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Aug 1, 2014

Kids in detention: is Immigration malicious, or just utterly incompetent?

The Immigration Department has long known about the challenges of providing mental health services to detainees. Its failures on Christmas Island and Nauru reflect massive incompetence.


Revelations about the Immigration Department’s treatment of children in detention point to one of the most serious failings in Australian public policy in years. The head of the department, Martin Bowles, should be facing dismissal if the appalling state of conditions in which children are being detained, and departmental efforts to cover them up, are confirmed.

The long list of examples of failures in medical treatment provided by health professionals at yesterday’s Human Rights Commission hearing into the detention of children amounts to a serious abrogation of Australia’s duty of care to those it detains. The list includes removing medication from arriving asylum seekers and failing to replace it, in some cases for serious conditions; removing items such as glasses and hearing aids and not replacing them; a lack of basic medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, the withholding of medical records from health professionals, and even a lack of soap for basic sanitation.

And that only relates to the physical health of the detained children. There are also manifestly widespread mental health problems among them, and frequent incidents of self-harming. It was in relation to mental health that the most serious allegation was made yesterday, by Dr Peter Young, a former officer for healthcare provider International Health and Medical Services (IHMS): that the Immigration Department had demanded information about the appalling level of mental health problems on Christmas Island be withdrawn.

Having taken a decision to detain children, in some cases indefinitely, the government owes them a duty of basic care. The mental health problems of long-term detention are well known. There was a parliamentary inquiry into Immigration detention in 2011 that studied the issue in detail. IHMS is, according to that committee, contracted “to provide health services to detainees at the standard available in the general Australian community”. But evidence to the inquiry showed the contracted provider, IHMS, struggling with the challenges of providing adequate mental health services on Christmas Island.

“The conditions provided for children in detention are bad enough that children would be removed for their own protection if the same conditions were found in Australia.”

The mental health impacts of detention also informed the work of the 2012 independent panel of Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange. In recommending offshore processing on Nauru, they recommended that “appropriate physical and mental health services” be provided with “monitoring of care and protection arrangements by a representative group drawn from government and civil society in Australia and Nauru”. When the Gillard government reopened the Nauru detention centre, Crikey reported on the problems for IHMS in providing adequate mental health services there.

There is, therefore, no possible reason why the Immigration Department should not be aware of both the need to ensure adequate mental health treatment for long-term detainees, and the difficulties of doing so. Officials have had at least three years since the 2011 committee report to work out ways to ensure IHMS provides adequate mental health services. Judging by the evidence both in relation to female detainees self-harming on Christmas Island and that which has emerged in relation to children on Christmas Island and Nauru, the department has manifestly failed.

The failure extends to the provision of basic physical health services. But there’s never been evidence that there is some fundamental difficulty about getting antibiotics, or basics like soap, to Christmas Island or Nauru, or about replacing medication for a child with epilepsy or replacing a hearing aid or glasses taken from them (for some reasons presumably known to Immigration, but otherwise a mystery). The conditions provided for children in detention are bad enough that children would be removed for their own protection if the same conditions were found in Australia. And this is also the department that has overseen the murder of Reza Barati.

It’s a legitimate question, therefore, about whether Immigration’s failure is a deliberate policy to inflict misery on detainees. That’s a question Bowles professed to be offended at when it was put to him yesterday. But the only possible alternative is that his department is incompetent and has been incompetent for a long period.

Now there is an allegation it has sought to cover up its incompetence or malice. It remains an allegation only, but if true it would be of a piece with the systematic and absurd obsession with secrecy that now attends any official discussion of asylum seeker matters. Bowles has been an enthusiastic participant in this secrecy. It’s even possible that the department’s culture of secrecy has backfired on the Immigration Minister, with Scott Morrison now looking ignorant and foolish for trying, presumably on the basis of departmental advice, to dismiss claims about the conditions of detainees as “sensational”.

The government’s determination to “stop the boats” does not require abuse or negligence of detainees as some sort of warning to those contemplating trying to reach Australia. The point is asylum seekers will never be resettled in Australia and will be detained offshore until their claims are determined and a resettlement destination found. That is the deterrent, plus whatever deterrent value can be obtained from the expensive and diplomatically dangerous mechanism of sending boats back to Indonesia. While we detain them, especially children — who have made no decision to attempt to come to Australia — we have a duty of basic care that Martin Bowles’ department appears to have abrogated. And if Bowles can’t do his job, he should be replaced.


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22 thoughts on “Kids in detention: is Immigration malicious, or just utterly incompetent?

  1. Fleur

    Crocodile tears from Bernard Keane, who is an enthusiastic supporter of “stopping the boats”. What part of deterrence don’t you understand, Bernard? This is exactly what is intended by the government. If you don’t understand this, then you probably don’t understand the genocidal regimes that Hazaras, Tamils, Rohingya and other refugees are fleeing from. As the current mass murders in Gaza show, killing and maiming children is part and parcel of what states do to underline their authority over subject populations.

  2. Rod

    The inhumanity displayed by Australians is sickening.

  3. Yclept

    It is shameful that this deliberate mistreatment is being perpetrated in our names. Hopefully Karma is coming to Tony and his sidekick clowns.

  4. zut alors

    As the Abbott government perpetrators of this callous policy are practising Chrlstians (allegedly) one wonders how much better off the distressed children would be if deprived of their sanctimonious milk of human kindness.

  5. Albert Ross

    “Chrlstians”? It’s spelled “Charlatans”.

  6. Pamela

    Blaming Bowles, sacking bowles will achieve little.
    Immigration is Ruled from the top by a succession of Ministers empowered by the people of Australia.

