In a one-two punch of bizarre (and very touchy) press releases, Immigration secretary Mike Pezzullo is trying to deny the undeniable: what dozens of official — including Australian government — inquiries, and whole cohorts of health and welfare professionals, have seen and heard for themselves.

The press releases were in part a response to this article that I wrote for medical journal Australian Psychiatry, in which I compared Australia’s offshore detention regime to Nazi Germany.

Pezzullo opined:

“Consistent with the law of the land, and under direction of the government of the day, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection operates a policy of keeping children in detention only as a last resort, and releasing those children that might be in detention as soon as reasonably practicable.

“This is a very contentious area of public policy and administration. Sometimes emotions rise and facts gets distorted. For the reputation of my Department and its officers, it is crucial that I set the record straight: the Department and its uniformed operational arm, the Australian Border Force, does not operate beyond the law, nor is it an immoral ‘rogue agency’.”

He identifies the importance of mental health services because of PTSD in asylum seekers but fails to note the impact of detention system itself — and how long adults and children are spending in detention.

If all is wholesome and enlightened as Pezzullo represents it, he should allow the media freedom to visit offshore detention centres and to report. He makes claims about improvements in healthcare and education that would be worthy of unfettered media attention. Why are the media not allowed access? The standard response is detainee privacy — but far more often than not, this is code for department privacy. Detainees want their story told.

Pezzullo implies that emotions prompted the comparison I made, comparing those who work in offshore detention to those who aided the Nazis. He suggests that emotions, even when accompanied by accurate information, are unreliable when making moral judgments. The Nazis occasion intense emotional response, but I used the link with Nazi Germany with deliberate intent of making a reasonable claim that can be tested. I explicitly disclaimed any reference to death camps. Others may see no connection of Australian race history (including its treatment of indigenous peoples and recent treatment of refugees) and the exclusion and scapegoating of Jews in 1930s Nazi Germany with the widening bystander effect on the German public that so many observers commented on.

I do see a connection. We in Australia all know what is happening; what is worrying is that as a nation we are being led to believe that it is all OK. Immigration detention psychiatrist Dr Peter Young makes it explicit that our treatment of asylum seekers constitutes torture: “If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.”

If children are being removed from detention, that is excellent. But those who are there are there longer than ever. It is also irrelevant, because tomorrow the next group of children can be incarcerated. The point of contention is that the Australian government indefinitely detains children at all. This practice should be outlawed by legislation, consistent with Australia’s human rights commitments.

In Senate estimates recently, Pezzullo made abundantly clear that he would tolerate professional ethics and practice only as far as it fell into line with government policy, and the Border Force Act does threatens two years’ jail for disclosures about systemic abuses. Its secrecy provisions are incompatible with professional ethics. My colleagues and I have no confidence in immigration health while it comes under the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

The oversight groups Pezzullo mentions either are rubber stamps or they do not have the powers to effect change. We all know what happened to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Forgotten Children Report and the scorn with which the former PM treated both it and AHRC president Gillian Triggs. The Immigration Minister should have the support of a truly independent health advisory body, as the Palmer Inquiry (2005) recommended. Any health professional who witnesses detention’s rife systemic abuses and seeks to fulfil his or her obligatory duties as a human rights worker in these environments is on a collision course with DIBP.

With many workers, I hold out a vision of a generous Australia, an Australia that imagines other ways of responding to the international and regional refugee crisis. We are better than this. There are available models of response we could access. Unfortunately, neither side of politics is currently interested in exploring these pathways.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey