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Dec 16, 2013

A generation of damaged people government wants to ignore

We're creating a generation of damaged souls out of people who seek asylum. One of the bodies set up to monitor the situation has been scrapped by the Abbott government, writes physician and Doctors for Refugees member Dr Michael Glicksman.


asylum seekers

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Australia there exists a shameful conjunction between injustice and ill-health involving foreseeable, avoidable and possibly irreparable harm to the most vulnerable of all, the legacy of previous Liberal and Labor governments. I speak of the indefinite detention of people — including children — charged with nothing, guilty of nothing, in Australia’s very own Gulag Archipelago stretching from Christmas Island through our remote deserts and on to malaria-blighted islands to our north.

Some of those children have been there from birth, born in Australia but denied their birth right of citizenship, knowing no crib but one bounded by razor wire, denied the protection of the state’s child protection legislation we all take for granted. Considering the abrogation of Australia’s moral, let alone treaty obligations, it seems we could do no worse.

Today we awoke to the news the Abbott government has decided to axe the Immigration Health Advisory Group, or IHAG, established by the Howard government in 2006 after recommendations made in the Palmer and Comrie inquiries into the handling of the cases of Vivian Alvarez and Cornelia Rau. It was populated by well-regarded medical and other health professionals who gave competent and independent advice to whatever government of the day. Therein, I suspect, lay the problem for a government such as that with which we now find ourselves.

Coming hard on the heels of a highly critical Amnesty International report into conditions at the Manus Island detention facility, it begs the question: what have they to hide? I think we know. So does the Australian Medical Association, hardly a hotbed of left-wing social activism.

New research published in the AMA’s Medical Journal of Australia found substantial unmet health needs and levels of psychiatric morbidity among asylum seekers in immigration detention in Darwin. The poor level of transparency and the lack of independent scrutiny of detainees’ healthcare were of major concern. The conditions in Australia’s offshore facilities, where there is even less (now virtually none) independent medical oversight, are even worse.

The Australian government is obliged, as a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to provide the same standard of healthcare to detainees as is available to the general population. Following the Amnesty report, there is little doubt that we are in breach of that convention.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among detainees in Australia, as one would expect from a policy that leaves people in indefinite detention, unaware of their ultimate fate, in conditions arguably unfit for human habitation. If we were to deliberately design a system so cruel as to entice death, we could do no better.

Is it by design, Mr Abbott? Mr Morrison? Or is it simply the wilful indifference, the turning of the blind eye to which Bonhoeffer referred?

In an accompanying MJA editorial, Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs wrote:

“… it is often the detention environment itself that causes mental illness … Accordingly, it is the removal of people from closed detention that will have the most powerful effect in mitigating mental illness.”

I cannot see her holding her job for much longer under the current government.

Out of sight and largely out of mind, Australia is building a generation of damaged people — almost all of whom, statistics and history show, are entitled to be granted refugee status under our international treaty obligations. In our deserts and on isolated islands, our government is building a legacy to haunt and shame us for generations. We must now consider our response in the light of Bonhoeffer’s declaration, for we too will be held accountable by history.

*Dr Michael Gliksman (@MGliksmanMDPhD) is a physician in private practice in Sydney. He is a member of the federal council of the AMA, a committee member of Doctors for Refugees and a member of the Australian Red Cross International Health Law Committee. The views expressed here are his own.


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22 thoughts on “A generation of damaged people government wants to ignore

  1. Tamas Calderwood

    Still, at least Abbott and Morrison have dramatically reduced the boats, meaning far fewer people will drown.

  2. Crew.Doug

    There is no ‘birth right of citizenship’ in Australia.

  3. shepherdmarilyn

    Tamas, the milk of human kindness was truly left out of you wasn’t it?

    Every day in the world 159,000 people die of all causes, every day over 1,000 people drown.

    While 1500 refugees have been left to die by our government over the past 15 years 127 million kids under 5 have died of starvation and preventable diseases.

    So if a few less drown on the way here so what?

