This is what Australia is doing to refugees in its care

The reality of life in Australia for asylum seekers is too rarely heard.

So when Perth-based refugee activist Victoria Martin-Iverson wrote to me yesterday with the story below I asked if I could publish it here exclusively. This is the reality of privatised refugees, mostly ignored in a country that doesn’t seem too interested in the human rights of those it fears.

Our job is to humanise everybody:

As a long time refugee advocate and visitor to the concentration camps where asylum seekers are warehoused, I regularly struggle with the tension between disclosure, and protecting peoples privacy. After all, one of my criticisms of the government is the way they use asylum seekers & their suffering as a method of deterrence. I do not want to be guilty of the same offence and use someone’s suffering for my political agenda, however honourable my intentions. Yet it is clear that if all I am doing is bearing witness, or comforting an individual, then I am missing the opportunity to involve others and explain the human cost of the regimen people endure, the arbitrariness of decisions, the incompetency of [British multinational] Serco, the regular petty indignities of a system that is indifferent to even extremes of suffering. But there are times when something so dramatic occurs that I feel I must try to disclose some element of a situation, while at the same time respecting the dignity of the people whose lives are damaged by their experience in immigration detention.

I was presented with just such a circumstance last week. We have made a great many links at the refugee Rights Action Network, and asylum seekers as well as concerned Serco officers will let us know about events in the centres.

On Friday morning I received a frantic call that yet another tormented soul had harmed himself up at Curtin detention centre and had to be rushed to hospital. Self harm is a near daily occurrence up at Curtin. As rising levels of despair infect the entire community, people resort to cutting or burning themselves, hunger striking, medication overdoses, attempted hangings. These are regular and now unremarkable events. They are also predictable. A study done a few year’s ago by O’Neil et al found a direct relationship between time in detention, mental disorders, suicide attempts and self harm. The suicide rate for detainees over the last 15 years is ten times that of the general population. So initially the news that yet another person had injured themselves and required medical treatment was nothing that stuck me as particularly extraordinary. I indicated I would attend hospital to see if I could visit and ensure there was a friendly face and a kind word for what I assumed would be a distressed and fragile person.

I successfully blustered my way into the ward he was on, having filled in the appropriate paperwork before leaving home. He lay heavily sedated, battered and clearly injured in his hospital bed.

I learned that this man had spent the early part of that morning forlornly calling out one of the few English words he knew, “help, help, help.”

He lay shaking & bleeding in his bed with 3 Serco officers looming over him. I asked one to get another blanket for him. “No English” he whispered to me, and I told him that is ok & gently took his hand so he could feel some human contact and comfort. I do not know the details of this Hazara man’s story or what he may have endured in his country of origin. I only know the tell tale signs of previous attempts at self harm marking his arms, and the dull glaze of hopelessness in his eyes that even heavy sedation could not mask. I know that whatever else may have happened to him he has been poorly served by a capricious and arbitrary detention system that has used him and his imprisonment to try and discourage others from attempting the voyage, and worse. A system that is dismissive of his suffering because that is what it takes to win government.

As I sat holding his hand I struggled with my own emotions. My God, how damaged are we making people in our remote detention centers? ? I learned that this person had become so very despondent and mentally unwell and had made several attempts on his life and thus had ended up in a management cell. If his case is anything like the countless others I hear about regularly, the actual level of compassion and support was minimal, the security maximal. Self harm and suicide attempts result in serious fines for Serco. I wonder what sort of treatment or care he received in the time he was in the “management cell”? Whatever they did or didn’t do his mental health deteriorated and he ended up resorting to one of the most tragic acts of despair I can imagine.

In an attempt to take his life this man ran across the room and threw himself through a plate glass window. We need to know what we are doing to people in these mental illness factories we call detention centres that drives them to increasingly extreme acts of despair. This man’s despondency is an indictment of a morally bankrupt government and a polity that is devoid of compassion. We need to begin to change the public discourse around this issue and connect with the human costs.

But all I could do was hold his hand.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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