Monday’s Q&A gave a good insight into the philosophy and principles behind Australia’s Sovereign Borders Policy as described by one of its chief architects Jim Molan. Most telling was his argument that the means of maintaining tight border control and supposedly saving lives at sea justified the ends of indefinite cruelty, suffering and mental harm. He showed no empathy towards the suffering imposed by the policy he authored and did not have the courage to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the mental harm it produces resulting in mental illness, self-harm and suicide. It was clear that from the perspective of the Sovereign Borders that the continued punishment and suffering of the people in Nauru and Manus, as well as those in Australia with temporary protection visas is seen as a necessary part of the policy.
Also exposed in this discussion was the key role played by medical services and staff in supporting and maintaining offshore detention. It may be true as asserted by Mr Molan that there are well-equipped and relatively well staffed facilities in Manus and Nauru. However this is not the point and it is telling that the presence of these is so frequently raised by proponents of offshore processing to ward off criticism of health harms. Despite the strenuous efforts of the government to avoid independent scrutiny, prevent collection and reporting of health data, and criminalise whistle-blowing through the Border Force Act there is ample evidence that the health services provided are not able to operate independently and this results in the services failing to meet accepted standards for medical care. Particularly in regard to mental health, no level of service provision can overcome the deliberately contrived harmful conditions designed to drain hope and coerce asylum seekers to return to home countries.
Organisations providing these services and the individual clinicians are in an impossible situation of conflicted interest and must accept responsibility that their continued cooperation with the regime of offshore detention is contributing to suffering and harm. It is time that they recognized their ethical duty and refuse to provide services under these conditions. This is not a boycott, if withdrawal of services occurred it would be the consequence of the government’s refusal to allow independence and compliance with medical standards.
For the wider community, as citizens we must not look away from the harm we are causing to these people as Mr Molan has done. We need to look squarely at ourselves and accept that as a nation we have agreed that stopping asylum seeker arrivals by boat requires not just continued boat turnbacks but causing deliberate and continuing harm to this group of our fellow human beings.
Dr Peter Young is a Consultant Psychiatrist with experience of 20 years working in NSW Health. He took on the role responsible for oversight of mental health services to people in Australian and offshore detention centres. He held this position for three years from 2011 to 2014. Dr Young has given evidence to the Australian Human Rights Commission enquiry into children in detention and other public enquiries regarding mental health harms caused by detention.