Sunday, 31 January 2010

"Factories For Producing Mental Illness"

It's been a while since we updated on Australia and the 'Indonesia Solution', so here it is over three parts.

Professor Patrick McGorry

One of the most interesting events recently was the fact that the 2010 'Australian of the Year' and eminent psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry condemned Australia's treatment of asylum seekers in his high profile acceptance speech the day before Australia Day (26 January), labelling them "factories for producing mental illness".

Pat McGorry, head of both the internationally renowned Orygen Research Centre in Melbourne and the federal government's network of Headspace youth mental health centres, was awarded the prize in recognition of his work on the mental health of young people. Having worked extensively with asylum seekers in the 1990s, he is also well versed in the evidence for the adverse effects of immigration detention has on the health and well-being of migrants.

Calling for the speeding up of the processing of asylum applications to be carried out more quickly and for them to be determined whilst the applicant was living within the community, not locked up on some island hundreds of miles away. Detention centres should be closed: "Detention centres were ... you could almost describe them as factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder ... and that's quite clear now with papers in The Lancet and other key journals describing the consequences of immigration detention. It's an absolute disaster that we must not repeat."

"Australia has already set the world back by creating a different model which we are trying to retreat from. And what we have been doing here until very recently, and even now . . . is actually adding to those mental health problems," he added.

Professor McGorry's stance was supported by other experts in the field in the following days, including Jon Jureidini, a psychiatrist who has more than 10 years' experience with refugees, who stated that there was no doubt that detention exacerbated mental disorders. As a minimum, Australia should drop its policy of holding asylum seekers in detention centres off the mainland. "We need to stop offshore processing. If we are going to have mandatory detention, it's essential that people are processed very quickly and people with health concerns need to be housed in the community."

Ironically, the same day Pat McGorry appeared to backtrack on what was obviously direct criticism of the current detention regime, as the government launched a justification of its policy, by claiming that his comments had not been an attack on the federal government's policy and had been taken "somewhat" out of context. "I was congratulating the present Government for digging us out of a very deep hole which we had got ourselves into through successive governments and I guess remote detention in detention centres in the desert was really what I was talking about."

Oceanic Viking

The last 16 Oceanic Viking Tamils left Indonesia on 20 January after New Zealand did an about-face and accepted 13 of them for resettlement, with the final 3 making it to their original preferred destination, Australia. The final destination totals were: 28 to the USA, 13 to Canada, 13 to New Zealand, 3 to Norway and 21 to Australia. However, 4 of the Australia-bound Tamils, one a woman with two children, failed to make it past ASIO security checks and remain on Christmas Island. They joined another man who had arrived by boat earlier last year and who had already been refused entry due to 'links with the Tamil Tigers', which is apparently not listed as a terrorist organisation by the Australian government. This leaves the 5 Tamils, and especially the children, in limbo waiting a third country deciding to accept them. There is also the possibility that some of them Australia may deport them back to Sri Lanka, despite the government claims that would not do so as the four had been deemed 'genuine' refugees.

Interestingly, the Australian government already knew that the 4 Oceanic Viking Tamils had been assessed by ASIO as being 'threats to national security' before they were transferred to Christmas Island, and appears to have been prompted by. The ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organization) checks have themselves come under scrutiny, with ex-ASIO officers claiming they are open to political influence and should not form the basis of Australia rejecting asylum applications. ASIO have also refused to reveal the 'evidence' that led to their security decision to ban the five. One suggestion is that 'interrogations' carried out by the Sri Lankan navy whilst they were still in Indonesian detention (Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention) may have led to the ban. Sri Lanka have also controversially renewed their calls on sigatories to the Convention to allow their access to intercepted refugees.

The fast-track deal itself continued to attract criticism, not least because Kevin Rudd appeared to have lied about the presence of 'terrorists' amongst the Oceanic Viking Tamils, as most asylum seekers in Indonesia wait four or five years before being resettled but the Oceanic Viking refugees were processed within two months. This has added to the problems over the Merak stand-off, especially as some of the Merak Tamils had family amongst the Oceanic Viking refugees, and on the day the last Oceanic Viking Tamils left Indonesia, the Indonesian government renewed their calls for Australia to help find a solution to the Merak stand-off.

Merak Tamils

The calls by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, amongst others, for Australia to be "part of the solution" to the impasse that is largely of Australia's creation as they requested the Indonesians intercept the Jaya Lestari on their behalf, have been rejected by the Australian government. "The disembarkation of the passengers on the Merak vessel is a matter for the Indonesian government to resolve," stated a Department on Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson, promising that they would be sending Australia's bizarrely titled Ambassador for People Smuggling, Peter Woolcott, to Indonesia soon. However, 3 weeks after the visit was first announced, he has yet to arrive.

Meanwhile, the Tamil refugees who have now been on board the Jaya Lestari for four months in total, with all but 2 weeks of that in Merak Harbour in West Java, have more or less slipped off the radar. The health situation of some of those on board deteriorated with one facing the loss of his leg and another the possibility of giving birth amongst the 240 other Tamils on board the crowded leaky wooden hulk. Three refugee advocates, 2 Australians and a Canadian who were in Indonesia to meet Indonesian officials and arrange humanitarian supplies for the Tamils, were arrested on 26 January near the Jaya Lestari and questioned for 11 hours. The Indonesians claimed that they entered an exclusion zone around the boat in contavention of their visa conditions and conficated their passports.

They were eventually deported after 3 days without charge and banned from returning for six months. They denied entering the exclusion zone around the boat and claimed that Indonesian police tried to intimidate them by alleging that one of the women, Saradha Nathan, was married to a known people smuggler (she merely shared the same surname). Ms Nathan claimed that the Indonesian were trying to send a message to humanitarian workers not to go there to try and help the Merak Tamils and that she thought "Indonesia is trying to give a message to the Australian government by harassing Australian citizens." The second Australian Pamela Curr agreed, saying: "The senior department of foreign affairs official was quoted in the BBC as saying this is the last time we will do this for Australia - they also said exactly the same thing to us in a private meeting on Friday morning."

Coming soon: Part 2 - Christmas Island hunger strike / Abbott 'plays the race card' & more.

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