Mental health and immigration detainees


Jenny Haines

The social justice committees of the Catholic churches, St Brigid’s Marrickville and St Mary’s Erskineville, organised a forum on September 9, with the billed speakers, Julian Burnside QC and Dr Louise Newman, both drawcards because of their forthright campaigning on refugees issues. As Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian intellectual, critic of the Mubarak Government and long term campaigner for democracy in Egypt, said recently, “the role of the intellectual is to speak the truth to power”. Burnside and Newman more than fufill that role.

The forum was organised by Pauline Roach, once an organiser for the NSW Nurses Association. Since leaving the Association in the 1980s, she has had a career in the NSW public service, and more recently has served as a parish councillor for St Brigid’s Church. The forum attracted some luminaries such as Margo Kingston, who chaired it, and the leading lights in the election campaign for the state seat of Marrickville, Carmel Tebbutt (Labor ) and Sam Byrne (Greens).

Tebbutt was accompanied by her husband Anthony Albanese, who did not speak, but did have to listen to some pointed criticism of Labor’s policy on mandatory detention. Also present was Maha Habib and her friend Jenin, who opened the forum by singing a Muslim women’s prayer. Her lovely intonation of the prayer soothed and calmed the audience, echoing eerily from the corners of the old Marrickville Town Hall.

The audience was by and large not the usual crowd that attends political events in Marrickville. They appeared to be parishoners of the two churches, in particular elderly couples and elderly women, with a smattering of middle-aged activists, and some young people who appeared to be parishoners, and may have been at university students. The composition of the audience reminded me of the comment of one senior cleric of the Catholic Church at the recent funeral of Father Ted Kennedy, the parish priest of Redfern, “This is the real Church!”

The first speaker was Dr Louise Newman, a psychiatrist who has spoken out publicly against the Howard Government’s harsh and inhumane treatment of refugees in detention and the deleterious effects of detention on detainees’ mental health. Amanda Vanstone has paid another psychiatrist $30,000 to go over ground covered by Newman’s research on the effects of detention on refugees, in what may be an attempt to discredit Newman’s research.

Newman said she wondered at first whether she was being brave or foolish in speaking out for refugees and she was on a rapid learning curve. Now certain objectives have been achieved and the question is where to go now, post Palmer? One of the first cases she was involved with was the Shayan Bedraie case, which is currently before the courts as a negligence action.

Newman is an expert on the effect of abuse and maltreatment, particularly the effect of unmediated trauma on the very young. Since 1992, she said, there had been 3360 children in immigration detention in Australia. Children have now been removed from the dentention centres to community detention, but she is still not happy.

Newman mentioned a forum that she attended on women in politics, where she shared the platform with Amanda Vanstone. Newman was asked what would be different if a woman was the prime minister, and she said there would be no mandatory detention of refugees and asylum seekers. Vanstone was not amused. She expressed some sympathy for the children, but stuck to the Howard Government line that it was the asylum seekers who had put their children at risk, and detention was acceptable.

Newman discussed her concern for Australia’s lost national conscience and loss of innocence. The recent removal of immigrant children from Stanmore Public School had barely rated a mention in the media. It was very difficult to have any discussion about any human rights issues at the present time without being accused of being a friend of terrorists, she said.

Newman said it was important to remember that Labor introduced mandatory detention in 1990-92 and mandatory detention remained today, supported by bi-partisan policy. Anyone who did not support mandatory detention was sidelined from mainstream politics. She used to be a Labor supporter, but now preferred an independent stance.

Newman said she had drawn on the work of a a doctor who was detained, who observed the long term effects of detention on fellow detainees. He documented, during his own the detention, the growing psychiatric distress of long-term detainees.

The Immigration Department has shown that its is determined to maintain mandatory detention at any price. Newman said there had been stand-offs between hospital staff and immigration officials when detainees were taken to hospital for mental health treatment, over the humane treatment of detainees while they were in hospital, because Immigration officials said that immigration law took precedence over the Mental Health Act or the Medical Treatment Act.

Shayan Bedraie had been in and out of hospital six times. He was eventually placed in foster care but that broke down. Newman was very concerned about the effect of trauma in children when brain development is taking place, and the effect of that in later years.

Newman has had great difficulty doing her research. She has been up against the attitudes of people such as Phillip Ruddock, who has said “people like us wouldn’t behave in that way” — whatever “people like us” means.