    This portfolio is administered like no other- all power lies with the Minister of the day. Not one person exits detention without his personal approval.Not one visa is issued without this say so. This minister is supported by a coterie of cruelty competing for the masters approval which sees the deterrent policy being implemented in an increasingly cruel and brutal fashion in order to deter.

    Yesterday was unusual in that contractors and staff were subpoena’d to speak and truth was outed.
    They were repeating what advocates and whistle blowers have previously reported without concern being raised.

  7. The Pav

    My money is on incompetent following the Sir Humphrey Rule in chosing between strategy and lethergy chose lethergy with the PS

    It could be that actually they are making the situation so bad to finally force the Australian public to find its conscience and humanity and rise up against this onscenity being perpertrated in our name

    Since Joe Hockey said child detention would occur over his dead body can we assume that a new ( and hopefully competent although given the talent in the coalition this is unlikely) treasurer will be appointed.

  8. AR

    After watching those wrenched and rung out doctors giving their simple, clear statements I almost threw up when it was followed by a mr Blobby bureaucrat that commenced to begin to drone on with almost pure jargon about ‘top strategies’.

  9. Jaybuoy

    under any other parliament Morrison would have been forced to resign..the sight of his department head scurrying from the press this morning after his arcane display at a senate inquiry was instructional.. and since when does a Minister of the crown fob questions off by saying he is under the control of a “General” and will therefore not be answering lest he be in breach of his orders… wtf wtf wtf…

  10. graybul

    Any review of any Service in a civilized society that involved a “Duty of Care” as revealed by Human Rights Commission Enquiry about the treatment of asylum seekers’ children . . would result in perpetrator(s) dismissal and/or legal action via justice system.
    The Minister himself is “Legal Guardian” to many of the incarcerated, abused children.
    Fifty years of working in Community with oppressed people’s. Am in tears of rage at this Government and Senior Officers responsible.

  11. Gavin Moodie

    Another good argument from Keane. It was weakened by several uses of ‘in relation to’ as an omnibus preposition, where ‘about’ would be far better:

    ‘It was in relation to mental health that the most serious allegation was made yesterday’
    ‘Judging by the evidence both in relation to female detainees self-harming on Christmas Island’
    ‘that which has emerged in relation to children on Christmas Island and Nauru,’.

  12. Lubo Gregor

    Malicious. This country has been built on racism and continues to strive on racism. What changed from the British genocide of the Aboriginals? Make no mistake, once the unnamed occupants from Asia take over this cultural wasteland, the faith of the current population will be no different. Advance Australia what?

  13. Graeski

    Careful, Bernard. Articles like this pose a challenge for Tony’s budgie-smugglers.

  14. CML

    Doesn’t the public service exist to give ‘advice’ to the minister, which he can then accept or reject?
    If so, who is at fault here? Is the department not telling the minister what is going on in these detention centres? Or is the minister ignoring the departmental advice, and insisting on his own despicable regime?
    My gut instinct says it is the latter. If that is correct, where does that leave the department? Surely they don’t have the power to over-ride the minister’s instructions.
    Of course, Martin Bowles could just resign, but what would that achieve? Morrison would just appoint another lackey in his place to parrot, “Yes Minister”!
    In other words, the buck should stop with Minister Morrison, NOT with the head of department or his underlings. Obviously Morrison doesn’t even know how to spell ministerial responsibility, let alone accept it!!

  15. klewso

    If they’re going to be run like concentration camps why can’t we call them that?

  16. michael crook

    Anyone notice the similarities to
    Germany in the 1930’s? Murdoch is happily fulfilling the role as chief propagandist, and the regime continues to assault any sort of human value.

  17. Alex

    Well said, Bernard, but it does no good for my blood pressure. My rage at the outrage is building to outrageous levels. Then there’s the feeling of deep shame I now have about my country.

  18. David Hand

    Asylum seekers come to Australia by boat because the refugee convention gives them an opportunity to migrate here. The solution is pretty obvious. Withdraw ratification of the refugee convention so that detention centres become unnecessary.

    The whole and entire agonising problem comes from the fact that Crikey, most of its commenters, the ABC, the Human Rights Commissioner, the refugee advocates and the activist lawyers, believe asylum seekers are genuine refugees. Most of Australia, both recent governments and most of the Department of Immigration don’t.

  19. Yclept

    And yet that same Dept of Immigration grants asylum to around 95% of those who apply.

    But you are correct, Australia should withdraw from the UN agreement instead of flaunting it in our name.

    I notice the RWNJs don’t seem to be bothered by the overwhelming number of illegal immigrants who sneak in by plane. Is it harder to focus hatred on them?

  20. Professor Tournesol

    I agree with Fleur, the basis of the Labour/Liberal treatment of asylum seekers have been to deny their access to legal avenues whilst maximising human rights abuse to the extent that they can get away with to act as a group deterrent. The worse the treatment and the more the information leaks to the media the more effective the policy. There’s no concern for the individuals involved, in fact the opposite.

  21. Pamela

    “Appropriate mental and physical services” to be put in place- weasel words.
    Counseling on manus was done in groups of 40 to encourage “positive approach to their situation” – sessions on “mindfulness” run to encourage adjustment.
    Cameras in showers and toilets to alert guards to people attempting suicide- kids on Christmas Island knowing that they are being watched in showers and toilets.
    The aim of these measures is not therapeutic- the aim is to stop death- a negative statistic.
    No amount of drugs and counseling can relieve the depression, fear, harm that cause mental ill health which exists in these toxic factories for mental sickness.

  22. Rena Zurawel

    Do the authorities read the book of law???


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