Those Lucky Refugees

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Most detention centres in this country suffer overcrowding, a lack of natural light and recreational facilities, and have completely inadequate sanitary conditions. As our own Human Rights Commission has found, they are more like overnight police lock-ups than places suitable for the lengthy detention of people who have committed no crime. And of course they are mostly sited thousands of miles from civilisation. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the Minister describe them as something like Australians' homes. Some 482 children under the age of 18 have been facing this very horror. Thirty or so of them have been facing it alone. (Justice Marcus Einfeld.)

These lucky refugees, living in conditions "something like Australian homes" come to Australia, according to the Minister for Immigration not because they are fleeing persecution, but because they are making a "lifestyle decision." He said at the Young Liberals conference on January 7 2002 that "In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims Cartoon by Nicholson - Click for full size do not come from a situation of persecution; they come from a situation of safety and security," he said. "They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a life style choice."  This is reported in The Australian of Tuesday January 8 2002 on page 2. 
Cartoon by Nicholson

The Refugee Council of Australia is reported as responding that his remarks were "grossly oversimplifying" the issue.  "Rather than being a lifestyle choice, in many instances it's a matter of life and death," a spokesperson said.

The Los Angeles Times said on January 5 2002 (link valid 19/1/2002)

Unlike other Western-style democracies, Australia has a policy of locking up all applicants for political asylum who have arrived without proper documentation. Some remain in custody for years while the government decides their fate.

Children who arrive without their parents are locked up with adults in the country's booming chain of detention centers, run by a private American-owned company. A handful of children born in detention have never lived anywhere else.

Doctors worry that the long-term confinement of children in facilities where they frequently witness violence and are denied adequate schooling is causing serious psychological harm. Some children, they fear, will never recover.

Several children have attempted suicide. Others have gone on hunger strikes. At least three teenage boys have sewn their lips shut to protest their incarceration and treatment, according to detainees.

Some officials say the detention centers are worse than the country's prisons. Human rights activists worry that when long-term detainees are eventually granted asylum and released, they will be so psychologically scarred by their experience that they will have difficulty adapting to life in Australia.

Children Out of Detention, a citizens group opposed to the mandatory incarceration of children, says that guards have the authority to strip-search anyone older than 10 and that children as young as 3 have been placed with parents in the high security lockup used for punishment.

A 2-year-old was put in leg locks for 45 minutes and an 8-year-old boy was handcuffed, the group says. Children at the centers generally receive no schooling after they turn 12, and even up to that age it is not always available.

What is happening when our leaders are so at variance in their reporting to what the people on the ground are saying.  What is it that drives people at Woomera to sew their lips together in protest?  I have no faith in the assertions of Mr. Ruddock.  They seem only designed to ease our conscience about the scandal of our detention centres.  Why are we so determined to be so harsh towards some of the world's most traumatised people? 

I am ashamed.

Jan Thomas

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