“Most countries don’t detain asylum seekers” or, if they are detained, they “are only detained until the UNHCR recognises them and then they are released,” Robyn Sampson, researcher with the International Detention Coalition told a public meeting on alternatives to detention of asylum seekers.
Sampson visited a several countries as part of her research. One of the countries she visited, Spain, gets many asylum seekers arriving by boat from Africa. These “boat people” are regarded as humanitarian arrivals. If these boat people apply for asylum, they are housed in a reception centre where people can come and go as they wish, have access to legal advice, health and education and counselling for survivors of torture and trauma.
In Hong Kong, asylum seekers are detained but released within two weeks and then housed in apartments dispersed throughout the city.
Sampson said that “Detention should be the last resort. Detention harms people regardless of how good mental health was in the beginning. The experience of detention stays with people — similar to the experience of people who were innocent of the crime they were jailed for.”
Convenor of Alliance of Health Professionals for Asylum Seekers, Professor Louise Newman, also addressed the forum, saying that “protest actions by asylum seekers in detention centres is better than self-harm”.
She said that there is an “increasing number of people with psychotic symptoms [in immigration detention centres], not just a bit depressed … two to three people each day are attempting suicide by hanging.
“People with psychosis can not be treated or managed in detention centres.
“We cannot accept any detention, even community detention for minors. Young children are self-harming before they are even old enough to understand what they are doing.”
The Alliance of Health Professionals for Asylum Seekers has conducted research which found that “people can’t tolerate situations where they feel abandoned and subject to indefinite detention”.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre pointed out that community detention isn’t great either because it “is so secretive. It’s hard to find out where people have been sent or what they need”.
She referred to a case where an asylum seeker who had been in detention in Melbourne was released into community detention in Brisbane where he knew nobody, and was too scared to leave his flat for more than a week. He was sent to Brisbane without his medication. It was very difficult for refugee advocates in Melbourne to find out his location in order to offer him support.
Michael Gordon, national editor of the Age added that “Nauru was worse than other detention centres because asylum seekers were totally islolated. They weren’t allowed any visitors. Some refugees who experienced Nauru are still unable to cope.”
Jessie Taylor, lawyer and refugee advocate, condemned the Gillard government’s proposed amendments to the Migration Act as writing “natural justice and fairness out of the Migration Act” and giving the immigration minister “unfettered discretion”.
The Malaysian refugee swap deal was exposed as a fraud by Angeline Loh, Malaysian human rights activist with ALIRAN.
She said that the “special conditions negotiated” by the Australian government for the 800 asylum seekers it planned to send to Malaysia, would expire as soon as these asylum seekers received their UNHCR card.
Once they receive their UNHCR card, “they will be treated as illegal migrants by the Malaysian government … All refugees regarded as illegal migrants by the Malaysian government, [are] subject to arrest and jailing. Immigration detention centres are reported to be worse than local lock-ups for criminals.
“There’s no access to education or health. Asylum seekers have spoken of torture resulting in death. Without the right to work, refugees are forced to join the undocumented workforce.”
She said that there had been cases where Sri Lankan and Burmese government officials had been allowed to visit Sri Lankan and Burmese refugees in detention to pressure them to return.