Refugee mental health crisis hits detention centres

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By Jay Fletcher

Kids out of Detention protest, April 2, 2011, Melbourne.
Kids out of Detention protest, April 2, 2011, Melbourne.

The suicide of Mohammed Asif Atay in Curtin detention centre on March 28 was “tragic news” to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “I’m sure all Australians hearing this news would feel very sorry,” she said on March 29.

He was the sixth known refugee to die in detention in the past seven months and one of hundreds of refugees suffering under the system of mandatory detention.

Refugee advocates told Green Left Weekly that self-harm happened daily at the Curtin detention centre.

Victoria Martin-Iverson from the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) in Perth said she was told there was a suicide attempt every day at the Christmas Island detention centre.

Since the horrific shipwreck off Christmas Island in December last year, which killed at least 40 refugees, conditions have grown worse.

So it is not exactly “news” to the federal government that the policy of locking up refugees for months and years is deadly.

Marcus Roberts, also from RRAN, told GLW: “Just over a month ago I said the Australian detention centres were on the cusp of a mental health crisis, and I think we are there now. It has happened.”

However, the government is only building more cells. Gillard recently said she was “determined” to keep mandatory detention because it was “the right thing” for Australia.

The government announced on April 5 that its next refugee detention centre would be in Tasmania, at a Pontville defence site 30 kilometres from Hobart.

Immigration minister Chris Bowen said it would “help relieve the strain on the system” of mandatory detention.

It is not surprising that more refugees are losing hope. The growing crisis for refugees in Australia reflects the ugly racism and fear that spurns their arrival and bid for asylum.

A Roy Morgan poll carried out in July last year said 64% of Australians “want asylum seekers arriving by boat returned”.

A poll in December following the Christmas Island shipwreck showed readers of the Murdoch press remained staunchly against a compassionate response to refugees.

Asked “Should Australia open the door to asylum seekers to prevent further tragedies”, more than 85% of 10,000 people said no, The Australian said on December 16.

However, Martin-Iverson believes the mood is changing.

“Asylum seekers are trying to break down the barriers, and make it clear that we are all the same.

“Refugees are people who want safety and security, who love their children and family and they are really fundamentally no different to us.

“But they have been through extraordinary events, and they are really just battling to find a place for themselves and their families in the world were they are safe.”

That is made “doubly difficult by putting them in these difficult conditions,” she said.

The most recent deaths, of two young Hazara refugees, were in remote and isolated detention centres.

It is a “humanitarian and psychiatric crisis”, Martin-Iverson said. “Serco guards have told us that there are suicide attempts [at Christmas Island] every day. The cleaners are cleaning up blood in the bathroom from people cutting themselves.

“That is the environment we are creating for people who weren’t like this before their detention.”

Roberts said the purpose of remote detention was to keep refugees out of the public eye and limit sympathy. “The reason they are kept so remote is that the government thinks we won’t go there.”

Roberts and Martin-Iverson are planning to visit the Curtin detention centre over the Easter weekend, along with at least 40 others, for the Curtin Convergence 2011.

The two-day bus trip to Derby in far-north Western Australia is a political and humanitarian response to the anti-refugee mood in Australia.

Roberts said they are determined to “show people in detention that Australian people do care, and care quite deeply, and wish to welcome them here to Australia”.

“RRAN’s purpose is to make contact with people in detention and bring their stories back to the Australian community.”

Martin-Iverson said: “It sends a message to the government: that no matter how far away they put these centres, we will go out and protest — in our cities and streets, but also at these centres.

“It sends a message to the asylum seekers that there are people in Australia that have sympathy for their terrible position and who oppose mandatory detention.

“It will give us a chance to connect with more than 500 men that we have been writing to and speaking with. They are not ‘detainees’ to us, they’re our friends.”

She said that among the passengers to the convergence will be ex-detainees who decided to come to “face their demons and show their compassion”.

“They know all too well exactly what those men are going through.”

Roberts also said it was an act of solidarity: “The real refugee activists are those locked up who have been protesting peacefully with hunger strikes and hanging banners from their rooms.”

The media can use words like “illegal” and “queue jumpers” and lie about what is happening. “But so little of the debate is about the lived reality of detention,” he said.

Protests will also be staged outside other detention centres. On April 25, Sydney activists will protest at Villawood detention centre and a rally will be held outside Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne.

Roberts said anyone who thinks mandatory detention is wrong must now take a stand. “The fight against the policy of mandatory detention will continue,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been active before, or never been involved in refugee rights. If you want to get involved, contact us and we will take you on the bus. There will be future convergences.”

[To contact RRAN email]

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