Australia to release some children from immigration detention

August 19, 2014

Australia's Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison speaks at a news conference during his working visit to Malaysia, at the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency office in Putrajaya February 5, 2014. REUTERS/Samsul Said

Australia’s Minister of Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison speaks at a news conference during his working visit to Malaysia, at the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency office in Putrajaya February 5, 2014.


(Reuters) – The Australian government announced plans on Tuesday to release scores of children from immigration detention centers, following criticism from human rights advocates that detaining minors is detrimental to their mental and physical health.

However, the government is standing by its hardline, and much-criticized, immigration policies. It will grant freedom to around 150 of the 876 children currently held in detention centers on the Australian mainland and on remote islands.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said children and their families in centers on the mainland who arrived before the introduction of tough new laws in mid-2013 would be released into the community on bridging visas by the end of the year while their applications for asylum are processed.

Minors being held in offshore detention centers and those born in Australia to asylum seekers since a cut-off date of July 19 would be excluded.

Morrison said the exclusion was critical to Australia’s success in stopping asylum seekers from attempting the perilous boat journey, often made by people fleeing conflict zones after paying people-smugglers in Indonesia.

“Offshore processing is one of the measures stopping the boats and I don’t think encouraging children to get on boats where they can die at sea is an acceptable humanitarian outcome,” Morrison told reporters.

“This government won’t be watering down its policies on border protection that are saving lives at sea.”

Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott won an election last September after campaigning heavily on tough immigration policies, which have been criticized internationally but which polls show remain popular with voters.

Tuesday’s announcement came days before Morrison is to appear at an Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) inquiry. The inquiry has already heard evidence of detained children swallowing detergents, putting plastic bags over their heads and cutting themselves.

A group of prominent Christian leaders has accused Morrison of committing “state-sanctioned child abuse” with the government’s tough border security measures, while the United Nations has warned Australia could be violating its obligations as a signatory to U.N. refugee conventions.


The number of children still held in detention centers is down from a peak of 2,000 last July, Morrison said.

More than 500 are on the mainland, of whom 150 will be eligible for release. The 148 children on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, and 193 children on the South Pacific island of Nauru will not be released.

A further 1,547 children held in mainland community detention centers will be looked at case by case, Morrison said.

The cut-off date of July 19 marks the introduction last year by the former Labor government of rules that meant all new boat arrivals would be sent offshore for processing.

Abbott’s government toughened that further with a secretive policy of turning back boats at sea. It also wants to ban permanent visas for anyone who arrived in Australia by boat.

Law firm Maurice Blackburn, which represents 94 babies born in detention to people who arrived since July 19, said all children in detention should be included in the release plans.

It said Christmas Island and Nauru did not have basic medical and health services.

A former doctor at Nauru told the HRC inquiry last month that the government asked him to cover up evidence that children held in the camps were suffering from widespread mental illness caused by their confinement.

Children on Nauru include around 50 minors who are among a group of 157 Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers who are at the center of a High Court challenge over the government’s authority to detain asylum seekers on the high seas and send them to another country.

“We have heard stories of children with teeth abscesses or teeth cavities that have gone untreated for months,” Maurice Blackburn lawyer Jacob Varghese said. “We know of children with grave psychological problems.”

“Today’s announcement needs to go much further – no child should be living in detention,” he said.



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Riding for refugees

August 15, 2014

PLIGHT: Afghani asylum seeker Rohullah Hussaini and Swan Hill Rural City councillor Michael Adamson are set to cycle to Canberra to raise awareness of refugee rights.

PLIGHT: Afghani asylum seeker Rohullah Hussaini and Swan Hill Rural City councillor Michael Adamson are set to cycle to Canberra to raise awareness of refugee rights.


An uncertain future

Refugee support

A BIKE and sheer determination are all Afghani asylum seeker Rohullah Hussaini needs to set out on the ambitious mission of bettering conditions for refugees in Australia.

Arriving in Australia in August 2012, Mr Hussaini has spent much of his life trying to survive.

As a Hazara man growing up in Ghazni, Afghanistan, a city near the capital of Kabul, he escaped his home country after concerns for his personal security reached a tipping point.

The Hazara people, primarily from the central highland region of Hazarajat in Afghanistan — which includes Ghazni Province — have been systematically persecuted by fundamentalist groups in the region since as far back as the 16th century.

These conditions have seen them become one of the largest groups of refugee people to seek asylum in countries that include Australia.

He initially sought asylum in Europe, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, before making the perilous journey to Australia.

