Asylum Seekers’ Misery Revealed

Asylum seekers' misery revealed

Andra Jackson
The Age
September 19, 2008

LARGE numbers of asylum seekers were deliberately held in detention far longer than need be, and subjected to mistreatment and gruelling conditions, according to a new report.

Others were wrongfully denied asylum as a result of detention centre staff who saw their role as “gatekeepers”, keeping people out of Australia, and blocked detainees' access to lawyers.

This “culture of obstruction” was reflected in appeals to the Refugee Review Tribunal which, over a three-year period, overturned 30% or more of asylum applications rejected by department officers.

Most Australians had no idea what was going on behind the walls of the country's detention centres, nor of the lingering damage inflicted on detainees, later found to be refugees and released, according to the Human Rights Overboard report.

The report stems from a “people's inquiry” into detention, set up in February 2005 after the discovery of the wrongful detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau.

As reported by The Age, it was set up by the heads of social work departments at universities around Australia, as an alternative to the Government's Palmer Inquiry.

It held hearings around Australia for over two years, taking around 400 oral and written submissions from former detainees, former detention centre workers, refugees advocates and lawyers.

Former staff and medical professionals testified to abuses including bashings, and the wrongful use of medication and isolation units to “manage” disruptive or grieving detainees.

A former Woomera worker described how, with no appropriate training, she had to counsel up to 12 people a day who had self-harmed over their indefinite detention.

“I was dealing with people tying razor wire around their throats, using razor blades, knitting needles that they would sharpen, rope overdosing on Panadol, detergent, chemicals, gravel,” she said.

Another former worker spoke about how up to six asylum seekers were crammed into Besser-block buildings designed for one person, with no air-conditioning and temperatures in the high 40s

“There were eight toilets for 1800 people,” the worker said. “There were two washing machines. There were two taps in the compound. One would often break down so there was limited access to drinking water. There was hardly any staff. They (detainees) used to line up for four or five hours in the heat just to get a Panadol.”

The inquiry was told of one man denied medical treatment who had to be rushed to hospital with a burst appendix; a child who had to wait six weeks for a doctor after catching her finger in a door; a man with a broken ankle who had to wait 13 days for treatment; symptoms of a 60-year-old woman “diagnosed” by management as “psychosomatic”, when she had actually suffered a stroke; and a woman and a minor who lost partial sight because specialist care was withheld.

The report also says that on release, detainees faced a new
burden; bills of up to $200,000 for their “upkeep” in detention.