Monday, May 09, 2011

Asylum seekers in Australia: Susan Metcalfe - Age article - "Compassion goes overboard"

Following is today's article by Susan Metcalfe, author of The Pacific Solution, published in The Age. Ms Metcalfe quotes yours truly on the handling of the Pacific Solution by the Howard Govt.:

"How does dumping asylum seekers in PNG differ from Howard's Pacific Solution?

JULIA Gillard's announcement that Australia will forcibly return asylum seekers to Malaysia, and intends to re-establish a detention centre in Papua New Guinea, shows she is willing to compromise on the protection of vulnerable people when it suits her political agenda.

Malaysia is known for its harsh treatment of refugees. And we need only look at recent history to see what can happen in PNG.

Back in 2002, two pregnant women held behind the fences of Australia's PNG detention centre became so depressed that they ''verbally expressed their desire to abort their pregnancies''. Nine years later, as the Gillard government lobbies PNG to reopen the centre, it is worth remembering why the camp was such a bad idea in the first place.

When the Lombrum naval base in PNG's Manus province last housed Australia's asylum seekers, Australian taxpayers and Australian media were denied access. But in 2002 a number of journalists snuck into the country and talked to locals who gave witness accounts of detainees trying to escape over fences, of others who had deliberately cut themselves and of one man who tried to electrocute himself.

After just a few months, the International Organisation for Migration, which ran the camp, reported a prevalence of reactive psychoses, paranoid conditions and increasingly frequent confusional states among detainees. Problems of linguistic and social isolation, along with ''feelings of insecurity towards the local population'', were suggested as possible causes. Many were suffering from ''sleep disturbances, recurrent nightmares, chronic feelings of anxiety and depression, impaired memory and concentration, fatigue and lack of energy''.

One group of detainees transferred from PNG to Nauru in late 2002 was described by a psychiatrist as a ''special group at risk in the asylum seeker community''. Their symptoms included: lost hope in the future, nightmares of being captured by security forces in Iraq or drowning, short-term memory loss, constant ruminating or worrying, feeling abandoned and degraded and questioning if they were still human.

But although their detention had been difficult in PNG, many found the conditions in Nauru even harsher. One man said: ''It was very, very hard when we got to Nauru … In Nauru some people cut themselves, tried to hang themselves, jump from trees. That was the same in PNG, people broke down fences, lots of PNG army would come and tell them to go back inside the camp.''

In early 2002 a medical officer reported ''a level of complacency'' in protecting the camp population from the deadly plasmodium falciparum malaria and warned that ''the presence of a non-immune population in a high-risk endemic area must always be considered a dangerous combination''.

The International Organisation for Migration recommended to Australia's Immigration Department that the pregnant women and infants who were unable to take preventative medication should be transferred out of the area. But records show that the first transfers from PNG took place more than three months after the request was made. Numerous cases of malaria continued to be diagnosed throughout the life of the camp. One IOM report notes the case of an eight-year-old girl with ''malaria in relapse complicated with severe [urinary tract infection]''.

In 2002, Mark Thomson, who was involved in implementing Australia's Pacific Solution aid program, was asked to search for activities that AUSaid could support ''as a way of oiling the wheels of the Manus provincial government through small community-based aid projects''. Thomson describes the approach taken by the Australian government as ''under the table and pretty tacky''. He recently wrote that his experience with the Pacific Solution was ''the most corrosive'' of his career.

Thomson believes any return to the use of political agendas to shape Australia's aid policies would be disastrous.

Julia Gillard has assured us that a centre in PNG would not represent a return to the Pacific Solution. But if reopening the previously used centre is now being discussed and development aid is being offered in return, as the PNG government says it is, exactly how does this differ from past practice and policy?

We were told that the detention centre in PNG would remain closed. That promise should be honoured."

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