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Degrading treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru smh 8 February 2015

Degrading treatment of asylum system reflects poorly on Australia


David Isaacs and Alanna Maycock

Indefinite detention cruel and inhumane, write David Isaacs and Alanna Maycock.
The Nauru facility is guarded by tight security and asylum seekers' movements are totally restricted.
Imagine living indefinitely with young children in a tent with no running water in oppressive heat.  In December last year, we spent five days on Nauru consulting on children living in just such conditions.
The Nauru facility is guarded by tight security and asylum seekers' movements are totally restricted. Each family's tent adjoins the next. There is no privacy from neighbours and less from guards, who can enter tents unannounced any time.
Only tents for children under five are air-conditioned; inside many of the tents is mouldy. Tents are 30 to 120 metres from the nearest washing and toilet facilities. Toilet trips at night involve crossing dark, open land, often under the gaze of large male guards. Many children and some mothers have had bed-wetting at night rather than run the gauntlet of a night-time toilet visit.
Many women have insufficient sanitary towels.

These families experience degradation, despair and loss of dignity. We met a 15-year-old boy who, after 15 months without progress, sewed his lips together with thread and refused food. His parents called him foolish and said he should trust Australians to show mercy.
After three days the boy collapsed, his parents called for help and the boy was given emergency medical treatment and the threads were cut. The boy was furious with his parents. His protest was a desperate attempt to have his voice heard by a country that prefers to put asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind.
The many children and parents we saw, almost all with stress-related health conditions, had been in offshore detention on Christmas Island and Nauru for more than a year. Most staff members are sent home after four to six weeks to rest; they become exhausted and develop mental health problems if they stay longer. Yet asylum seekers are detained indefinitely.
"Detention" is a misleading euphemism for imprisonment. Australian schoolchildren given a detention are detained for an hour after school. The people living in a prison camp in Nauru are not told when or even if they will be released.
Australian prisoners are tried and told their release date; anything else is unlawful. We treat people reaching our shores begging for asylum worse than we treat convicted criminals.
In Franz Kakfka's book The Trial, a banker Josef K is arrested, prosecuted and persecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority for an unknown crime he has not committed. His powerlessness is terrifying.
Asylum seekers who take boats to Australia have committed no crime. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, says: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
But the asylum seekers on Nauru feel as powerless as Josef K, imprisoned and persecuted by us for the non-crime of fleeing persecution at home. Powerless people may become depressed or may become violent. It is little wonder that there have been riots on Nauru and Manus Island.
Asylum seekers are already prone to mental health problems from the traumas they have suffered at home and in flight. It is chilling to think we may be deliberately increasing the risk that fellow human beings will have long-term mental health problems.
To imprison anyone without trial contravenes international law. More importantly, it contravenes the moral code of any civilised or even semi-civilised country. When we hear a country imprisons people without trial, we think it must be a police state, or worse.
Italy treats asylum seekers with compassion, dignity and respect while attempting to persuade other countries to prevent boats leaving.
Our treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, repels the international community. We need to tell politicians of all persuasions that mandatory detention should stop now, in Australia and offshore. We must process asylum seekers' applications for refugee status in a timely way. Most importantly, we need to get in touch with our compassion for human beings in distress and find our humanity.
Professor David Isaacs is a consultant paediatrician and Alanna Maycock is a registered nurse.

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