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Blame detention centres, not detainees


Taken together the recent events in remote detention centres are both deplorable and predictable.

The disturbances at facilities housing minors, the use of tear gas against demonstrators at Christmas Island, the approval of such measures by the Minister the next day, the riots and destruction of property on Thursday evening after presently unspecified letters were received by detainees, the demonstrations in Curtin, and the death of a young asylum seeker in Weipa, are simply deplorable.

They cause grief to the detainees, to the officers supervising the centres, to the police and to the surrounding communities.

But these events are wholly predictable. When you place vulnerable people, mainly young men, in remote places for long periods of time, they are driven mad. Prolonged detention of vulnerable people for no just cause,with no set end and with nothing to do, does that to people. It is like building a nuclear reactor, putting fuel rods into it, and neglecting to provide water or to care for it.

(Continues below)

When the detention centres are also overcrowded and under resourced, it is totally predictable that people will act out their frustration and anger. When people in such a place, without adequate access to advice and support, receive impersonal Government letters, presumably containing notices of rejection, it is predictable that they will express their despair and anger.

The Government recognised the destructive nature of indefinite detention when three years ago it announced that people would only be detained if they posed a security risk. But because they never passed legislation to enshrine this principle, we now have the present disastrous situation.

Money continues to be wasted in building and staffing remote detention centres that harm the mental health of the detainees and lead to incidents such as those which we see now.

Other Government decisions have contributed to the present deplorable situation. The earlier decision to suspend the processing of applications from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has both extended the time for which many asylum seekers have been detained and deepened their sense of grievance.

They know that they have committed no crime and that Australia is committed to protect refugees without respect to how they arrive. They can only see the extra months that they spend in detention as a deliberate punishment.

The length of detention and the consequent injury suffered by asylum seekers have been compounded by the Government decision to require security clearances from ASIO before releasing refugees into the community. Many people have remained locked up for over a year waiting for this clearance.

This demand is discriminatory and unnecessary. Thousands of people are admitted into Australian society as tourists or students without such clearance. If it is needed, it can be secured while living within the community.

If the present detention policy remains, the likely consequences are unfortunately also quite predictable. Asylum seekers' mental health will continue to deteriorate. This will be reflected in more instances of self-harm and of violent protest.

Experience of police dealings with the mentally ill in many Australian states suggests that the responses to such protests will also become more violent and punitive, involving technology like stun guns and tasers. Politicians will defend their use, and blame the asylum seekers for creating the need for such measures. And if it comes to using guns and shooting asylum seekers who act out of mental illness, we shall be assured that it was necessary.

Those who defend the humanity of asylum seekers and criticise detention are used to being dismissed as bleeding hearts. Although name calling is not all that helpful, it would be tempting to respond by referring to those who defend the existing regime of detention as bleeding minds.

Could anything other than bleeding into the brain explain how one could defend the enormous financial outlay on detaining asylum seekers in remote areas, the prolongation of their detention in the sure knowledge that it will drive them crazy, the slowness of releasing children from such a regime, and the generation of conditions in which people will inevitably be injured and even killed.

Allowing asylum seekers into the community while their claims are processed would be a far more rational policy, both in economic and in ethical terms.  

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. He was previously associated with Jesuit Refugee Service. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers, mandatory detention, Christmas Island, Curtin, riots, Weipa



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Existing comments

I think people should be held responsible for their actions. Even more so when wanting to join a new society - i would take this violent action to be very good reason to send them home.

Michael | 21 March 2011  

Totally agree.

Denise Coghlan | 21 March 2011  

Andrew, you have nailed the issue very clearly here and your comments make a welcome change from the 'blame the victim' response we are hearing in the mainstream press.

Under international treaties we are responsible for the good of asylum seekers who arrive here and I'm ashamed to see how badly we have failed.

Such crises as we have seen recently (and not so recently) should offer the opportunity to end offshore detention and house asylum seekers more humanely (and cheaply) in the community.Shame on the Minister for his hard-line on asylum seekrs. Let's have a people's revolution on this issue.

John Bartlett | 21 March 2011  

Thank you for this realistic & humane article. It saddens me that two out of two respondents so far have commented as they have.

More than once you connected environment with emotional state , namely ,"when you place vulnerable people, mainly young men, in remote places for long periods of time, they are driven mad" & "remote detention centres ... harm the mental health of the detainees" & "asylum seekers' mental health will continue to deteriorate " & "in the sure knowledge that it will drive them crazy ."
What more can one say?

DAVID HICKS | 21 March 2011  

This article is an important reflection on the disturbing situation on Christmas Island. The system of mandatory detention in remote facilities is deliberately punitive; prolonged detention in such facilities is toxic for people who are vulnerable or have suffered trauma. These facilities are maintained for political purposes only- they are not a deterrent to desperate people,they are high cost and inadequately resourced. In our name, Austalian police have fired beanbag bullets on higly vulnerable people with few rights.

Before more readers simply condemn the protesters, we need to know much more about what led to these protests- what was the role of detention centre management, SERCO, for instance. I note an independent enquiry has been ordered into this- let's hope this is truly independent.

Kate | 21 March 2011  

Good article. Keep it up.

Jim Jones | 21 March 2011  

Here we go again! I was sure that the “coalition of beneficiaries from people smuggling” would find more excuses for the criminal behaviour of some asylum seekers. If we look at other “guilty” parties beside the rioters, we should really look at the people who have successfully sold Australia as an easy target for the people smuggling industry.

The Labour Government tried to appease the small, but vocal minority of supporters of the people smuggling industry. It made the dangerous sea route again very lucrative. People smugglers and their supporters do not care if people die and if property is destroyed.

The only people with an excuse to get angry are all the good law abiding tax payers. They see their tax money being used to support an industry based on criminal activities instead of being spent on schools, hospitals and the environment.

Beat Odermatt | 21 March 2011  

Illegal immigrants break our sovereign law. If they are so "mentaally ill", they should be sent back to their country for medical treatment.

Trent | 21 March 2011  

When the detention centres are also overcrowded and under resourced, it is totally predictable that people will act out their frustration and anger.

Including employees.

Harold A. Maio | 21 March 2011  

Mandatory detention by the executive without the detainee having recourse to the courts is always going to be a problem. Without supervision by the courts, the various branches of the executive are under no pressure to resolve the matter, nor are their actions open to adequate scrutiny.

Surely we could change the system so that EVERY person who arrives without authorisation (and does not agree to leave immediately) is arrested and charged and IMMEDIATELY brought before the courts. If s/he pleads the refugee defence, it would then be up to the court to hear evidence from the prosecutor and defendant and then decide whether and on what conditions s/he would be released on bail, or whether, how, and for what period s/he would remanded in custody, pending a decision by the court on the substantive question of whether her/his claim is justified or not.

It's important, it seems to me, that both the procedural decision on detention and the substantive decision on refugee status is taken by a court that is manifestly independent of the executive, and NOT by the executive itself or by a tribunal whose members are appointed for fixed terms by the executive and whose independence is thereby immediately compromised.

Ginger Meggs | 21 March 2011  

It was stated on the ABC this morning that the Christmas Island Detention Centre was built to accommodat 800 people It now houses three times tht number. Put this together with the waiting times for processing, what else would you expect?

Winsome Thomas | 21 March 2011  

• Australia has NEVER used a water cannon on protesting civilians - only in WOOMERA.

• Australia has NEVER used tear gas on protesting civilians - only on CHRISTMAS ISLAND.

• Australia has NEVER used rubber bullets or "lead shot" on protesting civilians.

Only against the damned asylum seekers.

Jack H Smit | 21 March 2011  

Good grief ! It is easy to see - from some of the comments above - how Hanson, Howard, Gillard & Abbott & their ilk know they are onto a 'good thing ' with the Australian electorate when they blame the victims as they do. People who say that asylum seekers break " our sovereign law " need to be reminded that these unfortunate people are breaking no law either internationally or nationally in seeking asylum.

DAVID HICKS | 21 March 2011  

While I would welcome judicial oversight, Ginger Meggs, and an independent asylum processing system, people who claim asylum do not contravene any law, even if the mode of their arrival may be 'unauthorised'. Your suggestion, which assumes commission of some crime, would overturn a fundamental tenet of the Refugee Convention - the right to claim protection from persecution.

Kate | 21 March 2011  

I agree completely with you Kate. It is no crime to seek asylum. Seeking asylum should not therefore be a reason to detain people. My suggestion does not assume that a crime has been committed, only that the executive may allege that a crime has been committed.

If those who arrive seeking asylum were immediately brought before a court, the executive would have to justify, on grounds other than asylum-seeking, their case for detaining those people, and those arguments would need to be good enough to convince the court that release on bail, pending the substantive decision by the court on the asylum application, was not justified.

Imagine how the Cornelia Rau case might have been different if such a policy as I have suggested had been in place at that time.

Ginger Meggs | 21 March 2011  

The government were first told in 1992 that locking up refugees is illegal but we still do it. Now Last November the high court told the government the denial of legal rights was illegal on Christmas Island which made the use of the island for a gulag stupid and expensive. In February Sarah Hanson-Young discovered that 900 people had been granted refugee status but were still in prison, many of them for more than a year. Don't anyone dare whine about ASIO check because they are not required and never have been. In March still nothing is done and people granted status by the UNHCR have not even had their cases looked at while being illegally held. On the 13th some left the centre, walked into town for a peaceful protest, went back to the centre. On Friday the government sent out rubber bullets, tear gas and other weapons to use on innocent people. On Saturday they used them and denied it until photos of guns surfaced on Sunday, on Tuesday they sent out the stupid letters claiming

Marilyn Shepherd | 21 March 2011  

Trent, you are usually so righteous. How could you write a comment so filled with hate! How could you imply something so far from the truth as that, for example, a mentally-ill Hasara would be given care and medical treatment on being sent back to Afghanistan.

Gavan Breen | 21 March 2011  

(cont) that assessors that had been promised since November were on their way but could not go because of the "violence", violence done by the federal keystone losers. Then there were further protests inside the massive prison when the internal gates were shut down cutting people off from each other. So then the keystone kops let loose and start shooting people trapped in a cage surrounded by 20 foot electric fences in a high security prison system that has been condemened by every human rights group in the world. The support by Gillard of shooting innocent people more than vindicates everything I have ever said about the vile coward.

Marilyn Shepherd | 21 March 2011  

Last night I had an argument with John Cleary and Bill Ledbetter about the notion that gangs are running around "recruiting" refugees for profit. They finally agreed to look into the evidence of the people smuggling protocol and the refugee convention which both specifically forbid punishing people for their method of arrival. It is none of our business who people pay so they can leave danger, it should be a celebration that they do escape and reach safety but this country has turned it into a crime instead. It's amazing how the government condemns the use of weapons against protestors in other countries then does the same thing to people protesting being jailed here for escaping what we condemn in Iran.

Marilyn Shepherd | 21 March 2011  

Andrew, thank you. I could not agree more with what you have written. At times I feel thoroughly ashamed to know how so many asylum seekers are being treated bu our government. i know that many people are making great efforts to treat these fellow human beings more humanely and compassionately,, but as a country we are failing them badly.

Maryrose Dennehy | 21 March 2011  

I could not agree more with Fr Andrew. As soon as I read about the riots in the Christmas Island detention centre I knew that many people as well as much of the commercial media would leap to simplistic and judgemental blame of the asylum seekers themselves. So many people fail to realize the amount of trauma already being suffered by asylum seekers and how easy it must be to slip into violence as a result of further frustration. Moreover, being detained on Christmas Island means that it is going to take longer for the detainees to be processed and considered to asylum in Australia.

Added to the frustration is the sight of barbed wire, electrified fences as though these people are criminals needing to be locked away from the rest of the society. Where is our compassion and sense of humanity. I wonder how many Australians could endure such a situation with equanimity especially after enduring such angst in leaving their native land, their families quite often and travelling in fear and worry.

Dr Judith Woodward | 21 March 2011  

Here we go again indeed! Why am I not surprised that Beat would have a go at the 'coalition of beneficiaries from people smuggling'.

Since his was only the seventh comment posted, and two of the previous ones were clearly antipathetic to Andrew Hamilton's article, I can only assume that he has compelling evidence that either the article by Andrew or the other five previous postings by John, David, Kate and/or Jim demonstrate that they are 'beneficiaries' of 'people smuggling'. Or perhaps he has other evidence concerning Andrew, John, David, Kate and/or Jim that he has not shared with us.

So before we debate your other assertions Beat, tell us why and in what way Andrew, John, David, Kate and/or Jim are 'beneficiaries' of 'people smuggling'.

Ginger Meggs | 21 March 2011  

Several things:
Would you invite into your home people who trashed the front verandah? Why is instant gratification admirable in refugees

While everyone has the right to seek asylum do they have the right to dictate terms to the potential protector - are we supposed to be doormats - can't both parties make demands?

Sometimes it seems to me that some people come here intent on recreating what they left behind. If so, why not stay where you were? It couldn't have been so bad.

hilary | 21 March 2011  

@Marilyn Shepherd. Whether the level of force used by the Australian authorities was appropriate may be debated. However, the level of force used by the Iranian authorities has been deadly. The use of live rounds to crush protests cannot be compared to the use of tear gas and "bean bag" rounds. Go ahead and use every epithet you can think of against Gillard, our government, or whoever, but do not think for one minute that the worst we can come up with here in Australia is anywhere near what they dish up in Iran. People shot dead in the street. Opponents of the regime dragged off to prison never to be seen again. If you lived in Iran, the sort of comments you have made here would see you dead in a very short time.

John Ryan | 21 March 2011  

I am saddened to hear of the conditions in which people fleeing oppression are placed and isolated by us as Australians. It is so easy to demonise the stranger. Reliable research proves that overcrowding, even of animals, produces violence, and yet innocent, persecuted people are constantly demonised by many in our country and sometimes in our media.To jail a person seeking refuge seems to me to be a nonsense and an abuse. Whatever happened to the maxim that a person is innocent until proven guilty? It is my view that we are treating refugees in the opposite way. As a follower of Mary MacKillop, I cannot help thinking of her words as a first generation Australian: "Love the stranger." I would like to see people welcomed into our country and then processed quickly.

Margaret Therese Cusack | 21 March 2011  

I do not usually read all the comments but for some reason this time I did. I was shocked. Until I read them I had no understanding of the spectrum of attitudes in the Australian people. I had assumed that the bulk of people were decent, and when presented with the facts, would act generously toward the stranger at our door. After all we are a lucky country and we can afford to be generous. I had always assumed that politicians had used the issue as a cheap way to generate support in those who felt a grievance, ie those who were lower on the social ladder. It seems from the responses to your article that there are people from right across the social spectrum in this country that respond to the politics of dog whistle of "them and us". I am increasingly ashamed of my fellow countrymen and women

graham patison | 22 March 2011  

Here we go again indeed! I cannot believe how so called “Christians” are supporting trading in humans, endangering lives and providing moral support to violence and wilful destruction. There are actually easy solutions to the problem. Never ever give a visa to anybody using the dangerous sea route and return any non Australian who is committing a crime to their place of origin.

Beat Odermatt | 22 March 2011  

It so disappoints me that our political system is so impotent. Our politicians squeeze each other into a corner where we get the worst of policies. The conservatives propose policies from the ark, the middle ground labor party put forward compromised policies which pander to the electorate and make no one happy. The left greens put forward policies which cannot be accepted by the majority. Unfortunately it seems that we get the politics and politicians that we deserve. Very depressing.

Peter Anderson | 22 March 2011  

To Ginger Meggs. My advice to you would be simple: Please read what I wrote without trying to guess what I could have meant or could have said.

Beat Odermatt | 22 March 2011  

And we need to stop calling them detainees, that is what they call people on Gitmo.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 March 2011  

Yes John so why do we lock people up for daring to escape death in Iran.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 March 2011  

I was recently made aware of the arrival of a young east African woman, who came to Australia in 2010 mentored by a Christian church community. She is married and was then pregnant with her first child. Soon after arrival she applied for asylum. During the consideration process her baby son was born. She was generously housed and financially supported by a number of volunteer organisations and individuals.

Last Sunday I was told that she and her son had been granted permanent residency. They are now entitled to social security benefits and she can focus on bringing her husband to Australia under family re-unification regulations.

Nice story but so what? My point to asylum seekers is this: Don't pay smugglers with your life's savings to come here on leaky boat. Buy a 'plane ticket and come as a tourist. If you like what you see when you get here.. then apply for asylum. I can't see anything unethical in that, if you have genuine reasons for seeking asylum.

Claude Rigney | 22 March 2011  

That would be a very logical alternative Claude, except for the fact that those who resort to risky boat trips do so because they would never be able to obtain a tourist visa that would enable them to travel by air because they would be considered by immigration as at risk of overstaying and seeking asylum.

Ginger Meggs | 25 March 2011  

Thank you Andrew for another excellent article. Although I am not a Catholic, I have been reading Eureka Street for a number of years now, due to the number of quality articles written in the true Spirit of Christ. Unfortunately I can't say the same for a number of posters to the various writers. Do they never stop to ask themselves if Jesus would be as vitriolic as they are if He werevisibly here on earth today? Or would He be still as compassionate as He showed himself to be 2,000 years ago? You have the benefit of experience, having worked with refugees. I would venture to say those who rail against these unfortunate people, so so from the safety of their homes and freedom of lifestyles. Bleeding minds indeed. I like that. Must use it next time I get the "bleeding heart" label.

Malcolm Wallace | 26 March 2011  

Claire, that nice African lady was lucky she could get a shiney passport.

AFghan Hazara who are not registered at birth cannot get shiney passports so why do you continue the fallacy that paying for transport is evil?

Jews used to sew their jewels into their clothes so they could pay "smugglers" like the French resistance and others to help them escape nazi Europe, which is why the conventions make it perfectly legal.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 March 2011  

No Michael! Andrew is right. This refugee detention system we have in operation here is disgraceful! It is inhumane. We have far fewer asylum seekers than any other western country. What about compassion?! What is happening to us?! We are wrong, wrong, wrong.

LouW | 27 March 2011  

The boat people contribute to the length of time that they spend in detention, by destroying their identity documents before arrival. Why do you ignore the practicalties of undocumented arrivals?

Matt | 25 April 2011  

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