Why care about the health and well-being of asylum seekers?

A report on the refugee detention centre in Nauru by five independent clinical experts posted online by The Guardian on Friday paints a bleak picture of life on the island, particularly for children. But why should we care about how these people are being treated?

The report describes the now-familiar wretched conditions of refugee detention. Tents that leak in the rain and become unbearably hot and humid by 10am. Burning white rocks underfoot, little natural shade, dust everywhere, only electric fans for cooling in most areas of the camp.

Mosquitoes that prevent sleep and may carry diseases. Overwhelming boredom. And the hopelessness, helplessness, frustration and despair that accompany radical uncertainty about the future.

The authors detail the effects of this environment on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers. And, not unexpectedly, they recommend changes to the detention centre. This implies, of course, that current conditions should change; that the damage we are doing to these adults and children is unacceptable.

But the Australian government disagrees. It claims current policy is justified because it prevents asylum seekers from dying at sea. Let’s assume for a moment that this is truly the purpose of offshore mandatory detention. The goal – preventing deaths – is worthy, but what means are justified to reach it?

Making life unbearable

This is where the report is vital. It describes what Australia is doing to asylum seekers right now, at least on Nauru. We can’t reproduce all the details here, but let’s recount just a few.

The experts found the standard of health care in the camp, especially for children, was substantially lower than in Australia. Vaccinations were incomplete, and an arcane translation system meant delays of ten to 15 days to see a health worker.

Learning was limited – children received less schooling than Australian or Nauruan children and had few opportunities for play. They were at higher-than-average risk for infectious diseases, mental health issues and developmental problems because of their circumstances, but were not adequately screened to identify these problems.

All pregnant women were depressed; most were severely depressed. Over the previous 14 months, seven adults harmed themselves each month, including by hanging and cutting; two people had been evacuated for psychiatric conditions every month.

Basic public health measures – preventing overcrowding, managing medical and toilet waste, having safe clean water – were precarious.

Many services were lacking or limited, including specialist child care, paediatrics and dental services. Other service providers lacked relevant expertise, particularly in mental health. The report’s authors concluded that if a small child became severely ill, she might die before being transferred off the island.

The stories are especially memorable. One child needed teeth pulled out. That required three appointments because there were no painkillers available, and

the previous two visits had been curtailed because… the child could not tolerate the procedure. … http://theconversation.com/why-care-about-the-health-and-well-being-of-asylum-seekers-27382

Pamela Curr
Refugee Rights Advocate
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
Ph 0417517075

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