Refugee Awareness week was recently celebrated at JCU by the SANTE student group. SANTE stands for Supporting All Nations Towards Equality and the group is based in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Highlights of the week included a Q&A Refugee Panel held on Tuesday and a Cultural Awareness lunch on Thursday.
The Q&A was a lively event attended by more than 80 students and members of the public, and followed the format of its namesake on ABC TV. The convenor of the panel was Dr Farvardin Daliri, founder and organiser of the Townsville Cultural Festival and Director of the Townsville Intercultural Centre. The four panelists were Dr Julie Mudd a Senior Lecturer at JCU, Dr Brian Senewiratne a consultant physician from Brisbane, Jenny Stirling a social worker with Townsville Multicultural Support Group and Federal MP Ewen Jones.
The first question was asked by SANTE President Jithendri Weerasingha and referred to the report “The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)” released by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report documents compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact on the mental and physical health of children held in Australian Immigration Detention Centres. Ms Weerasingha asked that as many of the people in these Immigration centres will ultimately end up in Australia, did it make sense to hold them under conditions that would lead to ongoing health problems and then be faced with addressing these when they eventually end up in Australia.
The first on the panel to respond was Federal MP Ewen Jones who told the audience he gave the report by the Australian Human Rights Commission no credence as it was “politically motivated”. He repeated accusations made by various Federal ministers about the Commission. Ewen Jones also repeated the assurance by a succession of Federal Immigration Ministers that none of the asylum seekers currently on Nauru or Manus Island will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. Presumably we don’t have to worry as their ongoing health will not then be our concern.
Other panelists immediately took Mr Jones to task. They said that if evidence exists that we are damaging the mental and physical health of children, surely the important thing is to address this – not to score political points by suggesting the possible political motivation of those making the report. Dr Brian Senewiratne ,who has treated scores of former refugees for mental disorders, graphically described the terrible impact of immigration detention on the people he has worked with.
Another question from the audience made reference to the Border Force Act – legislation that was recently passed that would allow the jailing of someone who speaks up about abuses in detention centre. The panel were asked to comment on the implications of this legislation for medical staff working in Immigration Detention Centres. Julie Mudd said that this legislation puts medical staff in a completely untenable situation. Statements of Ethics in all health professions are firmly based on the principle of “do no harm”. If medical staff are not allowed to speak out about cases of abuse, then this is in direct conflict with their Code of Ethics.
Brian Senewiratne referred to a 92 page letter signed in late 2013 by 15 doctors who have practiced inside the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The letter documents “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards” and is the most comprehensive document ever seen on the failings of medical procedure inside detention centres in Australia. Dr Brian said if the doctors had sent this letter today, under the new legislation they would be subject to prosecution and could possible be sent to jail.
Julie Mudd later commented outside the meeting it was a chilling reminder that Nazi Germany had used similar legislation to ensure that most people in Germany were not aware of the mass killings and heinous “medical experiments” taking place in Nazi concentration camps.
A number of times during the evening, Ewen Jones made the comment that it all came back to dollars. He said that we could treat asylum seekers in a more compassionate way but it would send Australia bankrupt. It we are to balance the budget then we need to stop the boats.
Both Jenny Stirling and Jule Mudd challenged him on this point each time he made it. They suggested that if the offshore detention centres were closed, then the billions of dollars saved could be used to house asylum seekers in the community until their claims are determined, to assist the speedy processing of asylum seekers currently waiting in South East Asia, and to facilitate the orderly settlement of those whose refugee claims are substantiated.
Such a regional solution would cost less that the current failed system, and would stop the boats because if there were an orderly processing system, people would no longer need to risk hazardous sea journeys seeking safety.
There was applause for a member of the audience who questioned the high cost of the current system. He said it was tragic that a system that costs so much still resulted in the terrible health outcomes reported by recent independent investigations. Where is all the money going he asked. Good question.
I was impressed by how well informed the audience were and this was evident from the thoughtful questions asked. It was disappointing that Ewen Jones spent the majority of the session trying to defend the government position regardless of the question or information being shared by experts in the field of mental and physical health and social issues. Towards the end of the session Jenny Kelly, JCU staff member and Amnesty member, implored Ewen Jones to go home and reflect on what the young people in the audience were saying.
By the end of the evening it was apparent to many in the audience that the current system of offshore detention has failed. To stop boats arriving in Australia, Australian Governments have been prepared to spend billions of dollars to house asylum seekers in offshore detention centres that destroy their mental and physical health; the navy has been used to send boats back with no concern as to what might happen to people in the boats; and they have used secrecy to attempt to hide what is happening from the Australian public. As Julie Mudd told the audience on Tuesday, the boats may have stopped but those sent back are left where they started – living in desperate conditions with little hope for any real change to their situation.
Post Script: The panel took place on 1 September. Six days later Ewen Jones came out on National media calling for Australia to take up to 50,000 refugees from Syria. It appears that Ewen Jones followed Jenny Kelly’s suggestion.