Arriving before the Federal Government cracked down on ‘illegal’ refugee arrivals, Mr Hussaini has been able to find work as he waits to see if his application for asylum will be approved so he can remain in Australia permanently.


However, for refugees who arrived on Australian shores after a government policy change later in August 2012, they have no such right.

The hard-line approach to refugee issues in Australia has motivated Mr Hussaini to raise awareness of the issue through a 700km cycling trip.

Travelling from Swan Hill to Canberra, local councillor Michael Adamson will also join the pilgrimage to educate people along the way.


They will set off on August 21, arriving in Canberra for the first day of parliament on August 26.

“I want to show people that I am a refugee, I am from Afghanistan… and they don’t need to be scared of me,” Mr Hussaini said.

Cr Adamson said they were hoping the marathon ride would help people to better understand refugees and why they chose to seek asylum.

“I think that people think in Australia that the Hazara people are coming here just because they want to, but if they could stay in their homes they would — nobody wants to leave their home,” Cr Adamson said.

“Whether they come by boat, or plane, or swim across the ocean — we should stop victimising them and dehumanising them.”

Mr Hussaini recently applied for a permanent visa to remain in Australia, but remains unsure if he will be granted asylum after it was initially refused.

The refusal was based on the deciding body — the Refugee Council — deeming it safe enough for him to return home.

“The thing is Australia doesn’t even have a consulate in Afghanistan because they say it is not safe — but they say it is safe for us to return,” Mr Hussaini said.


When they arrive in Canberra, Cr Adamson and Mr Hussaini will present Member for Mallee Andrew Broad with a petition of names gathered in support of increased rights for refugees, and seek an audience with Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison.

“I want to support Rohullah in the process, I have done a number of long rides — it is not easy by yourself,” Cr Adamson said.

“I also want to support the issues that some of the Afghani refugees have in our country… to make a stand and say these are real people, with real needs and we can’t treat them like they are not.

“Rohullah is a great person and has made a great contribution to the community and yet he can’t get permanent residence.”

The pair are planning to cycle 150km each day, and are still looking for support along their journey.

Anyone is welcome to ride with the pair along the way, and supplies including some biking equipment, clothing and food are also sought.

To offer a hand contact Cr Michael Adamson on 0400 143 100.


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Anonymous Save The Children workers condemn ‘systematic’ rights violation at Nauru detention centre

August 14, 2014

Anonymous workers in the Australian-run immigration detention camps on Nauru have detailed what they call the “systematic violation” of the human rights of child asylum seekers.

The claim is made in a report by workers from Save The Children and submitted to Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Children in Detention.

The workers say they cannot reveal their identities, but feel a moral duty to speak out about the conditions on Nauru.

The submission describes numerous cases of abuse, including children being sexually abused, bullied and threatened by fellow detainees.

The report describes a child being sexually abused in the detention centre, while security guards looked on and failed to intervene.

In one case, a female detainee who complained about bullying was the target of a planned sexual assault by a group of men, and yet she and her relatives were knowingly kept in a tent near the men who had made the threats.

The tent leaked water, and was near electrical infrastructure, creating a life threatening situation.

The anonymous workers report that criminal background checks are not always completed on local Nauruan staff, thereby increasing the risk to children.

It is noted that criminal and other background checks in local employees are not mandated in the contract to run the detention centre.

“It is particularly concerning given there have been several employees accused of physical, verbal, and the sexual assault of children,” the workers wrote.

Morrison’s spokeswoman says allegations ‘very serious’

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the subject matter raised in these anonymous allegations is “very serious”.

“The department is working with Save the Children and the government of Nauru to determine the veracity of these anonymous claims and to what extent they are credible or relate to current practice,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

“The department has also asked Save the Children if any such concerns have been raised by any of their staff and to provide a response to the government on the allegations made.”

The Government has stated for weeks that it is awaiting the outcomes of the Human Rights Commission inquiry and any supporting evidence in the final report.

“The [Save the Children] submission addresses matters that are outside the terms of reference of the AHRC inquiry,” the statement added.

The report states “many children are living in knowingly unsafe circumstances,” due to what the Save The Children workers describe as the “unyielding and harsh” stance of the DIPB (Department of Immigration and Border Protection).

Staff say they are actively discouraged from advocating the removal of children, “except in the most extreme cases of documented harm”.

The anonymous workers say children in detention are exposed to traumatic situations every day, such as self harming events and violence, which serves as triggers to past traumatic events.

‘Blocked toilets with faeces on the toilets’

The report further outlines a lack of access to food, a lack of supervision, and young children being separated from their families across the network of detention centres.

