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A reply from an advocate to Peter Dutton about self-harm



My first thought on seeing the video of Omid setting himself on fire was that he didn't have a support person. If he did, they would have talked him through his suicidal thoughts in the night or the morning and he would have settled down.

Peter Dutton's face in shadowAs an advocate for refugees, I talk to those on Manus at all times of the day and night and make sure they are okay.

Of course, they are not okay, but so far all of my friends are still alive.

We, the advocates, keep their spirits up by sending them clothes, games and keeping their phones paid-for so they can talk to their families. We keep them informed about what is going on in Australia. We do not encourage them to hurt themselves in order to get attention or put pressure on the government. We do everything possible to stop them from hurting themselves or attempting suicide.

After Omid's death, more than one had copycat thoughts. This was an intense time for those of us who listen and care for these people.

The asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru can talk to the paid staff of the detention centres, who may try to stop them from self-harming.

However, many of the paid medical staff also try to get them to go back to the country they came from, even though they have a well-founded fear of persecution there. If they did not have such a fear, they would have left by now. The conditions on Manus and Nauru are subhuman and they are being treated with deliberate, organised cruelty.

On Manus I regularly hear of inmates being beaten by guards for offences such as having a mobile phone. The guards who beat the inmates are not charged for these crimes. The guards who raped women and children on Nauru have not been charged either.


"One of my friends says that he is finding it increasingly difficult to see his friends' blood every day, after they have cut themselves."


Of the six people identified in the murder of Reza Barati, two were white Anglo-Saxon guards — an Australian and a New Zealander. They have been repatriated to Australia, and not charged.

The refugees are living in a fearful and dangerous place, and the consistent message from the Australian government is that they have no hope. It is the message of hopelessness that causes self-harm and suicide.

Their medical conditions are untreated, many have skin diseases and injuries from falling over while wearing thongs on slippery wet ground, and they live with chronic pain. A large proportion take psychiatric medication every day, which also limits their ability to think.

They are constantly retraumatised. One of my friends says that he is finding it increasingly difficult to see his friends' blood every day, after they have cut themselves.

We, the advocates, believe that hope is not lost. We believe in the rule of law, in human rights, and in the innate dignity of others. We don't believe that it is defensible to mistreat a group of people so as to stop others from seeking asylum. We don't believe it is defensible to treat a group of people as tools in a war of politics. These people need protection, dignity and opportunity, not punishment.

It will soon fall to the Australian government to relocate the refugees from Manus and Nauru, and I and other advocates look forward to welcoming them to Australia. Australia cannot go knocking on doors, seeking to offload human cargo on other countries. This is infra dig — beneath the dignity of a developed country with an elected government. We have room, and in arriving by boat the asylum seekers have committed no crime.


Peter Dutton, 3 May 2016:

I have previously expressed my frustration and anger at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centres and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way believing that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures. The behaviours have intensified in recent times and as we see they have now turned to extreme acts with terrible consequences.

Advocates who proclaim to represent and support the interests of refugees and asylum seekers must frankly hear a very clear message and I will repeat it again today. Their activities and these behaviours must end. They can oppose government policy and espouse a cause for open borders but that is not the policy of this government and no action of advocates or those in regional processing countries take will cause the government to deviate from its course.


Di CousensDi Cousens is an honorary fellow with the Australian Catholic University, a university administrator at RMIT and former vice-chair of the Buddhist Council of Victoria. After meeting refugees in detention in Australia she became friends with detainees on Manus Island through social media. For over a year she have been engaged in supporting them in various ways, mostly through daily conversations.

Peter Dutton image: Alex Ellinghausen

Topic tags: Di Cousens, asylum seekers, refugees, Peter Dutton, Omid



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Existing comments

I've never been so ashamed to be an Australian, because of the cruel treatment of those who come to this country seeking asylum. However I am proud that we have people like you, Di, supporting desperate asylum seekers struggling to stay alive on the overseas hell holes created and sustained by successive Australian Governments. I've been advocating for the closure of these offshore hell holes and the settlement in Australia of those there who are found to be refugees, which I believe is most of them. I appeal to readers to engage in, or step up, your advocacy campaigns so that this once humane nation can again hold its head high. Our national psyche is suffering badly from the wounds inflicted on it by John Howard with the Tampa and 'children overboard' issues and the continuance of the dehumanising and degrading treatment of innocent desperate people fleeing to our country for protection. The Australian Greens have humane immigration policies, which is more than I can say for the Government and the Opposition. As for Peter Dutton, I think his name will go down in history for infamy, not for fame, when this sorry chapter in Australia's history is finally written.

