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Debate continues on the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill, under which all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be sent to island detention centres like Nauru for processing.

A number of Coalition backbenchers remain opposed to the Bill, but Howard has said he will not make any further concessions and has begged his Party room members not to cross the floor.

But the original concerns of the Coalition dissenters have not shifted and the Bill looks likely to be decided by the votes of Senators Steve Fielding and Barnaby Joyce in the Senate next week. A negative vote from either could ensure it will not be passed.

Despite assurances that asylum seekers would be dealt with in a timely manner, five years after the original Pacific Solution was introduced, two Iraqi asylum seekers remain on Nauru. UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis:

We had a bad experience with the arrangement set in place in Nauru after the Tampa incident, which left many people in detention-like conditions for a long period of time with no timely solutions for the refugees, who suffered considerable mental hardship.

Some who returned from Nauru to their countries of origin have continued to communicate their despair and uncertainty to those of us who remain in contact. The recently released research from the Edmund Rice Centre confirms that people were indeed sent back from Nauru to difficult and dangerous circumstances and that some of these people were killed on their return to Afghanistan.

In the camp on Nauru, asylum seekers from the Tampa and other boats were told that their cases would never be re-assessed, that they would never reach Australia, and that they must leave Nauru. Anecdotal evidence tells of regular verbal pressure placed on asylum seekers to return to their place of origin. The following is from an information sheet handed out by the Department of Immigration at the time:

The Australian Government has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Nauru which states that all asylum seekers will be processed as quickly as possible and either resettled or returned within a reasonable timeframe. You may not stay in Nauru indefinitely and there is no chance of you going to Australia by staying here longer. We are all currently focusing on voluntary repatriation and encourage you to sign the IOM [International Organisation for Migration] voluntary return forms. Two million people have returned to Afghanistan in the last 12 months. There is a strong interest in return within the Iraqi group. The agreement with the Government of Nauru is that no asylum seekers will remain on Nauru. Your best interests are served by assisting IOM in identifying a solution to your individual circumstances. The Australian Government is exploring all options for return including involuntary return.

There can be no doubt that this information was intended to pressure people to return ‘home’ and it is particularly disturbing in light of the subsequent reassessments of those who stayed and whose decisions were overturned. Mistakes were uncovered in the decision-making processes of some cases, and it remains a strong possibility that a number of those who returned may not have been fairly or appropriately assessed.

Children at the Detention Centre in Nauru

One of the most worrying aspects of processing people in off-shore centres such as Nauru has always been the lack of specialist medical care available in a very poor and under-resourced country. Asylum seekers needing urgent specialist care have, in the past, been transported to Australia at great expense, and often with some reluctance. Only one scheduled flight currently flies out of Nauru each week.

On my two visits to Nauru this year I have been disturbed by the declining mental health of the two remaining men. I am not a mental health professional but it is obvious that these men need more care than they are currently receiving and most importantly, they need a durable resettlement solution as a matter of urgency. Five years is an unacceptable amount of time for Australia to still be working out what to do with someone’s life.

Since last year’s Palmer Report into the detention of Cornelia Rau there has been an increased, but still inadequate, focus on mental health care for asylum seekers in Australia. At a briefing with Immigration officials this week, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle was told that the facilities on Nauru may not be adequate for the mental health needs of all future asylum seekers, and that, if necessary, people ‘may have to be transferred to a third country [not necessarily Australia]to get treatment.’

The attempted suicide of a detainee in Baxter this week is a reminder of the vigilant care and attention that must be paid to the mental health of those held under Australia’s care. The person involved had previously been in the special stay unit in Glenside Psychiatric Hospital for treatment, but was recently returned to Baxter, against the treating doctor’s orders. The special stay unit at Glenside has since been closed.

If the mental health problems of detainees in Australia some of which are caused by the experience of detention cannot be adequately addressed and managed, then it is hard to see how a person in this condition could be given the care they need on Nauru.

With two men remaining in an unresolved situation on Nauru after five years, it is clear that Australia has not lived up to its agreement with Nauru to resettle people ‘within a reasonable timeframe.’ There is little reason to believe that the next five years will be significantly different.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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