Basic sanitation and hygiene is also a major problem according to the report, with the workers describing the family camp (OP3) as “overflowing”.

“There are outbreaks of lice, gastroenteritis and school sores that are difficult to contain due to the use of common showers, common eating areas and close living conditions,” the workers wrote.

The report states there are only two toilets for the new classroom at the detention centre for 200 children and local staff members cannot be relied upon to show up to work consistently to perform the cleaning of the facilities.

“There have been multiple times that the OP3 has ‘run out’ of water, resulting in overflowing  and blocked toilets with faeces on the toilets or on the floor of the toilet,” the report said.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young says the submission is explosive and that child detainees should be removed immediately from the Pacific Island nation.

“It outlines sexual, physical, verbal abuse and a significant lack of child protection inside the detention camp,” she said.

“It is unbelievable to think the Government cannot act in the face this evidence.”

Mr Morrison has agreed to give evidence to the inquiry into children in Australian immigration detention on a date yet to be set.

The inquiry is expected to report to the Government before the end of the year.


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Regional Australia opens its arms to ‘at risk’ women refugees

August 11, 2014

Twelve months ago no Hazara lived in the south-east Queensland town of Toowoomba but now there are 200 women and their dependents starting a new life in Australia.

Twelve months ago no Hazara lived in the south-east Queensland town of Toowoomba but now there are 200 women and their dependents starting a new life in Australia.

Twelve months ago no Hazara lived in the south-east Queensland town of Toowoomba but now there are 200 women and their dependents starting a new life in Australia.

They are among the lucky 1,000 who secured “Women at Risk” refugee visas last year but came with no English, no husbands and no qualifications.

Women from Afghanistan receive about half the visa quota and are flown to Australia from refugee camps in Pakistan.

“All I have been feeling since I got to Australia is joy and happiness,” said Latifa Amini who arrived in March.

“Through this move and the help that I got is here, I feel safe, my children feel safe, we live in a home we know is not going to be attacked by anyone, we know there is nobody that is going to come and take away things from us, we are safe here, that’s the main difference, I feel at ease,” she said.

Since 1989, Australia has issued about 14,000 “At Risk” visas to women from 37 countries. Initially only a few hundred a year were offered.

Many have suffered torture and abuse; lost their husbands, fled war zones and have limited means to provide from themselves.

“These are some of the most vulnerable women and children in the world and we’ve (Australia) really made a strong international commitment to take women through this program. It’s something we can be immensely proud of,” said Kerrin Benson, head of Multicultural Development Australia the organisation that is supporting the Hazara women.

Latifa Amini arrived in March with her two sons and a sister and was brought straight to Toowoomba to start her new life.

“We’re delighted to have them here, we welcomed them when they first arrived, in fact we’ll have a celebration soon of their 12 month stay in Toowoomba,” said Toowoomba mayor Paul Antonoi.

“There was a deliberate move by council to become a Refugee Welcome Zone.

“We’ve had a lot of people coming here for a long time, and even if you look back in our early history, while that immigration was European, there was tremendous cooperation between cultures, the Irish, the Germans, who wouldn’t have known each other.”

Since the first Hazara arrive about a year ago they have been learning English and how to use their cooking and sewing skills to earn an income.

This weekend they put their results of their hard work to the test, with a food and craft stalls at the Toowoomba Cultures and Languages Festival, attended by about 15,000 people.

“My ultimate goal would be that I would not be a burden to the Australian community and government and people, my aim would be to be independent and work and earn enough money to live,” said Latifa Amini.

Toowoomba did make them feel welcome and the Hazara food stall sold out of everything.

“I want it to be like today, full of joy and happiness and we can present our culture through our handiwork or crafts, food or cooking, music. Today was a happy day,” Latifa Amini said.



Filed under Public Reaction/Perception Towards Asylum Seekers, Talented Asylum Seekers

Australia’s detention regime sets out to make asylum seekers suffer, says chief immigration psychiatrist

August 05, 2014

Guardian Australia exclusive: Doctor responsible for mental health of people in detention becomes the most senior figure to condemn system from within, saying immigration department deliberately harms vulnerable detainees in a process akin to torture.

The chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers in detention for the past three years has accused the immigration department of deliberately inflicting harm on vulnerable people, harm that cannot be remedied by medical care.

“We have here an environment that is inherently toxic,” Dr Peter Young told Guardian Australia. “It has characteristics which over time reliably cause harm to people’s mental health. We have very clear evidence that that’s the case.”