Grant Allen | 06 May 2016  

I think Walleed Aly’s comments on the following linked article show how both sides of politics have been responsible for this dark chapter in Australia’s history - a still ongoing saga relating to our brutal treatment of asylum seekers and the destruction of our once excellent international reputation: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/the-monstrous-failure-of-our-bipartisan-asylum-seeker-policy-20160427-gogrhn.html

Grant Allen | 06 May 2016  

Why is deterrence by offloading unauthorised arrivals claiming to be asylum seekers to offshore detention immoral but deterrence by offloading operations to Indonesian soil to block smugglers not? In both cases, people are left in limbo so as to deter others. One group is stranded in Australian-initiated detention while the other is stranded in Indonesia or in locations prior thereto. At least, the ones in detention know where their next meal is coming from and if they could be treated with the same duty of care as is applied to Australian prisoners, they'd be better off than those hanging around in Asian countries who punted that a boat would be available and lost. Until Peter Dutton's claim, that without deterrence the borders are open, is rebutted, a deterrence that holds some people in limbo, whether here or outside, is necessary. As for the claim that most unauthorised arrivals are found to be genuine asylum seekers, I'm not sure why asylum advocates believe that a government that cannot be trusted to be honest about detention should be trusted to be honest about asylum verification. Is it that easy to verify a claim? It couldn't be to keep the detention situation manageable?

Roy Chen Yee | 06 May 2016  

Roy Chen Yee, it used to be that in australian public schools, every morning several boys would be picked out of line for some minor disdemeanour (e.g. shuffling their feet) and sent to the office where they were caned. You could hear the swish of the cane and sometimes the cry of a boy throughout the school. The aim was to give a clear message to all other children that they should take care to behave themselves. Perhaps it is an old Australian custom, this business of punishing the few to give a warning to the many. It is a cruel custom. There must be some other way. In schools we have stopped caning children. Perhaps we can stop being cruel to asylum seekers, also.

Janet | 09 May 2016  

Thank you Di Cousens for shining some light on the cruel, inhumane conditions Minister Dutton imposes on innocent people.

Roger Grealy | 09 May 2016  

A perfect reply from someone whose compassion and sincerity should, should make the jailers and demagogic politicians so ashamed. Surely not just the ethical correctness but the obvious beauty of the position taken by refugee advocates must prevail over the wrongness and the ugliness of the current policies. Thank you Di and ES for this encouraging note.

tony | 09 May 2016  

A middle aged man works in a soul destroying job, earning little more than he would earn on benefit program . He struggles to pay rent and energy costs . The running of a car to get to work stretches him to the limit. He cannot afford meat and his diet is markedly unbalanced and inadequate. A homeless girl sleeps in a sleeping bag in a city street, with a dog for company and security. A refugee languishes in a detention center , hopelessly suicidal . These are the people I see and hear about each day. These are the people being supported by refugee advocates, by charitable and church agencies, or they are simply doing it alone and tempted to find solace in dubious practices. A budget is brought down by a politician who has never known any of these people. A budget that is aimed to pander to small business people ,to those who can afford to invest in two houses etc. a budget to cajole voters into voting to retain people whose only interests seem to be the preservation of personal power. Keep Australia safe, eliminate terrorists,spend billions on defence, preserve the status quo. These are some of the messages that are currently the "opium of the people". . What can we do? Well Let's protest, write , "rage into the night", be a Dan Berrigan, live honest lives And maybe likeDi Cousens foster a connection with someone struggling . Maybe thiscould just be a small beacon of hope in their daily darkness. Maybe it could save one life while we wait for enlightened leadership and an Australian (or world) order that cares for the poor , marginalized and vulnerable

