Could the Bad Old Days of Mandatory Detention Come Back?

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For many Australians, the mistakes and brutality of the mandatory detention policy under the Howard government first became apparent when the stories of Australian residents Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez were made public. Unfortunately these were just two cases among many.

A new book, Human Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia, collects over 200 personal accounts of life in detention telling a story of suicide attempts, lack of medical care, depression, anxiety, humiliation, separation, longing and the systematic removal of dignity.

What emerges is a truly astonishing narrative of neglect and abuse.

The Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work (ACHSSW) convened a People’s Inquiry into Detention in 2005. Human Rights Overboard is one result of this citizen-led inquiry into immigration detention.

Over three years, the inquiry heard the voices of asylum seekers, advocates against mandatory detention and many concerned Australian citizens.

The government’s own Palmer Inquiry into the Rau case, also being conducted in 2005, was deliberately limited and superficial, and many ordinary Australians felt an obligation to act. The ACHSSW conducted the People’s Inquiry with very little money, a lot of good will and a many volunteers. Most were giving time on top of their day jobs.

"We were so passionate about this," recalls one of the book’s authors, Professor Linda Briskman. "We were so committed. We wanted to bring about policy change — which was pretty hard to do, particularly in the Howard years — and we wanted the stories of this era placed on the public record for ever and a day."

Ten public hearings were held in metropolitan and rural areas all over Australia. "We received written submissions and we also went to some documentary evidence: parliamentary evidence, court cases, media reports and so forth. From those 10 public hearings a lot of the most compelling information appears in the book. It’s some of that most direct testimony which is absolutely harrowing and really shows the brutality of the system.

"We heard direct testimony from 200 people, and around a third of those were people who had actually been in detention. Others were advocates and activists, professional groups, people who’d worked within the detention system in one capacity or another, health professionals and so forth."

"We were just open," says Linda Briskman about the process of the inquiry. "Anybody who knew about detention and had something to say about detention was welcome to come and present to us at the public hearings. And people did. When we first announced the inquiry and there was a report in The Age newspaper, we were just overwhelmed. People came forward, they wanted to help, they offered to help with the hearings, they offered to sit on panels, they said they had information that they didn’t know what to do with and they wanted to speak about it, that they wanted to submit. It just grew and grew and grew. It took a few years to actually run its course."

Writer and activist Arnold Zable was one of the many who spoke. He reflects upon demonstrating outside Maribyrnong Detention Centre, "I was there for one simple reason. I am alive today because my mother was a ‘queue jumper’. As I know from my mother’s story, when it is time to run, there is no queue. Asylum seekers do what many of us would do if faced with a similar fate."

A refugee advocate who was involved with 60 refugees on TPVs told the inquiry, "One man’s wife died of cancer, leaving four children. Another man’s nine-year-old son was found beaten to death in Afghanistan. He and his wife desperately need to grieve together. He had been in detention three-and-a-half years and is on a TPV with over two years to wait after his son’s death. In these and other cases we asked our federal Member of Parliament to ask Senator Vanstone for an urgent permanent visa but they were all refused."

A father in detention told the inquiry, "I can’t control my son. He tried to hang himself. My son drank shampoo two times. He drank bleach two times. He was brought by ambulance to Woomera Hospital."

Unless people asked for a private hearing, the inquiry was public and open to the media. A few who were in Australia on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) did ask for that right. Most, however, wanted their stories heard as widely as possible. "There was a lot of pain and people expressed that as they spoke," says Briskman. "The people on the panels felt that pain too, as it was very, very distressing to hear these accounts. But what people told us was that speaking, having their stories validated, being heard, being listened to, being confirmed was part of the healing process. And some people initially, understandably, were reluctant to come forward, especially people who were still waiting for their claim’s determination, but more and more came forward. They heard other people [and]they wanted to put their stories out there."

The nature of mandatory detention under the current Government has changed significantly, including changes to keep children out of detention, and to impose shorter detention periods aimed at protecting the community, rather than as a supposed deterrent to would-be asylum seekers.

But, as some commentators have noticed, there is a reluctance on the part of the current Government to emphasise or explain this change. It forces us to ask whether they really have the political will to confront the realities of Australia’s mandatory detention history through a proper inquiry, and help prevent it’s ever happening again. Meanwhile, the Rudd Government still seeks financial compensation from former detainees and is currently chasing debts worth almost $8 million.

In Federal Parliament on Wednesday 3 September 2008, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, "In light of the publication of a new book, Human Rights Overboard, detailing the horrific stories of children in detention and the ongoing long term psychological effects that this has had on children and their families […] will the Minister confirm that the Government will look into establishing a Royal Commission looking into the effects that Australia’s immigration policy has had on refugees?"

Senator Evans thanked Senator Hanson-Young for her question and acknowledged there were calls for a Royal Commission into immigration detention.

He went on to say, "The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has reviewed its detention processes, introduced wide-ranging reforms and implemented changes that have vastly improved its performance in these areas. There is increased departmental representation and oversight of detention facilities, vastly improved detention health services — which were a real weakness — and new forms of detention accommodation, and there is a new service delivery model. But I understand the concern that exists about whether these changes go far enough."

When asked about change in the Rudd Government’s policy, Linda Briskman answered, "We’ve had a few conversations with government. We put out our first, very small report, which we self-published at the end of 2006 and the Immigration Department contacted us at that time for a meeting. Since then there’s been very little contact with the immigration authorities. We’ve certainly sent a submission to the Government.

"The Government is running an inquiry now into immigration detention. We sent our book to the Minister’s office. We’re trying to have conversations but it hasn’t been that successful to date. We hope that will happen.

"There have been some changes with the Labor Government, but there are still many unanswered questions. Mandatory detention is still here to stay, there’s still a very strong plank of border protection. The Christmas Island facility is still there waiting and empty. We want more detail about policy and how it will play out in the future."

The oral testimonies are important and anyone reading them is affected. "We’ve got to have that belief that we could influence policy," says Professor Briskman. "That kept us going. It was very, very hard to influence policy and not only from our endeavour. There were many, many activists, there were many refugee and asylum seeker support groups trying their damndest to bring about change.

"One person who testified to the inquiry said to us "Whatever we do, however hard we try nothing seems to change, it would be so easy for the Government to change their policies but they won’t or don’t."

"We have some very clear recommendations in our report for the Government which we hope will be taken on board. Broadly, they’re about removing racism from the system, restoring rights and bringing about greater accountability. But I think the strength is not only in trying to effect policy change, but having these stories on the public record so they are not forgotten. Never again."

John Howard famously said, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." Let’s hope his voice fades and those in Human Rights Overboard are not only heard but remembered, and acted upon.


Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia
, by Linda Briskman, Susie Latham and Chris Goddard, with a foreword by Julian Burnside, is published by Scribe.

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