Dr Peter Young, who until a month ago was director of mental health services at International Health and Medical Services
Dr Peter Young, who until a month ago was director of mental health services at International Health and Medical Services, the private contractor that provides medical care at Australia’s detention centres. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Young is the most senior figure ever to condemn the detention system from within. Until a month ago he was director of mental health for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the private contractor that provides medical care to detention centres on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island.

Young has extensively briefed Guardian Australia about a system he says is deliberately harsh, breaks people’s health, costs a fortune, compromises the ethics of doctors and is intended to place asylum seekers under “strong coercive pressure” to abandon plans to live in Australia. “Suffering is the way that is achieved.”

He believes this process is akin to 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.”

Young strongly criticised the immigration department for:

Delays that endanger health in bringing patients to Australia from Manus and Nauru: “It is seen as undesirable because it undermines the idea that people are never going to Australia and also because of the concern that if people arrive onshore then they may have access to legal counsel and other assistance.”

Leaving people in detention who are acutely suicidal: “Trying to manage them in a non-therapeutic setting like that is just inherently futile. It’s not going to work.”

Returning patients with less severe problems to detention despite medical advice that they cannot be expected “to fully respond to treatment in an environment that was making them sick”.

Misusing patient information. “People disclose a lot of personal information which is then recorded in notes which are then available to non-medical people for other purposes.” Young says the dual role of IHMS staff treating detainees but reporting to the department raises fundamental ethical problems for doctors in the system.

Displaying an obsession with secrecy: “Speaking out of turn is clamped down on whenever it occurs … they continue to maintain the fantasy that they can keep everything a secret.”

Reluctance to gather and use mental health statistics that might “result in controversy or threaten the application of the policies of deterrence”.

Directing doctors not to put in writing that detention has led to deterioration in their patients’ mental health. IHMS doctors ignored the direction. Young said they saw evidence all around them of detainees “sick because they are there and getting sicker while they remain there”.

Guardian Australia contacted IHMS and the immigration minister for comment, neither responded.

The Manus camp particularly appalled Young. “When you go to Manus Islandand you walk down what is called the ‘walk of shame’ between the compounds and you see the men there at the fences it’s an awful experience,” he says.

“You have to feel shame. You have to understand what that feeling is about in order to be able to be compassionate. By feeling the shame you stay on the right side of the line.”

Young told Guardian Australia IHMS figures had shown for some time that a third of adults and children in the detention system had what he called “a significant-level disorder”. If they were living in Australia, that would require the care of specialist medical health services. The figures only got worse as detainees stayed longer in detention: “After a year it approaches 50%.”

Last week, in alarming evidence to an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry, Young said the immigration department had refused to accept IHMS statistics proving damage to children and adolescents held in prolonged detention. He told the inquiry: “The department reacted with alarm and asked us to withdraw the figures.”

In a belligerent appearance before the inquiry, the secretary of the immigration department, Martin Bowles, accused the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, of making “highly emotive claims” about health problems in the detention system. He had not heard evidence of the problems provided by Young and other IHMS doctors earlier in the day.

Martin Bowles, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, gives evidence at last week's Human Rights Commission inquiry.
Martin Bowles, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, gives evidence at last week’s Human Rights Commission inquiry. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

His hand shook as he confronted Triggs. When his evidence produced laughter he demanded the room be silenced. He refused to answer some questions and retreated at times behind a wall of bureaucratic prose.

But Bowles did not deny a link between prolonged detention and mental illness. He called this a “well-established” issue and insisted his department was doing “everything it humanly can” to provide “appropriate medical care” to address the mental health problems of detainees.

Young told Guardian Australia that was impossible: “The problem is the system.”

Young is confident that in his time at IMHS the men and women working for him made better assessments of detainees’ health and delivered much better treatment than in the past.

“But you can’t mitigate the harm, because the system is designed to create a negative mental state. It’s designed to produce suffering. If you suffer, then it’s punishment. If you suffer, you’re more likely to agree to go back to where you came from. By reducing the suffering you’re reducing the functioning of the system and the system doesn’t want you to do that.

“Everybody knows that the harm is being caused and the system carries on. Everybody accepts that this is the policy and the policy cannot change. And everybody accepts that the only thing you can do is work within the parameters of the policy.”

The window of reasonableness closes

Young arrived in the system in 2011 at a crucial moment: the high court was about to knock back the Gillard government’s proposed “Malaysia solution” and, as the boats arrived in ever-increasing numbers, the detention system was bursting at the seams. So the government began processing detainees quickly and releasing large numbers into the community on bridging visas. “The problems that we were seeing from a mental health perspective decreased massively.”