  4. Sharkie

    Blind Freddy can see that the situation in the Pacific Island camps/prisons is completely unsustainable, and they are about to explode. When people are treated this badly and put in a hopeless position, good people will do violent things that are completely out of character.
    Abbott and Morrison must know this and are simply insulating themselves and the general public about the physical and mental health reality in the camps/prisons.
    Wake up Australian Media

  5. Bill Hilliger

    Abbott government has decided to axe the Immigration Health Advisory Group. That’s what these former RC altar boys do best. My question what does Mr Pe ll think about this? Maybe Mr pe ll agrees as it seems to be in keeping with RC policy . Basic human rights are for others to maintain …not this gummint.

  6. Tamas Calderwood

    Marilyn – Less people drowning is good, right?

    Stopping the people smuggling trade is good, right?

    Or should we yield to the smuggling trade and let people drown?

  7. DF

    Honi soit qui mal y pense.

    I think the Catholic Church dodged a bullet when Abbott left the seminary. His values clearly do not align with those of the church to which he claims membership.

    If Pell wants to acquiesce in this human travesty, perhaps his Argentine boss in Rome might say something.

  8. DF

    Tamas – Perhaps you could explain the link between inhumane treatment of asylum seekers already in indefinite detention and deterring people from making the journey. It seems for you it is not enough to detain them indefinitely, you want to make their lives hell by inhumane treatment as well. Just wondering where you might draw the line. Why stop at half a litre of water? Why not make it a quarter litre? Why not only one shower a week? Why not feed them on bread and water? Why not make them sleep on the ground? I’d be interested to hear what standards you believe are acceptable for the treatment of human beings in detention.

  9. David Grace

    The thing that concerns me is the increasing role of the military in this Government. A basic tenet of a free society is that the military stays in the barracks, and doesn’t get involved in politics. This seems to be changing.

    Apart from that , this is once again an example of the shame we have brought upon ourselves when we elected this Government. I had hoped I would be able to say to my grandchildren that my generation was enlightened enough to have put the barbarisms of the twentieth century behind us. Sadly what I will be explaining to my grand children is why we were so selfish and self absorbed that we allowed unprincipled politicians to bully and persecute the poor and defenceless. Morrison will be standing among many priests, and other religious when the sins of our generation are judged.

  10. graybul

    David Grace . . The more comments I read above, the more appalled I became. So thank you for your viewpoint . . fully support your insight, compassion and vision, and most of all your concern for grandchildren and the Nation we cede to them. Australia has indeed fallen on dark times.

  11. Jonno Lee

    It is scary how the government is keeping the public in the dark and being non-transparent about information related to asylum seekers.

    Just a few days ago at a press conference, Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison failed to give a precise answer about the renewal of Salvation Army’s contract to provide humanitarian services to people on Manus and Nauru, however, Salvation Army has confirmed they will not be funded by the government.

    The sudden axing of the Immigration Health Advisory Group to me appears to be another method of the government being secretive with the appalling treatment and inhuman conditions for human beings who have already been traumatised from past ordeals. This is not to mention the sky-rocketing costs of implementing Operation Sovereign Borders.

    With the IHAG being axed, who will provide the independent voice and advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers to the government now?

  12. Salamander

    Australia seems to be living in a fantasy /denial – sliding into acceptance of gulags/ concentration camps. We don’t even have the excuse of government tyranny – we are voting for these policies.

  13. Hamis Hill

    Are Australians really to blame when they are the victims of some very clever propaganda?
    Propaganda designed to distract from the economic insecurity caused by massive personal debt and job insecurity?
    With the result being an economic “consensus” that “Australia” cannot afford to be generous to refugees?
    Well unless Australians learn to be more generous to each other then their meanness to refugees will rebound on them.
    This is a morality test which the nation is failing.
    A lack of generosity has repercussions at home as well as in offshore gulags.
    Most of this has been delivered by “The Australian”, and all of it is “Un-Australian”.
    Time to snap out of it people, a Recession is on the horizon, and it will take all the generosity we can muster to survive the collapse of the credit card economy.

