Senator Chris Evans’ quiet humanisation of the treatment of asylum seekers has always been at risk because it has come about without substantial changes to the laws that underpinned the extremities of the Howard/Ruddock regime. Now Evans’ achievements have been undermined by the current prime minister’s populist moves.
First, Kevin Rudd joined the tabloid chorus of condemnation of people smugglers. When people become strident in attacking people smugglers, there seems to be a sub-text that the people smuggled are not welcome.
It is no longer accepted for politicians to vilify asylum seekers, or plausible to claim that they are terrorists, and these “traders in human misery” are an alternative target.
Many smugglers may be exploitative and even murderous, but presumably there is a range of motivations — wasn’t Schindler a people smuggler? Arguably the private prison operators who administer the Christmas Island centre also profit from human misery.
Now the prime minister has suspended the processing of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. People will be detained for many months, although even those who are not found to be legitimate refugees have committed no crime by seeking asylum. Christmas Island is not Woomera; nevertheless prolonged detention creates the risk of serious mental illness.
Once a core of detainees has spent too long in detention, the atmosphere in the centre will deteriorate. We can predict a surge of protest, some of it self-destructive, giving way to despair. If this is allowed to persist, permanent damage will follow.
Many of us working in mental health saw first hand how refugees were harmed through prolonged detention. Documentation of this harm is freely available to government and community. The psychiatric label varied — major depression, severe post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder — but our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers was toxic for those we detained, for those commissioned to detain them and for our society as a whole.
Rudd’s moves represent a return to the ethic of using detention as a deterrent, but seek to do it nicely. The announcement exemplifies the absurdity of claiming the middle ground on moral issues.
In the interests of reducing short-term political risks, the government has created an unsustainable false compromise, seeking to find a space where none exists between truly humane and ruthless.
Rudd lacks the honesty of Amanda Vanstone and Philip Ruddock when, as minister for immigration and attorney-general, they boasted that locking up children was justified because it deterred boat people.
It is hard to see an outcome of the current political direction that will not damage to the mental health of detainees, and further damage our well-being as a nation.
Dr Jon Jureidini is a child psychiatrist with 10 years of experience working with immigration detainees — children, adults and families. He visited Baxter and Woomera many times.