Ruddock has said the behaviour of the detainees is culture-bound. Newman has also been up against bureaucrats such as Bill Farmer, who appeared to do whatever the Government wanted. There was a culture in DIMIA of disbelief of the detainees, a blame-the-victim culture. It was no accident that the private companies runnning the detention centres were penal companies.

Newman has faced the age-old dilemma: whether to work within the system to reform it or try to change it from outside? But even the conservative medical colleges have come to the conclusion that it is not ethical for doctors to work in detention centres. Newman and Michael Dudley, a psychiatric colleague, knew in December 2004 that Cornelia Rau was in Baxter. The other detainees asked Newman and Dudley to try to meet with Rau, but the detention centre management would not allow them to see her until she gave her consent, and as we now know, Rau was too ill to consent to seeing a psychiatrist.

Newman said opponents of the refugee movement use similar logic to the holocaust revisionists, and it was to the churches, non-government organisations and refugee advocacy organisations to share skills and knowledge in a campaign to expose horrible things, and to promote a political awakening. The edifice of mandatory detention must be dismantled, she said.

Pauline Roach spoke briefly about how the parish of St Brigid’s had become invvolved in the refugee campaign. She said the parish council had become concerned about the lack of welcome to those who were seeking a better future for their children. The parish council decided to do something practical and with the support of Casimir College took in a refugee family in an empty house on church property. The occupants call it the House of Welcome. Roach said it has been wonderful how people in the parish had come out to help the refugee family. It has brought out the goodness and the best in people.

Julian Burnside agreed with Newman that it would be easy to fall into post-Palmer ennui. He said there had been some important achievements in recent times. In Australia we dispossessed the original owners and the murders that took place in the process of that dispossession were not such ancient history.

He apologised to refugees who were present at the forum for the way they had been treated on arrival. He also said sorry to any Muslims who were present for the discrimination they are now suffering. He posed a rhetorical question: is the job finished? He was reminded of an 11-year-old girl who his partner, Kate Durham, had told him about.

Since her release from detention she had needed regular help. At one point she tired to hang herself, and then swallowed shampoo because she had seen detainees do that. She survived and recently came top of her class at school. Burnside said it is an extraordinary fight. He was reminded of an Afghan client who was only 23, who had no memory of who he was, and who is family was. Burnside said someone must be held to account for all of this.

The present Government will treat badly any group in the community that is unpopular, he said. There had been 12,000 boat people come to Australia since John Howard became Prime Minister. The federal Government was now looking overseas for 20,000 guest workers. The Government would do whatever it could to make Australians afraid of Muslims.

When Kate Durham found accommodation for an Iranian couple at Armadale, in Victoria, four burly blokes from Immigration turned up on their doorstep. The couple showed the officials officers their temporary protection visa. The owner of the house, a barrister, asked the officers how they got a warrant to visit this house and they replied that they had obtained it from a Senior Officer in the Immigration Department. They are not required to obtain a warrant from any officer of the law, magistrate or judge. They obtained their administrative warrant on the basis of an anonymous phone call that there were two Muslim people in Armadale.

The current proposals to combat terrorism were un-Australian, Burnside said: locking up innocent people incommunicado in detention for up to 14 days, taking away citizenship. These moves are on top of holding of detainees in detention for life, which was approved by the High Court in the Al Khateb case. If a person was stripped of their citizenship, they became a non-citizen, able to be detained for life. As the anti-Muslim increases it is important to speak up against it, Burnside said. rhetoric ramps up we must speak up against it. He had never been more worried about the future of this country.

Father Tom, the parish priest of St Brigid’s Church gave a vote of thanks to Pauline Roach. When he first met Pauline she had told him one of the first things she wanted to see was a St Brigid’s Float in the next Mardi Gras. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that wasn’t going to happen. Father Tom said he was proud of the House of Welcome set aside for the refugee family in the parish. It was about common humanity.

In response to a question about 200 Chinese in Villawood who couldn’t speak English and had no idea how to go about making an application to DIMIA, Burnside suggested that the questioner contact the Refugee Advocacy Casework Service, obtain some information sheets and get them translated into a language that the Chinese detainees understood.

Newman was asked whether detainees’ mental health declined because the Immigration Department and its contractors did not train their staff or because they just didn’t care? Should the contractors be required by contract to observe certain standards of care of detainees? Newman replied that it was not possible to treat people with mental health problems in the detention environment and it was essential to remove them. Staff training was an important issue and there had been some well-meaning but misdirected attempts at programs, such as a psychologist trying to run anger management programs at Baxter. It was difficult to recognise distress in the detention environment, Newman said.


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