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The backs of three male refugees in Australia
Image: Australian Government

'Mental rot'

Charlotta Lomas, Melbourne, Australia
February 18, 2014

Australia's human rights record has been marred by reports that asylum seekers are treated inhumanely. A death at an offshore detention camp is just the latest. Yet there is hardly political will to improve conditions.


Each year, hundreds of people travel by boat to Australia to claim asylum. Often in transit through Indonesia, many pay people smugglers to make the long and dangerous journey.

But instead of finding refuge in Australia, those who arrive by boat are sent to Pacific island detention centers, with no chance of resettlement in Australia. Rights groups, medical experts and the United Nations have condemned the government's policy, in particular the indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The death of an asylum seeker at an immigration detention center in Papua New Guinea came after violent protests by the detainees and weeks of complaints over poor treatment. It is just the latest in a series of reports casting a shadow over Australia's human rights record.

Clinical psychologist Ida Kaplan from the Victorian Foundation for Torture Survivors, says indefinite detention is providing the opposite treatment to what survivors need.

"It's the fact that they start to mentally rot in situations of confinement which is damaging and repeats the helplessness of having lived under an oppressive regime and being persecuted," she told DW.

Ninety percent of Australia's asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees. The majority of them have experienced trauma from war, violence or the loss of loved ones. Many are victims of gross human rights violations or torture.

The most recent government figures available put the number of people in immigration detention facilities offshore and in Australia at 6,101, including 900 children. Three hundred and forty-five of them have been confined for between one and two years.

The longer they're in detention, the worse the mental health effects, says Kaplan. "Our experience is once you've been in detention for 12 months, then there are long-lasting mental health effects to do with retraumatization and an intensification of symptoms normally associated with post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.

A boat carrying suspected Asylum seekers off Christmas Island
Hundreds of people, mostly refugees, attempt the journey to Australia each yearImage: Getty Images

Fresh concerns about the mental health of detainees have arisen in the wake of reports of self-harm in detention and the government recently sacking the independent advisory group responsible for overseeing the health of asylum seekers.

Prison-like conditions

While the government says its "Operation Sovereign Borders" policy has reduced boat arrivals, the harsh measures used to deter migrants have come at a cost to those seeking safety from persecution.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International have criticized the conditions in which people were living after visits to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers.

"Asylum seekers are being held in extremely cramped compounds in stifling heat, while being denied sufficient water and medical help," Amnesty International Australia's spokesperson Graeme McGregor told DW. He said they were "prison-like conditions."

The detainees have complained frequently about uncertainty, McGregor said, adding that they were left in the dark about their claims, about how long they would remain in detention, and where they would end up.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has denied the claims that conditions are inhumane and defended his policy of deterrence.

"People are housed, they're clothed, they're fed, they're given medical attention. They're kept as safe as we can make it for them. But we want them to go back to the country from which they came," Abbott has said.

'Race to the bottom'

The country once had a reputation as a leader in human rights in the region, but that is changing as a result of its treatment of refugees.

Human Rights Watch, in its 2014 report, said Australia had damaged its human rights record by persistently undercutting refugee protections.

"Successive governments have prioritized domestic politics over Australia's international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. … Too often, the government has attempted to demonize those trying to reach Australia by boat," HRW wrote.

Abbott's government came to power in 2013 elections after campaigning to "stop the boats." That rallying cry followed on from years of political rhetoric that stressed concern and justified stricter policies to prevent refugees from drowning. Roughly 900 people have died at sea trying to reach Australia since 2008. Shortly before the election last year then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed off on a policy that would ban boat people from entering Australia.

Zeltunterkunft für Einwanderer in Nauru
Rights organizations issued critical reports after viewing conditions at the Nauru (pictured) and Manus Island detention centersImage: Australian Government

In recent years, says Gillian Triggs, head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the country has digressed in protecting human rights for asylum seekers. The politicization of the issue has essentially seen "a race to the bottom," she told DW.

"Whichever government had the most draconian approach to dealing with asylum seekers was going to be the one to capture the public imagination," she said.

And though critics label the government's refusal to allow asylum seekers who arrive by boat to resettle in Australia cruel and inhumane, the policy is legally permissible. Neither international human rights treaties nor international law require Australia to allow asylum seekers to settle permanently, Triggs said.

But, she added, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers calls into question the country's compliance with international law.

"The primary obligation to asylum seekers is to offer them protection," she said. "The failure to understand the severity of the mental-illness impacts of closed mandatory detention is not meeting our international obligations."

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