Blaming instances of self-harm by refugees and asylum seekers on ‘refugee advocates’ or the undeserving asylum seekers is not a new political tactic. Back in 2001 then Minister Ruddock was interviewed by Four Corners about the problems of self-harm by asylum seekers in detention, especially in Curtain, Woomera and Port Hedland detention centres. Journalist Debbie Whitmont asked the Minister Philip Ruddock how he explained the number of cases of self-mutilation in Australian detention centres.
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I think there are a variety of explanations, and I think the principle explanation is that there are some people who do not accept the umpire’s decision, and believe that inappropriate behaviour will influence people like you and me, who have certain values, who have certain views about human rights, who do believe in the sanctity of life, and are concerned when people say, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to cut my wrists.”
DEBBIE WHITMONT: Are you saying they’re doing it to attract attention?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: I’m saying that there are some people who believe that they will influence decisions by behaving that way. …the difficult question for me is, “How do I respond?”
Because I think if I respond by saying, “All you’ve got to do is slit your wrist, “even if it’s a safety razor — ” — which is what happens in most cases — “..you’ll get what you want.”
DEBBIE WHITMONT: Do you accept that these people are showing a certain desperation?
PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, you say it’s desperation, I say that in many parts of the world, people believe that they get outcomes by behaving in that way.” (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/s344246.htm)
More recently in 2014 then Minister Morrison was quick to blame the Save the Children workers for self-harm incidents in Nauru:
“They are employed to do a job, not to be political activists. Making false claims, and worse allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests is unacceptable, whatever their political views or agendas,”
“The public don’t want to be played for mugs with allegations being used as some sort of political tactic in all of this.” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/scott-morrison-rejects-call-for-apology-to-save-the-children-staff-deported-from-nauru-20150323-1m5eao.html)
After the Moss report cleared the Save the Children workers in 2015, the Minister refused to apologise to workers who were forced to leave Nauru because of allegations, which he broadcast, but were later found to be without merit.
Then we have the self-immolation of two refugees from Nauru, and the response of the Minister:
“I have previously expressed my frustration and anger at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centres and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy,” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/scott-morrison-rejects-call-for-apology-to-save-the-children-staff-deported-from-nauru-20150323-1m5eao.html)
Many reports of psychiatrists and psychologists have confirmed that mandatory detention and temporary protection visas acerbate and may even be causative of post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). In a 2006 report, Dr Steel and Dr Silove and others noted in the British Journal of Psychiatry:
The present study suggests that both prolonged detention and temporary protection contribute substantially to the risk of ongoing depression, PTSD and mental health-related disability in refugees. The independent influence of these two risk factors remained robust after controlling for other variables previously identified as risk factors , including female gender, greater age, extent of past traumas, length of residency and family separation. (BRITISH JOURNAL OF P SYCHIATRY ( 2 0 0 6 ) , 1 8 8 , 5 8 – 6 4)
After the self-immolation of a refugee in Manus in April 2016, UNHCR was also been critical of such policies:
“There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful. There are approximately 2000 very vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. These people have already been through a great deal, many have fled war and persecution, some have already suffered trauma. Despite efforts by the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, arrangements in both countries have proved completely untenable.
The situation of these people has deteriorated progressively over time, as UNHCR has witnessed firsthand over numerous visits since the opening of the centres. The consensus among medical experts is that conditions of detention and offshore processing do immense damage to physical and mental health. UNHCR’s principal concern today is that these refugees and asylum-seekers are immediately moved to humane conditions with adequate support and services. (http://unhcr.org.au/news/unhcr-calls-immediate-movement-refugees-asylum-seekers-humane-conditions/)
How does the Government respond to such reports and criticism? It is ignored because to do otherwise means the people smugglers are back in business and people die at sea. This is the default mantra that is repeated, as if that trumps all sensible analysis and debate.
Maybe we should listen more to the health and international experts, and also to the refugees themselves. Our policies are stuck in the ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan and fail to look at the consequences of harsh and punitive policies. These policies are punishing people who are not just awaiting a decision on their case, but are found to be refugees and therefore legally entitled to international protection.
Before he set himself alight, the Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali reportedly said to those nearby:
“This is how tired we are,” “This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more.”
Kerry Murphy is solicitor specialising in immigration and refugee cases.