'Anxiety and distress' on Christmas Island

Issue 

Green Left Weekly's Niko Leka spoke with Professor Louise Newman Friday, chair of the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group (DEHAG) following her recent visit to immigration facilities on Christmas Island.

Was this DEHAG's first visit to Christmas Island?

DEHAG is an independent health body, formed after several commissions of inquiry. We have visited Christmas Island previously, but that was before the [asylum seeker] numbers went up.

How are the asylum seekers coping at the moment?

They all feel degrees of anxiety and distress. They've seen traumatic things happening in their country. Their flight [from war zones etc] is often traumatic as well. Then they're far from their families and friends.

Do the living conditions in the detention centre add to their trauma?

Yes. Their accommodation is ramshackle and overcrowded. A couple of hundred are in tents with up to 40 people in each one. The tents are air-conditioned, but they're still really hot inside, unless you're standing right next to the duct. They're also using old Woomera and Baxter buildings, scattered all over the island

What about communication?

The communication facilities throughout the island are very poor. Net speed is really slow. The refugees have very limited access, because they only have about two computers to every 100 people. So it makes it hard for them to communicate with their families back home.

What about communication with people in Australia?

It's the same. The immigration lawyers are on the mainland. It's hard to talk about something as complex as detention law over the phone. It's hard enough for people who speak English, so it's harder for them if they're not good with English.

It's also the indefinite nature of detention that adds to their uncertainty and stress. If you're serving a prison sentence, you can think "well, that's my time" and you know how long it will be. But nobody can tell you how long you will be detained here.

There's only a certain amount of time before they start to suffer serious mental illness as a result of their detention. One of the refugees has started to refer to himself as "number one", because he's been there the longest, more than 10 months.

Another refers to himself as "number two", because he's been there nearly as long.

How are the refugees coping with the extreme weather?

Not only is it hot and humid, but when it rains the soil, which has a high mineral content, just turns into a sort of sludge. Because of the mineral content, there is little that can be grown there. There's no fresh fruit or vegetables. The food has to be flown in.

It's the same with water. Not much of the water there is drinkable. The locals rely on it being flown in.

Activity is the thing that helps them. The gym is used a lot by the younger guys. Courses are also very popular. Many of the Afghans are well educated or have a lot of skills that they're teaching. Most of the teaching is done by volunteers.