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Radical overhaul of asylum seeker policy needed

Wednesday 27 May 2015 | Published in Regional


SYDNEY – The Royal Australasian College of Physicians wants a radical overhaul of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The College says the policy, which includes the housing of hundreds of people in camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, is simply inhumane.

A College member, Karen Zwi of the University of New South Wales’ School of Women and Children’s Health, told Radio New Zealand’s Dateline Pacific they want all the camps closed and all asylum seekers and refugees cared for and supported within the community on the mainland.

“We’ve seen death, we’ve seen suicides, we’ve seen a lot of self harm and we have seen an enormous amount of damage to people’s physical and mental health when remaining in detention for very long periods of time.

“And the current average length of time is around four hundred days. More than a year of time sitting in a very inhospitable place with no meaningful activity, no education. No access to schooling for some of their kids.

“Somewhat unsafe, so we even heard from the recent Moss Review that some of the women and children may be exposed to child sexual assault and rape.

“So you know these are not environments that we want to be placing people in and certainly not for such prolonged periods of time.”

DATELINE PACIFIC: These are things that people have been talking about for years really and yet it would seem that the government and the previous governments were more than happy to continue with this practice which implies that the general populace in Australia doesn’t care. So how do you win them over?

“That’s a challenge and a very interesting question. You are right this has been going on since about 1992 with various governments having policies that get more and more restrictive actually as time goes on.

“I think what’s somewhat worth looking at)at the present time is that Australia brought in a policy of no processing of people seeking asylum and no settlement in Australia.

“So it’s shifted to this concept of sending people offshore, where they are particularly vulnerable and where we actually can’t guarantee or secure their safety.

“And also we are reliant on other countries to undertake processing which can take extraordinary lengths of time. So we have sort of subcontracted and lost some control over that.

“But that is a policy that we ourselves have instituted. Having said that, there have been times in the past where it has been just as bad, under our noses, so to speak.

“So this is a whole area of work that needs a very complex amount of good brains to put their energy to solving this problem. It’s not straightforward and we in the College are not saying it is straight forward.

“But we do need goodwill, we need people in the community to come onboard and say ‘damaging women, men and children who’ve come a very long way from very persecutory circumstances is not the kind of nation we want to be’.

“‘Yes, of course we want to do some help with security checks but then we want to be generous and allow people to reach safety and reach their potential’.

“Many of these people have enormous ambition, capability, resilience and can offer us a great deal as a society.”

There have been 15 allegations of sexual assault and 270 reports of other types of assault in immigration detention centres in the past three months, with two cases involving children, the Australian Immigration Department has revealed.

The statistics were revealed by department officials at a Senate hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Senators were told the two reports of child sexual assault had been made inside onshore detention centres. Another nine alleged sexual assaults involving adults also occurred onshore.

Four instances of alleged sexual assault were reported in facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.

An overwhelming number of other forms of assault were reported in Australian-based centres, with 239 allegations involving adults, and 11 involving children.

Another 20 allegations of assault were made in the Manus Island centre.

The committee was also told one employee on Manus Island was dismissed as a result of an earlier sexual assault investigation.

In the past 10 months, there have also been hundreds of instances of self-harm in detention centres, including 48 cases involving children in Australia, and 26 on Nauru.

As at the end of March, 124 children were being detained in Australia, some in community-based facilities.

The Nauru detention centre is home to 103 children, 126 women and 489 men.

Sexual abuse of women and children on Nauru is the focus of another Senate committee that met for the first time last week.