Asylum seekers ‘traumatised’ by exercises

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Michael Gordon
ASYLUM seekers at a remote Cape York detention centre say they witnessed a simulated confrontation between a highly distressed man whose refugee claim had been rejected and immigration officials and security guards, less than five days before a young Hazara detainee committed suicide in March.

An Afghan interpreter play-acted the role of the agitated asylum seeker and was heard shouting ”I can’t go back” and ”I won’t go back” to immigration officials and guards before the asylum seekers at the Scherger detention centre were assured it was just a training exercise.

Asylum seekers have told refugee advocates Pamela Curr and Sister Brigid Arthur that several detainees became traumatised by the episode, with two of the men who watched it unfold weeping openly.
The claims highlight concerns about an escalation in self-harm, with five suicides in detention centres in seven months, and the adequacy of mental health care across the over-stretched detention network as the government moves to re-establish a detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday refused to confirm any intention to reopen the PNG centre, saying only that the government was talking with many parties about a regional solution to people smuggling.

But an announcement of a go-ahead for a PNG centre – and quite possibly another regional processing centre – could come as early as today.

Yesterday Papua New Guinea confirmed Australia had asked it to host a centre.

PNG Foreign Minister Don Polye said the Australian plan had been discussed at a special cabinet meeting yesterday.

He told the ABC that while it was just one of several sites being considered, ”Manus would be an ideal situation”. Mr Polye said his government would like to see a centre in PNG but needed more time to decide.

If the Gillard government is able to announce plans for a second processing centre in the region – with Malaysia considered a likely site – it would be able to deflect some of the criticism that it is reintroducing elements of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution that it condemned as inhumane and ineffective.

Mental health experts yesterday expressed dismay that any return to detaining asylum seekers indefinitely on a remote island in the Pacific was even being considered after being unequivocally rejected.

Louise Newman, the psychiatrist who chairs the government’s detention health advisory group, described any move towards reopening the PNG centre as a ”retrograde step”. ”We know from previous experience on Manus that it is very difficult to provide the sort of supports that are needed,” Professor Newman told The Saturday Age.

She has asked the Immigration Department to respond to the claims about the ”training” exercise at Scherger and a range of other assertions made by asylum seekers to Ms Curr and Sister Brigid, who spent five days at Scherger, 2400 kilometres north of Brisbane, last week.

”We’re seeing a lot of attempted suicides and self-harm, and if exercises like that are being conducted and frightening people you can assume that would feed into what we’re seeing – which is pretty much an outbreak across the centres of this sort of behaviour,” Professor Newman said.

A department official last night confirmed the training exercise, saying: ”Occasionally the department conducts routine contingency exercises as part of ensuring the operational readiness of detention centres.”

The official said an ”exercise of this type” had recently been conducted at Scherger, but stressed that detainees were given information about its purpose and any questions they had were answered.

Ms Curr and Sister Brigid spent five days at Scherger, which accommodates several hundred men mainly from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. They were alarmed at the mental state of the men and by some of the techniques asylum seekers say are being used by some psychologists.

Ms Curr said some whose asylum claims had been rejected were told to blow up a balloon until it burst in their faces, and then told their situation mirrored that of the balloon – that it was hopeless and they should return to their home country.

Others were told to put the names of those who had persecuted them in the balloon before blowing it up until it exploded and that this would help reduce their tension, she said.

Professor Newman said that, if the claims were accurate, the practices were unethical and potentially destructive.

The department official insisted that no treatment sessions targeted those whose claims had been rejected.

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