Last week, the Afghan Hazara asylum seekers protesting on the roof of Darwin detention centre told New Matilda by email that that their protest against long delays had been "finished forcibly". The protesters, aged 22 to 50 years old, included hunger strikers and some were self-harming. Some of the protesters were receiving specialist torture and trauma counselling. They were concerned about being moved away from Darwin and the effect their protest would have on their refugee claims, or, in the case of those whose refugee claims had been approved, their security assessments.
On Wednesday three of these protesters were forcibly moved to Christmas Island.
Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has received worrying reports from the island. "We don’t have a lot of information, but what we do know is that these men were receiving specialist torture counselling and they have now been put in a plane and taken to Red Block in Christmas Island, which is the high security isolation block," she told New Matilda.
When Curr visited Christmas Island in August 2009, she was told that the Red Block "would never be used". Now, shockingly, she says, "it is being used not only for people who have been deemed to breach the rules of detention but for those who are mentally unwell".
In an email to refugee advocates, Curr wrote, "I have met one of the men. He bears scars on his face and neck from attacks and beating by the Taliban but of course he was found not to be a refugee".
"What is happening on Christmas Island is beyond the boundaries of anything that has happened before," Curr told New Matilda.
"There is no management regime, no principles relating to detention and isolation, no transparency — nobody knows how long people can be locked up for or their conditions of detention."
There are also no systems in place to protect the mental health of the refugees on the island. There is no psychiatrist and Curr fears that the mental health of already severely traumatised Afghani refugees and asylum seekers will be further threatened.
The Australian this week reported on changes to the Red Block:
"Serco recently converted the centre’s feared isolation cells, called Red Block, into a full-time behaviour management unit where asylum-seekers who are violent or try to kill themselves are held and observed, including in the shower, where a camera is fixed to the wall.
"They are sometimes fitted with soft helmets and handcuffs to stop them cracking their heads against the floor or walls or harming themselves in other ways."
Signs of mental distress are common in detained asylum seekers and detention provides a re-traumatising environment. "The fact is that detention makes people sick, it destroys the spirit and destroys the fabric of Australia through fear," says Curr.
She believes that "this is particularly the case for long term, indefinite, arbitrary detention, which is what we have in Australia".
"Many people in Darwin Detention Centre are not just asylum seekers, they are now genuine refugees as determined by the Australian government and they are just waiting on health and security checks. They sit and languish for up to 18 months for ASIO to make a determination," says Curr.
Article 1FA of the Refugee Convention is a safeguard provision under which those who have committed a crime against peace, a war crime or a crime against humanity cannot claim refugee status. "This is inherent in Australia’s refugee process," notes Curr. That is, there are already checks in place to weed out those not deserving of refugee status or who may be a security threat. The ASIO checks may be necessary but they are an additional and cumbersome extra level of bureaucracy.
In 2001, after 9/11, then immigration minister Philip Ruddock introduced new security laws in relation to asylum seekers. According to Curr, this extra security assessment is "problematic". In Darwin detention centre, she says "there are now 37 people, who have been found to be refugees and therefore cannot be returned to their country of origin, but who ASIO has decided are a security threat".
These genuine refugees cannot be released from detention and have been "condemned to a life of long-term, indefinite detention in Australia," says Curr.
It is mainly the Sri Lankan Tamil caseload that is having trouble acquiring security clearances, some as a result of their links to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The LTTE is deemed a terrorist organisation by the Australian government and any person who has any links to such an organisation is deemed a security threat.
However, Curr says that "there is no acknowledgement that many Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka at the time were forced to support the LTTE". Many Sri Lankan refugees supported the LTTE under duress in an effort to save their own life and the lives of their family.
Curr notes that, "the security assessments are being done on a very broad basis" and told New Matilda of a young mother, who has been determined to be a genuine refugee but is still in detention with her baby on the grounds of her relationship with the LTTE. As a result of the persecution she faced in her country of origin, this woman and her child are destined for a life of uncertainty in Australia, under present ASIO security guidelines.
Asylum seekers who have been interviewed by ASIO were told that they were not allowed to discuss the content of their interviews. Some sought legal advice on this issue and it has been found that many of the "interviews had nothing to do with what happened in the country of origin," says Curr.
ASIO was allegedly asking questions about how the refugees arrived in Australia and about people smugglers. Curr asks, "How relevant is this? Isn’t ASIO supposed to investigate the security threat of the person not the way they arrived to Australia?"
These were the conditions that the Afghan Hazaras were protesting in Darwin last week. And for this, now vulnerable people are being held in high-security isolation until further notice. "These people in long term detention who are clearly mentally ill must be released from detention," says Curr.
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