Young has been a psychiatrist for nearly 20 years, most of that time working in public health. He joined IHMS believing the detention system was problematic but confident that good could be done from the inside. “I felt that given the experience I had I could work between the immigration department and IHMS and the detention health advisory group to bring about positive change.”

The year before Young’s arrival, the immigration department had been put on notice once again that prolonged detention harms mental health. Professor Kathy Eager of Wollongong University reached that conclusion in a study commissioned by the department itself.

“There is,” she wrote, “almost universal criticism of the policy of detaining asylum seekers, particularly in terms of the mental health implications.”

Her findings were backed by the department’s independent Detention Health Advisory Group (Dehag), the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses and the Australian Psychological Society. In 2011 the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists declared: “Prolonged detention, particularly in isolated locations, with poor access to health and social services and uncertainty of asylum seeker claims, can have severe and detrimental effects.”

While detainees were being rapidly released, Young observed attitudes towards them improved throughout the system. They were not treated as prisoners.

Their mental health was generally good: “These people are actually quite robust and psychologically healthy individuals despite all the suffering that they have been through.”

But what Young calls “the window of reasonableness” stayed open for only six months. With boats arriving in unprecedented numbers and the opposition in full cry, the government reversed direction. Once again boat people were to be held for long periods. The camps on Manus and Nauru were reopened. Kevin Rudd announced that no new boat arrivals would end up living in Australia.

“You just can’t overstate how things changed so rapidly when the policy changed,” Young says. Once again the system treated them as prisoners. The impact on their mental health was as predicted: fine for a few months, then increased depression, anxiety and stress.

“Most people have a level of resilience which allows them to function fairly well for a few months, but after that time there is a steady deterioration … after six months the cumulative harms accelerate very rapidly.”

Asylum seekers self-harming is ‘seen as bad behaviour’.

Uncertainty does the worst damage, Young says. Then comes hopelessness. “They are constantly given a message that they are on a negative pathway, meaning their claim is not going to be accepted. This is despite what we know about the outcomes of processing in the long term, which is that greater than 80% of people are found to be genuine refugees.”

And they have so little autonomy. “Just the day-to-day daily lives that they experience living in the detention system means that they have very little control over what they do. It makes things particularly difficult for people who are there with their children as well. Their capacity to act as parents and to make decisions on behalf of their families is so restricted.”

Young sees immigration detention as inherently more harmful than prison. “In prison those with mental health problems generally improve. People are more well on their release than when they entered. What we see in detention is the opposite of that. Over the course of time in detention, they get sicker.

“We don’t have families in prisons. Secondly, when people go to prison they go through a recognised independent judicial process. It’s not arbitrary. This is an arbitrary process and people see it as being unfair and that is another factor.

“Also, when people are in prison they have a definitive sentence so they know there is an end point. This is not like that at all. This is indefinite.”

Each quarter IHMS presents the department with figures on the health of detainees. The data for July to September 2013 showed a third of those held in detention for more than a year were experiencing extremely severe depression; 42% were suffering extremely severe anxiety; and 42% were extremely stressed. The report notes these figures are consistent with internationally published research: “The pattern shows the negative mental health effects of immigration detention with a clear deterioration of mental health indices over time in detention.”

Abbott takes power

“People didn’t really take Rudd seriously,” Young recalls. “But everybody was saying when the Libs get in it’s really going to get tough. So there was a building up of expectation that things were going to get worse, which made it worse in itself.”

When the change came in late 2013, there was no radical shift in policy. “Everything just got harsher.”

Relations between the department and its independent health advisers were already rocky. Dehag had been set up in 2006 at a time of acute embarrassment after it was discovered that a schizophrenic Australian resident, Cornelia Rau, was being held in the detention.

Cornelia Rau
Cornelia Rau, whose wrongful incarceration caused a crisis in the immigration department. Photograph: Luke Hemer/Sunraysia Daily/AAP

She was thought to be German, was desperately ill and the immigration department refused to release her for treatment. She was finally identified naked in the yards of the Baxter detention centre.

Dehag had an independence the department came to regret. Its dozen members were nominated by peak medical authorities, including the Australian Medical Association, the Mental Health Council of Australia and the professional colleges for nursing, general practitioners and psychiatry. The experts were at the table but the department found itself dealing with people who could neither be corralled nor muzzled.