Celia | 09 May 2016  

Thank you Di for the work you do. I feel powerless as an Australian when I hear about the Government and Opposition responses to the people who have sought safety in Australia. It seems to be maintaining the line of a campaign to hold onto fearful voters by keeping them fearful, uninformed or misinformed. It is not logical when it is examined and the predicament of those in detention is 'worse than in our prisons'.There is one party who is interested in helping refugees ( I am not a member of that party). Maybe if they got into parliament things would be a lot untidy, but what a great fertile, innovative time it might be for Australia instead of more of the same! I believe that a government that is prepared to treat people cruelly and put aside the human rights of others would also treat me or any other person cruelly if it suited their political stance to do so. I am afraid not only for the asylum seekers and for their families but for each Australian. Let's not become inward looking prisoners, but a people of compassion and real innovation!

Kerry Holland | 09 May 2016  

I admire what you are doing....keep it up.

Pat sheahan | 09 May 2016  

A day or two after the Minister for (Immigration and) Border Protection made the statement quoted above, I read a footer on ABC News24, "Immigration to pay compensation to Save the Children Fund workers removed from Nauru." The SCF workers were removed after being falsely accused of encouraging self harm by asylum seekers. Clearly, the Immigration Department knows it was wrong to accuse them in the first place. Apparently it's expecting too much to think Peter Dutton would now back off from making such unsustainable accusations.

Ian Fraser | 09 May 2016  

Thank you, Di Cousens, for casting light on this issue from your personal experience. The callous reaction by the Minister and others to the most recent tragic events is distressing. Mr Dutton's attempt to blame advocates rather than accept that the conditions in detention camps are driving people to commit acts of desperation is reminiscent of his predecessor (Scott Morrison) accusing Save the Children staff of coaching detainees to self-harm. That accusation has just been found, by an independent inquiry, to be false but Mr Morrison is unapologetic. I, like many others feel appalled and ashamed of our Government's behaviour but don't think Peter Dutton and most of his colleagues can be shamed. Rather, I hope enough citizens feel outraged enough to make their voices heard. Surely there is a limit to our tolerance of cruel policies and denial of humanity to 'Others'. Perhaps we can be inspired by words of the recently deceased Father Daniel Berrigan whose opposition to the war in Vietnam was partly motivated by a Buddhist monk's self-immolation: 'How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened . . . at what point, will you say no ...?'

Myrna | 09 May 2016  

Thank you Di, your words ring out- as a tolling bell. This is a blatant crime against humanity. Intolerable for innocent victims of war, against human rights laws and declarations and repulsive to decent people world wide.There is an election, as Australians we make either closure of Manus and Nauru camps a priority, or sink lower into our own murky demise.

Catherine | 09 May 2016  

Most if not all of the asylum seekers knew the rules before they set off on the journey to Australia. Most have by-passed many countries where the same rules do not apply on the journey. Most know of the established agencies through which they could have sought shelter from harm if that was indeed what they were doing but chose not to. WHY? Why are we the Australian people responsible for the decisions these people have made of their own volition. Why are we responsible for the hardship they have chosen to inflict on their innocent children? Please explain.

john frawley | 09 May 2016  

What did European refugees do after WW2 John?

catherine | 09 May 2016  

John, if what Di has written and the many who have responded to her have also written has not answered your question, nothing will.

Tom | 09 May 2016  

John Frawley, you appear still hoodwinked by the lie of 'children overboard' and of "queues". Of course fleeing to Australia is their choice not ours but your apparent inability to think you might do the same if you were in fear of your life, and your apparent contentment that other humans suffer at our hands, diminishes you. We may all feel some apprehension about resources, but it is hardly the refugees' fault. Please listen to your better angels.

Stephen K | 09 May 2016  

Shame Australia Shame. Its time we learned from the hideous injustice that's meted out to our indigenous population. The destruction of their communities is still going on and now lo and behold we have found a new target, the refugees. Its time to stop the harm and support those in need, otherwise the word civilised is nothing but a curse. Congratulations to the advocates who stand up for true justice and dignity, for those who really need it

