Offshore Processing Gets A Psychological Rating


The Gillard Government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers was an opportunity to ensure that the processing of asylum claims is as just, timely and humane as possible, benefitting the vulnerable new citizens that we know most of these claimants will turn out to be.

The Australian Psychological Society submission, one of 300 made to the panel, recommended that the Government prioritise policies that protect human rights and minimise psychological harm. We called for "policies that provide refugees with viable alternatives to boarding boats in the first place would provide more durable solutions for asylum seekers and refugees in the region."

So has the panel’s report, and the Government’s response, achieved this aim?

Firstly, the APS welcomes the proposed increase in the refugee intake to at least 20,000 as the most significant component of the panel’s recommendations. Substantially increasing Australia’s refugee intake as a matter of urgency is a positive step that could help prevent vulnerable people boarding unsafe boats and ending up in a remote offshore location that has proved detrimental to the psychological health of detainees. From a mental health perspective, if refugees can access protection in a timely way in places like Indonesia, without resorting to putting their lives at risk or facing years in limbo, unnecessary trauma and distress will be avoided.

However, the proposal to return to offshore processing in centres in PNG and Nauru is particularly concerning.

For over a decade psychologists have advocated against the harmful impacts of immigration detention and expressed serious concerns that sending people for indefinite periods to off-shore locations risks exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, adding to their sense of fear and despair. There is no shortage of evidence about these adverse mental health effects, which can last well beyond the period of detention — especially for children.

The panel’s recognition of the need for the provision of "appropriate physical and mental health services" is a positive sign, and the APS particularly supports the provisions for asylum seekers in Nauru "who are determined to have special needs, or to be highly vulnerable…, to be transferred to Australia". However, given detention is in itself harmful, in may be that no mental health supports that are put in place can really be effective. Safe, ethical practice is necessarily compromised in an oppressive, psychologically unsafe, counterproductive environment.

Furthermore, the remoteness of offshore locations seriously restricts the access of mental health and other service providers, severely limiting:

• Recruitment of quality, experienced, culturally competent health professionals;

• Adequate support and supervision for workers in isolated circumstances (parallel to those of detainees and guards/staff, setting up a hothouse for institutional tensions); and

• Working conditions (including gags on advocacy or public comment).

Although it has been indicated that there will be some degree of "freedom of movement" planned for detainees once on Nauru, it is difficult to see how that will be maintained.

The APS also has concerns about the impact of the Expert Panel’s recommendations involving removing family reunion concessions to those who arrive by boat. This measure must be examined closely to ensure it serves the intended purpose. We don’t want to inadvertently create a system that encourages more whole families to risk their lives coming by boat, or where family reunification becomes nigh impossible. Psychological research has highlighted the importance of family to individual mental health and wellbeing, and has specifically identified that family support is a strong predictor of long term positive adjustment and resilience among refugees settling in a new country.

Asylum seekers are human beings in highly precarious physical and emotional situations, fleeing home, country and often family for safety. As a nation we have signed on to protect them. Within that is an obligation not just to provide food and shelter and access to asylum processes, we must also ensure we protect their mental health and take measures that will foster their wellbeing and emotional stability. We have sufficient evidence to know what will help people flourish; we now must act on that evidence for the good of all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.