“It’s always been a very tense relationship,” says Louise Newman, director of the centre for developmental psychiatry and psychology at Monash University. Newman chaired the group for a time. “At every meeting until they disbanded us we would make a statement that we did not support mandatory detention or prolonged detention of any form, that it was damaging and that it created problems that we could not fix.”

Young, who sat in on the group’s meetings, confirmed the experts’ fundamental objection to detention: “That’s been the baseline position that they have always held and they have always presented.”

The group watched with concern as the Gillard government reversed its policy of swift release for asylum seekers. Newman sees the second round of detention as worse than the first because it came as the evidence of harm was even more firmly established. “They replicated the very conditions that they have admitted contribute to mental harm and deterioration,” she said.

Dr Louise Newman
Dr Louise Newman: ‘We’re saving lives by sending people mad.’ Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“It’s seen as collateral damage. The department does what it can to reduce it but in the name of the greater good of border protection and deterrents it doesn’t really matter. We’re saving lives by sending people mad.”

The group drove change. “The department was very pleased to use things that we brought in, so any positive reforms that have gone on in the system in terms of screening people and healthcare and health standards were all done by Dehag.”

But Newman alleges the department later sabotaged medical screening of asylum seekers for signs of torture and trauma. “We argued that no one who had been tortured should be detained or particularly not in remote places. The departmental doctors decided the best way to get around that was not to do the screening, so they didn’t find out who was tortured. They stopped it on Christmas Island so people could be shipped away before it was even known if they were trauma survivors.”

Tension between Dehag and the department intensified after Bowles was appointed secretary of the department in 2012, Newman says. Bowles is not a doctor but for much of his career was a health administrator before joining the defence department. He is one of a group of former army and defence figures who now hold the most senior positions in the immigration department.

Bowles announced a review of Dehag, which he renamed the Immigration Health Advisory Group (Ihag). He failed in manoeuvres to change its membership but imposed a former military doctor, Paul Alexander, as its chairman. “It was meant to be a much more controlled group,” Newman says.

Bowles wanted the experts to withdraw from public debate. Young says: “They wanted the thing to be more watertight.” The experts were not accused of leaking. “But they expressed views in public which were relevant to the business before the committee.” They continued to do so. The most vocal was Newman.

The experts and the department continued to be at loggerheads over the standard of care for detainees. Newman says Dehag and Ihag always argued that detainees had to be looked after “regardless of visa status” while they were in Australian hands, and it was an ethical obligation on all medical practitioners working in the system to provide care to Australian standards.

A child inside the Nauru detention centre
A child inside the Nauru detention centre. Photograph: Guardian exclusive

But once Nauru and Manus reopened, the department began to demand treatment be pegged to the much lower standards of care on those islands. There would have to be exceptions – no inpatient mental healthcare is available on Manus or Nauru – but the department’s wish was to lower the general standard of care for detainees in those camps.

At what was to be the last meeting of Ihag in August 2013, the issue was debated at length. An impasse was reached, says Newman. “The department at a very high level from secretary down argues the Australian government is not obliged to provide our standard of care to these people.”

But experts insisted that standards must be maintained and that the department’s plan was an ethical minefield for doctors. “Clinicians who go along with it are absolutely compromised,” says Newman.

Ihag experts continued to work in the system, but they never met as a group after Abbott’s victory in the federal election of September 2013. A long pattern of suddenly cancelled meetings ended with no meetings called at all. In mid-December the experts received letters thanking them for their service. They were dismissed. Alexander was now to be the sole adviser on medical matters to the renamed Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Scott Morrison, the new minister, issued a statement: “The large membership of the group made it increasingly challenging to provide balanced, consistent and timely advice in a fast-moving policy and operational environment.”

Young says: “That doesn’t wash at all. Ihag had consistently told the department things it didn’t want to hear and the department had pretty transparently sabotaged the operation of it for more than 12 months.”

The chiefs of peak medical bodies, including the AMA’s Dr Steve Hambleton, expressed shock at Ihag’s demise. Abbott condemned the generally negative reporting of the move as “a complete beatup by the ABC and some of the Fairfax papers”. The prime minister declared: “This was a committee which was not very effectual.”

The rising tide of data

Morrison had been in the job only a few months when he assured Australia that mental health problems among detainees were on the wane. In mid-December, Nine News reported: “Immigration minister Scott Morrison yesterday said diagnosed mental health problems among detainees in Australia had fallen from a peak of 12% in 2011 to the current rate of 3.4% as a result of greater resourcing.”

Young is scathing about Morrison’s figures. “That’s not a prevalence rate. It never has been. It’s a pale shadow of what the real prevalence rate is because of the way that data is derived.”