Andrea | 09 May 2016  

Janet, you're conflating two unrelated issues, cruelty within detention (which is not defensible) and detention without cruelty for the purpose of deterrence (which is). Those who believe there should not be any deterrence whatsoever should simply be honest enough to say that Australia should create an asylum seeker visa in which anyone from home anywhere in the world can apply to be admitted into the country for the purpose of lodging a claim for asylum at an Immigration Department counter. The fact that no asylum seeker advocate is proposing such a visa shows that every asylum seeker advocate believes that some deterrence is necessary, and the 'deterrence' s/he is relying on (without saying so) are those hazards that make travel arduous or fatal. Dutton is explicitly expecting walls and fences to keep the numbers of arrivals down; asylum seeker advocates are implicitly expecting the claws and jaws of nature to do the same. And whom are we deterring? Not someone from the countries directly adjoining ours such as Indonesia, Timor Leste, PNG, etc. but those who bypass countries along the route to Australia where protection claims could have been lodged ... as per the letter of international refugee laws.

Roy Chen Yee | 09 May 2016  

Stephen K. The things I don't understand, Stephen, are those actions that fly in the face of true flight from persecution, Why for instance would a Sri Lankan Tamil risk his family at sea on a long dangerous voyage for a fee, when he could travel 80 kms to a Tamil state - or a little further to India? Why would anyone live for a number of years in another country and then pay a smuggler for a trip to Australia? Where would the genuine refugee fleeing from an imminent threat to his life find the money to do that? Does the desire for a better life style mean that unlike everyone else in the world some individuals can defy the conventions of entry into foreign countries?. There are many genuine refugees. They are fleeing murder and ethnic cleansing, have no possessions, hungry, sick children, no paid-up mobile phones , no access to any form of heath care or protection from the weather. They are the ones we have to address. How many of those detained in Australia fulfil these criteria?

ohn frawley | 10 May 2016  

John, you ask why are Australian people responsible? We are not responsible for their decisions to flee, cross seas, with or without money or with or without any other motive. But we are certainly responsible for our own actions if we aggravate the risks or exacerbate suffering or injury or if we lock people up at further risk for indefinable periods of time that amount to a form of torture or inhumane treatment. That’s the point at issue.

Stephen K | 10 May 2016  

To John Frawley : A solid research article offered in response to your questions : http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1213/13rp01

Peter Griffin | 10 May 2016  

Thank you Di for your contact and encouragement of asylum seekers ... I remain in despair & disbelief at the appalling cruelty of this government. As a GADRC member who went to Canberra some weeks ago I also feel totally helpless in the face of the silence, lies and misinformation to the public from both major political parties. Please somehow hold onto hope; this surely must end soon. Every best wish to you all.

Julie Collyer | 11 May 2016  

An excellent article like your other recent one, Di. I had thought of making a (hopefully intelligent) comment, however, the excellent image of Peter Dutton by Alex Ellinghausen says, in a very Zen way, what I would want to. It is a pity that, with some honourable exceptions on both sides, we seem to have bipartisan support for offshore detention. I would love to hear the Opposition in federal parliament, when Dutton speaks on the subject, call 'Shame, shame' and 'Resign'.

Edward Fido | 12 May 2016  

Thank you for this article, and for your advocacy. Not that we need reminding of how sickening our government's policies and practices are towards asylum seekers in detention, which shames all of us who call ourselves Australians. But we do need to know there are people like you who are providing solace and support to those undergoing this ordeal. It gives us hope as well. Thank you!

Jena Woodhouse | 13 May 2016  

I am currently travelling with a disparate bunch of Australians across the northern Borneo Malaysian state of Sabah. A beautiful and central part of south-east Asia - filled with reminders of colonialism and of the tragic WWII Death March from Sandakan (where we are at the moment) to Ranau on the slopes/near vicinity of Mt Kinabalu - and War Memorials at every point along the way - young men - British and Aussie and Borneo people - a tripartite connection building hope out of those dark times. Brilliant guides have accompanied our visits to places across this land - revealing so much of our shared humanity and experiences. Among the group not one with anything positive to say about either major political party and their inhumanity re asylum-seekers - and very telling, too - the newspaper articles here and their focus on the way Peter Dutton has Malcolm Turnbull wrapped around the LNP rightwing agendas! The aspersions cast upon the very immigrants and refugees who have made Australia such a positive force for cultural diversity by Dutton raises interesting hackles here as well as elsewhere in the road. Thanks Di COUSENS for your heart!

Jim KABLE | 25 May 2016  

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