Tuesday, 21 September 2010

It's Not Just People Smugglers Who Exploit Refugees

a comment piece by Lyn Bender originally published by The Age

The tragic news of the recent suicide of a person detained in Villawood illustrates the big price that can be paid in human life because of our treatment of asylum seekers.

We accuse people smugglers as traffickers and profiteers in human misery, however, they are just the usual small fry victims who take the rap. With 4903 people in detention, 700 children and 21 centres, business is booming in the displaced people sector. At least $1 billion dollars a year is being spent to detain asylum seekers and the figure is bound to rise as boats keep appearing on the horizon, in response to wars, floods, drought, famine and human rights abuses. What a boost to Australia's GDP.

The Shire Council in the Town of Derby is hailing the proposed reopening of Curtin Detention Centre as an economic yippee for the town, 40 kilometres away from the centre. Especially as staff for the centre will live in the town and are expected to boost local business including that of nearby Weipa.

SBS World News has reported that in July 2010, West Wimmera Shire chief Jim McKay had appealed to the then immigration minister Chris Evans that an investment be made in a Wimmera processing centre rather than offshore. Mayor Ron Hawkins is reported to have said that this would boost the struggling town and bring much-needed jobs. His proposal was rejected.

This is all so yesteryear. In 2001 the Australian government agreed to pay $10 million to Nauru to detain 500 asylum seekers. Nauru with its depleted phosphate resources and poor economy needed the money.

The current government is considering setting up business in Timor — another vulnerable struggling state that the minority government under PM Julia Gillard figures could use the business. In a mutually beneficial deal Timor gets the money and we push untidy boat people offshore and look like we have found our own unique solution.

Again there is nothing new in all of this. According to recently released [2009] British cabinet Documents of 1979, Margaret Thatcher had considered buying an island with Australia in the Philippines or Indonesia to permanently settle Vietnamese refugees.

In 2002, when I was employed by the Woomera detention centre as a psychologist, I lived in the town of Woomera. The locals told me that the Reception and Processing Centre had made a difference in the town. The centre boosted jobs and consumption. The town did not welcome the prisoners but enjoyed the custom that emanated from the ongoing detention. The small hospital was not so happy that its beds were filled with people who were regularly rescued from suicide attempts and who had embarked on hunger strikes.

The local fireman, who was also the ambulance driver, found rescuing people from these attempts to be nerve wracking.

There is an abundance of research testimony and reportage from the period of the Pacific Solution that attests to the damage and trauma that detention inflicts on an already traumatised population. "A last resort?", the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Detention, was tabled in parliament on May 13, 2004.

But it is not just the trauma to the children we should be concerned about. Nor even the damage to families or the single men who embark on these absurdly dangerous voyages. They have a noble cause: a bid to save themselves and their families. Those who seek to profit from their plight can claim no such moral high ground.

The employees at the Detention Centres were poorly trained and frequently not emotionally equipped (who would be?) to manage the task of imprisoning traumatised people. They were inadequately supported in the job and subjected to abuse and violence. They became the bad guys inflicting often unintentional violence. I witnessed attempts to restrain hysterical detainees, that diminished the sense of the officers' self worth. Some became stressed and traumatised. Young nurses at Woomera questioned their own integrity in working at the centre, as did I. For that reason I felt compelled to speak out about the treatment of asylum seekers. And it seems here we go again. We all sustain moral wounds through any exploitation of the misery of the world's refugees: whether they are used to fire up electorates for votes, or simply are targeted to make us feel falsely secure in a massively changing world. Rather than harming and imprisoning the dispossessed, there is a better way all round.

We could reduce suffering and boost our economy by investing in infrastructure rather than prisons. We could feel more secure and gain self-respect and moral integrity by welcoming nurturing and integrating refugees within our communities.

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