Young says Morrison was ignoring the figures revealed by regular screening and instead using a count of visits to GPs or psychiatrists where mental health problems were raised. “It doesn’t take into account people who may have a disorder who are not seeing either of those two categories of clinicians.”

Gathering better statistics was one of Young’s key ambitions in his time at IHMS. The department dragged its feet on his proposals to use new measures to screen mental health problems. “There seemed to be a fear that it would result in controversy or threaten the application of the policies of deterrence,” Young says.

But the chief psychiatrist finally got his way and the new measures were used for the first time in the first quarter of this year. Young presented these figures to the Royal College of Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists in May. They confirmed the long-established pattern: about a third of all those in detention had clinically significant problems – and the longer the detention, the worse the problems.

Half those who had been detained for 19 months or more were extremely or severely depressed; 40% were extremely or severely stressed; and 40% were extremely or severely anxious. The worst scores were gathered on Manus and Nauru. But the figures show a common pattern across the whole detention system.

A slide from a PowerPoint presentation by Peter Young
A slide from a PowerPoint presentation by Peter Young, provided to Guardian Australia by the Royal College of Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists

In a PowerPoint presentation provided to Guardian Australia by the college, Young concludes: “All show linear deterioration in mental health status over time in detention.”

Young’s staff were also collecting figures on the impact of detention on children. “Changing to instruments more appropriate for children has been something the department has dragged their feet on for quite a long time.”

Young shocked the Human Rights Commission inquiry last week by alleging the department refused to accept these Honosca (Health of the Nation Outcome Scales for Children and Adolescents) figures.

He told Guardian Australia: “This is not the only instance where data which has been seen as controversial or just difficult to understand has been buried.”

But Triggs requested the figures be given to her inquiry. They show across the mainland detention system a large number of children showing emotional distress or related symptoms. Young considered the figures a sign of serious problems that needed urgent consideration and action. Some of these children are those that IHMS doctors reported as showing issues of self-harm, regression, aggression, bed-wetting and despair.

Health of the Nation Outcome Scales for Children and Adolescents (Honosca) figures
The Health of the Nation Outcome Scales for Children and Adolescents figures

When Bowles was questioned at the inquiry, he did not deny his department issued instructions to IHMS to withdraw the figures but was at pains to suggest to the commission that they remained under consideration by the department. He said: “I have no doubt that most of this sort of reporting is mainstream.”

Giving evidence to Triggs’s inquiry was Young’s last assignment for IHMS. As his three years with the commercial providers drew to a close, he decided to make a professional and public assessment of the detention system once he was free to do so.

“As a medical practitioner your duty is always to your patients and the people you look after,” he says. “To them you have a broader moral and ethical responsibility. In this case you see harm being done and as the primary duty of a doctor is to do no harm, your duty is to speak out against that harm – to say that harm should not be done.”


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Filed under Asylum Policy, Detention Centers, Torturing and Health Issues

Tamil asylum seekers moved to Nauru

August 02, 2014

Cocos Islands airport
A group of Tamil asylum seekers board a plane at Cocos Island last week. The group were flown to Curtin detention centre in Western Australia and then flown to Nauru on Friday night. Photograph: Michael Safi for the Guardian

A group of 157 Tamil asylum seekers – at least 50 of whom are children – have been transferred to Nauru from the remote Curtin detention centre in Western Australia.

Scott Morrison, the immigration minister, confirmed to reporters from News Corp late on Friday night that a “secret overnight operation” was underway to remove the Tamils from Australia.

The Daily Telegraph reported, under the headline “G’Day Nauru: Tamil boat people say hello to their new home”, that the asylum seekers would be transferred in three plane loads.

One of the planes arrived at around noon on Saturday. Eyewitness sources told Guardian Australia that many of the Tamil men had rips in their shirts after they were forcibly put on the plane.”

“They were traumatised,” said a Nauru source.

Contractors are understood to have expressed concerns that there is not enough space to house them all on Nauru.

It is understood that the asylum seekers will be processed in the OPC1 camp – which does not hold families. It is likely they will then be moved to the family camp.

Morrison told the Australian newspaper that he made the decision to move the asylum seekers – who spent nearly a month on board a Customs vessel before being sent to Curtin – after they had all refused to meet Indian consular officials after advice from their lawyers. However, a lawyer working for the asylum seekers, George Newhouse, denied the Tamils’ legal team had advised them to boycott the Indian officials.

Newhouse told Guardian Australia he had not been informed of the decision to transfer his clients. “Our clients have been disappeared to Nauru,” he said.

