in detention. The forum closely followed The High Court’s recent ruling in favour of the Australian government regarding the legality of offshore detention and processing of asylum seekers. In her speech Professor Elliott noted the following:

“As a result of the ruling, 267 asylum seekers, including almost 100 children, who were transferred to the Australian mainland for medical care, face imminent return to offshore detention centres. This group of asylum seekers all arrived by boat in Australian waters without a valid visa after July 19, 2013 and have been caught up in the law that states they will ‘never be settled in Australia’ regardless of their refugee status.

As a pediatrician I know that the impacts will be lifelong.
Professor Elizabeth Elliott

“Although up to 90 per cent of similar cohorts have previously been found to be genuine refugees, the government has capitalised on the current law by sending this group of people to live off-shore – first on Christmas Island, now on Nauru or Mannus. This action has been explicitly billed as a ‘deterrent’, though ironically Immigration ministers from both sides of government have admitted that the evidence for this is lacking.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees who visited Nauru in 2013 concluded that: ‘The harsh and unsuitable environment is particularly inappropriate for the care and support of child asylum-seekers (and that) no child, whether unaccompanied or within a family group, should be transferred from Australia to Nauru.’

“As a result of our policy, hundreds of children have been deprived of their human rights – denied the right to be treated fairly, to safety and protection, to privacy – denied the right to education and play, and to accessible, appropriate health care. More than that, research shows that prolonged detention – and the average is about two years – irreparably harms the health and mental health of these children, and as a pediatrician I know that the impacts will be lifelong.

“At the invitation of Professor Gillian Triggs I accompanied her and her team to Christmas Island in July 2014, as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. There we conducted detailed interviews with over 100 families with nearly 200 children.

“Christmas Island is billed as a tropical paradise. But Christmas Island was no party. Unbearably hot, humid, dusted with phosphate powder from the mines, and populated by the most extraordinary range of animals (and humans I might say). High wire fences, high security, guards, small 3 by 2.5 metre metal cabins for a home.

In February 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission published their Inquiry into Children in Immigration. Much of the data was provided by the Immigration Department and the International Health and Medical Service themselves, who reported that:

  • On formal assessment, 34 per cent of children in detention had moderate to very severe mental health disorders – compared to less than two per cent in the general Australian population. This was manifest in diagnoses of anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Conduct Disorder and attachment disorder; disruptive behaviour, and problems with sleep and attention. Physical symptoms included stalled or regressive development, bed-wetting, social withdrawal, mutism and food refusal
  • 38 per cent of children interviewed said they were always sad or crying and 21% were always worried; 13 per cent had lost weight
  • In one 15 month period, the Immigration Department recorded 233 assaults involving children in Australian detention centres, including 33 reported sexual assaults (mostly in children)
  • During the same period 128 children had self-harmed, 105 of whom were deemed to be at ‘high imminent’ or ‘moderate’ risk of suicide or self-harm, sufficient to warrant monitoring.

“The key recommendation was that all families with children be assessed as soon as possible and released into community detention or to the community on bridging visas.

“Politics aside, we all have a responsibility for the well-being of children in the ‘care’ of Australia.”

Dr Elizabeth Elliott AM is Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Sydney Medical School and Consultant Pediatrician, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, Westmead.

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