Sydney Archdiocese REPORT-
30 Sep 2011
On his monthly visits to the remote Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia, Bishop Christopher Saunders has seen an increase in the despair and despondency among the 1400-plus asylum seeker inmates.
The facility is severely over-crowded with as many as 40 men in crowded dormitories that have been hastily created from recreation rooms.
In a scathing report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the detention centre at the former air force base near Derby in Western Australia, was criticised for "dehumanising" detainees by referring to them by numbers, not names, as well as treating inmates with a lack of respect and dignity. The report severely condemned the facility saying indefinite detention at Curtin was very damaging on the mental health of inmates, with sharp increases in self harm, sleeplessness, and attempted suicide.
The Bishop of Broome, who is also Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council agrees with the Commission's findings, and says despite the Government's insistence on mandatory detention, there are other alternatives that should and must be explored.
"There are 200 charities ready and willing to help and oversee these people so they can live amongst the community while waiting for their refugee claims to be assessed," he says, adding there is enough suffering in life generally without forcing more suffering on people simply to score a political point.
"We do not have the right to inflict and project this sort of suffering on people through draconian measures such as mandatory detention," he says. "These people have done nothing wrong and have fled homelands that are in tatters or failed states in a bid to find safety for themselves and their children. They are already vulnerable and traumatised but instead of supporting and helping them, we lock them up."
Australians should be ashamed of how we treat asylum seekers, he says. "If we as a nation were invaded or wracked by civil war or if we were members of an ethnic group targeted for persecution, none of us would think twice of jumping into a boat in a bid to find safety for ourselves and our families."
Curtin Detention Centre saw a high rate of suicides and riots during the Howard Government years. