House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Grievance Debate

Asylum Seekers

5:13 pm

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to express the grievance of my community of Chisholm against the Turnbull Liberal government's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, and the continuation of offshore detention of people fleeing persecution, including women and children and even newborn infants. Since the High Court's decision came down last week to uphold the right of the government to continue this immoral and inhumane practice, I have been inundated with messages from my community expressing their outrage and horror that 267 asylum seekers, including 37 babies, will very soon be returned to detention on Nauru. These 267 people were transferred to the Australian mainland to receive proper medical care and treatment, or in the case of our newborn infants their birth.

Among these individuals are people suffering cancer and terminal illnesses. There are children suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome and display the symptoms of anxiety and depression. All of the doctors and medical professionals who examine these people have made it abundantly clear that to return them to Nauru will have serious and detrimental impacts on their health.

Today in Senate estimates hearings, the head of the immigration department has made it clear that everyone will go back in due course, and the department, not doctors, will have the final say on who should be returned. This is a sentiment which fills me and many people throughout my community with utter despair. It is an indication of this government's stubborn refusal to consider the evidence and the very real health issues being faced by vulnerable people in their care.

In the same estimates hearing today, the immigration department's chief medical officer stated:

The scientific evidence is that detention affects the mental state of children: it’s deleterious. For that reason, wherever possible, children should not be in detention.

This is the professional medical advice being provided to Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, and his government by the chief medical officer of the immigration department, and it is clearly being ignored.

The Human Rights Commission has also released another report into the health and wellbeing of children in immigration detention, which again confirms the disturbing findings for The Forgotten Children report. The Forgotten Children report found that 30 per cent of the hundreds of children living in immigration detention were suffering from moderate to severe mental illness compared to two per cent of children in the Australian population. You only have to see the front page of The Age over the weekend and a picture of a child's drawing saying that they feared that they were going to kill themselves and make their parents very unhappy to know that this is not an exaggeration.

The UN rapporteur on torture has also found that the conditions in the Australian offshore detention facilities—tropical heat, poor access to water, inadequate education and medical care—amount to cruel treatment contrary to the torture conventions. These are devastating facts that cannot be denied but, again, facts that cannot actually be seen because of the utter secrecy around the detention centres on Nauru and Manus.

In its most recent report, the Human Rights Commissioner employed specialist paediatricians to interview and examine the 70 children, including 36 babies, who are currently being held in the Wickham Point detention facility in Darwin and face deportation back to Nauru after the High Court ruling. As a result of the medical findings, the Human Rights Commissioner has recommended that:

1. All children be immediately removed from immigration detention facilities to community detention in mainland Australia or granted a bridging visa.

2. Under no circumstances should any child detained on the mainland be returned to or transferred to Nauru.

3. Nauru is an inappropriate place for asylum seeking children to live, either in the detention centre or in the community

These recommendations are balanced on sound scientific medical advice. It is imperative these children and their families, as well as the 70 children and their families currently held on Nauru, are transferred out of detention and into the Australian community while their claims for asylum are being processed. This is the only humane response. It is the only genuine humane response to this enormous tragedy.

The Prime Minister on TV today said with a cool head but with a big heart: this issue would be resolved. It does not seem that there is much heart being given to this situation, as we speak today.

This is all about choice. This is the government's choice to traumatise and harm these children in detention. Under the Australian government's care—under our country's care—these children are being subjected to sexual abuse, intimidation and harm. These are children who have been raped.

We may have disputes about what is going on and what we are getting in the media because, again, no journalist has genuine access. I can tell you for certain: there are a couple of women who are amongst this group who have been taken to medical facilities in Australia, because they have been raped on the island. These are women. These are children. These are individuals in need of medical care, our care, and we are not giving it to them.

To date the government's response has been to attempt to silence any critics, threatening to jail doctors and medical professionals who speak out and to bully and intimidate anybody who raises legitimate human rights concerns of people seeking asylum. Enough is enough.

The government can choose right now to do what is right by these asylum seekers. The Prime Minister can immediately release all children and their families into the Australian community on the appropriate bridging visas. I am very proud of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has taken a leadership role in this debate and offered to cover the full cost of housing and care for the asylum seekers currently being held in Wickham Point, if the federal government agrees to send them to Victoria. In his letter, Premier Daniel Andrews states:

There are infants amongst this group who were born in this country. Sending them to Nauru will needlessly expose them to a life of physical and emotional trauma.

It's wrong. Medical professionals tell us this. Humanitarian agencies tell us this. Our values tell us this, too. Sending these children and their families to Nauru is not the Australian way.

  …   …   …

Instead, I write to inform you that Victoria will accept full responsibility.

Elsewhere in the letter, he says:

A sense of compassion is not only in the best interests of these children and their families. It is also in the best interests of our status as a fair and decent nation.

I could not agree more.

We need to show compassion in this area. Many of my constituents have written pleading letters to me. Paul from Mont Albert wrote:

I am very unhappy that at present we have effectively legislation but no justice. It can never be just to hold up vulnerable people in detention with no hope. Please do not let any others allow you to think that it is. Please remember: we are all immigrants to this country and have no right to shut the doors to others who are vulnerable. Many Australian people have great hopes for this government. Please transcend the demands of your backbench. I urge you: please set out to find a bipartisan policy that will relieve us all of the horror of the current situation which makes Australians ashamed of their own government.

Tiffany from Box Hill wrote:

I understand there is no easy answer, but using human's lives as a disincentive for others thinking of making the journey to Australia does not treat the individual with the dignity they deserve as humans. I write to you so that you know what some people in your electorate feel. I feel deeply ashamed of the actions of our government on my behalf. I think this is unconscionable and, to be honest, I thought we had been through the worst of it with the end of the Abbott government.

Barney from Oakleigh wrote:

I wish to voice my deep concern that the government may well send 267 asylum seekers back to the hellhole which is the camps of Nauru. These are just people. They are trying to escape horrific circumstances in their home countries. To turn around and treat them like animals is so cruel and unfair it beggars belief. I know the issue of people smuggling is complex, but to treat these people in this way cannot be the only positive solution.

Reverend David Carter of the Uniting Church community at Koonung Heights, along with countless other churches in the Australian community, is prepared to offer sanctuary to these vulnerable and desperate people.

We have medical reports and eyewitness accounts of what these people are going through. The Journal of Medical Ethics reports:

In December 2014, a paediatric nurse and I travelled to Nauru to consult on children in detention. The conditions we witnessed typified those described by Goffman as occurring in institutions such as asylums, prisons and concentration camps, which he characterises as causing ‘mortification of the self’. Detainees lacked privacy. Families were housed in adjoining tents, and guards walk in without warning. Showers and toilets were up to 120 m away. At night, the long dark walk under the eyes of guards was enough to deter many women and children, who wet the bed, then put the mattress out to dry in the sun. Shower time was limited; guards would offer longer if women exposed themselves. There was constant bullying and humiliation. We also observed dehumanisation and denial of personhood: children and adults coming to the medical centre are referred to by their boat numbers.

It goes on and on about the inappropriate and inhumane treatment of these individuals.

Ninety academics wrote to all of us before Christmas. They said:

We are concerned about the serious deleterious effect this [detention] has on the physical and psychological welfare of children, who in effect are being punished in the absence of guilt on their part of any kind and outside the normal legal, child protection and welfare frameworks within which their situation should more properly and appropriately be addressed.

That is the situation. There is no way that these individuals would be treated like this in any other circumstances—and they should not be.

I, along with my community, urge the Prime Minister to heed the enormous amount of professional medical advice, the concerns from a community that is saying, 'Enough is enough', and the recommendations from individuals who know, who have been there, who have assessed these individuals. Please, on behalf of the Australian community, release these people from this inhumane and cruel detention. It has been 2½ years since this government came in—four years for some of these individuals. To send these individuals, these vulnerable people, back is not the solution. It will not affect people coming here, it will not assist in any way and it will damage our status in the wider community.