Lawyers from the Human Rights Law Centre who are also assisting the group said the transfer was a deliberate move to prevent legal scrutiny and that they had been asked to prepare a defence to prevent the group being moved to Nauru just hours before it went ahead.

“Since last Sunday, we have been urgently seeking to speak to all 157 people to give them advice about the proposed visit by Indian officials and the Australian government’s plans for them,” said the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser.

“We were allowed to speak to only four of the 157 clients this week in telephone interviews of one hour or less.

“At around 4.30pm yesterday, the two clients we were able to speak to, asked us to examine legal options to prevent a possible transfer to Nauru or Manus Island. A few hours later, all 157 were secretly sent away.

“It highlights the government’s deception, secrecy and willingness to undermine the rule of law in Australia.”

Guardian Australia has also seen a letter sent to the Australian government solicitor by the asylum seekers’ legal team. It urges for a “cooperative approach” between the Indian high commission, the Australian government and the asylum seekers’ lawyers.

It requests access to the asylum seekers to inform them of the ongoing high court case and “any other matters relevant to any visit or interviews by Indian High Commission officials”.

“After our clients have received that advice we would hope to be able to engage in a cooperative approach concerning any interviews. It is of course imperative that agreement on these matters be reached prior to any interview process by Australian or Indian Government officials commence,” the letter states.

Morrison told the Australian: “Going back to India, where they are likely to have family and friends, is no longer an option for those who were living there. They passed up that option when they chose not to meet with Indian consular officials in Australia.”

The asylum seekers were brought ashore in the Australian territory of the Cocos Islands last Sunday, after spending nearly a month in locked, windowless rooms on an Australian Customs vessel. On Friday, Morrison registered the arrival in the monthly Operation Sovereign borders update – marking the first registered asylum seeker boat arrival in over six months.

Around 80% of them are reported to have shown signs of torture and trauma.

A number of asylum seekers detained in the family camp on Nauru have begun peaceful protests over conditions at the centre. Nauru sources said on Saturday that three Somali women had self-harmed on Friday night as part of the protests.

The asylum seekers departed Pondicherry in southern India on 11 June, meaning they spent a month and a half at sea. Morrison had tried to negotiate with Indian authorities to hand them straight back without landing the asylum seekers in Australia.

The decision to transfer the asylum seekers to Nauru comes just days after a damning evidence at the national inquiry into children in immigration detention where former centre workers described conditions in the detention centres on Nauru as entirely inappropriate for children.

Guardian Australia revealed on Saturday that just 50% of requests and complaints from asylum seekers on Nauru were resolved by detention centre staff, with approximately 12% of requests for clothing being granted.

Former Nauru detention centre worker Kirsty Diallo told the inquiry that one asylum seeker was so desperate for clothes for her daughter that she stitched her a dress from a mosquito net after managers consistently failed to provide her with clothes.


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Filed under Asylum Policy, PNG/Pacific Solution

Women and children among Hazara passengers singled out and executed in Ghor Afghanistan

July 25, 2014

At least 14 Hazaas, including 3 women and 1 child, passengers are singled out and executed by Taliban in Ghor, Afghanistan

At least 14 Hazaas, including 3 women and 1 child, passengers are singled out and executed by Taliban in Ghor, Afghanistan

At least 14 Hazaas, including 3 women and 1 child, passengers are singled out and executed by Taliban in Ghor, Afghanistan.

The 15 killed were separated by the armed men after their national ID cards were checked, Provincial Governor Sayed Anwar Rahmati told TOLOnews.

An adviser to the provincial governor was also among those killed, said Rahmati.

Local officials said the victims of the shootout belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority.

“Four of them were members of one family,” said Governor Rahmati. “A groom and his bride and the groom’s mother and sister were brutally killed.”

The three vans – two heading to the capital of Kabul and one on its way from Kabul to Cheghcheran – were randomly stopped at one point in the isolated Lal and Sarjungal district.

Ghor Police Chief Gen. Fahim Qayem said an investigation has begun to find out why selected passengers were killed.

However, the suspected Taliban insurgents, blamed for most of the civilian causalities, have not yet commented about the incident.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences to the victims families in a statement released by the Presidential Palace.

Karzai illustrated with strong words the condemnation of the inhuman killings of the innocent lives, calling it an unforgivable act against humanity and religious values.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed its concerns about a 24 percent increase of civilian casualties in 2014 in Afghanistan.

Ghor governor called on the central government to deploy additional security forces to his province amid an increase in insecurity there.


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