  14. Tamas Calderwood

    DF – a few points in response:

    – All these people should be treated humanely.
    – Most of them, however, are economic migrants, not asylum seekers. This is why the vast majority throw their passports overboard and lie about who they are.
    – They should not, therefore, come to Australia at all. As happens now, they should all be taken to offshore camps and sent back as quickly as possible.

    Keep in mind, this problem was solved by the Howard government. Labor started the people smuggling business up again. Shutting it down will be difficult but in these early days, it looks like this government is succeeding.

  15. shepherdmarilyn

    Tamas, it makes no difference to you that you are lying again does it?

    There are thousands of economic migrants who come here each year, they are not asylum seekers.

    And there is no people smuggling business, there are refugees paying for transport and that is a perfectly legal exercise.

  16. Patriot

    Blow them out of the water!

  17. Crew.Doug

    “And there is no people smuggling business…”
    Oh really? The self described ‘people smugglers’ must be lying about their business.

    “there are refugees paying for transport and that is a perfectly legal exercise.”
    Maybe, but to legally come here (and many other countries) you also need travel documents and satisfy visa requirements.

  18. Tamas Calderwood

    I’m not lying Marilyn. I think you just find the truth of this matter very uncomfortable.

  19. Rena Zurawel

    Tamas Calderwood
    Too little knowledge may be more dangerous than no knowledge at all. Get some knowledge about the smugglers’ business. We usually do not punish the victim so to stop the predator. Lack of logic?
    The best way to stop the influx of refugees (and punish one of the most profitable industries on the planet) – is to stop the wars.
    If you lived in Iraq you would do exactly the same: try to get away and save your life.
    Is this a crime?????

  20. Andrew C

    Is it possible that we have fallen into the trap of focusing on an issue generated as a result of populist politics? We are spending a lot of time and money on an issue which is simply deferring our attention from the broader context of the debate.
    By no means am I suggesting that the issues of asylum seekers is not worthy of a debate, because it most certainly is, however I am suggesting that there are a number of issues which are really threatening to Australia’s way of life, development and standard of living.
    Well done, Rena Zurawel, for bringing this debate back to one of the key issues, and that is the generation of asylum seekers due to war. I am sure other countries are laughing at us about our clever politics, poor policy and economic stupidity when it comes to this matter as countries around the world open up their borders to floods of refugees.

    Just another point,regarding ‘people smugglers’, because terms such as these along with ‘boat people’ and ‘illegal refugees’ have really been the fuel to this fire in the public debate. These types of terms,like them or not have been one of the reasons that the focus has been shifted away from more pressing issues. The demonization of these people has generated disdain greatly due to the Australian public reliance on our ‘sound bite’ culture.

  21. Elyce H

    It’s bad enough that our government is able to justify the treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “border protection” but it’s even worse that many Australians actually support Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It would seem that many Australians have been conditioned to fear and think negatively of asylum seekers and this has enabled people to be able to justify the way that we treat them and the conditions that they are subjected to. Political leaders and the media far too often distort facts and statistics. We have been told that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are “flooding” our country – Australia actually receives a very small number of asylum seekers compared to other countries. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are referred to as “illegal immigrants” – this is not true, in fact the UN Refugee Convention stipulates that refugees have a right to enter a country with the purpose of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents. We have been led to view asylum seekers as threats and criminals and led to believe that our treatment of them is necessary in order to protect our borders.

  22. Genevieve Gibney

    The current policy in Australia requiring the mandatory detention of all asylum seekers arriving via boat in offshore processing detention centres has had an uneasy implementation. As a policy platform of the democratically elected Liberal Government, it is reasonable to propose that is it is line with the views of the majority of Australian voters however this point in time support is not of itself a mandate for implementing blanket change. Change of this scale on issues of such importance to the Australian people requires extensive consultation and engagement to ensure the right balance is struck and the expectation of the community is met.

    The subject of asylum seekers will continue and evolve, as a consequence of both changing Australian societal attitudes and the wider political, social and economic conditions of global nations through wars, famine, political upheaval and natural disasters etc. As such there is need for related policies such as offshore processing to be tested, reviewed and revised over time in consultation with the Australian people through the appropriate mechanisms to ensure the human rights of every individual seeking asylum are both recognised and protected.


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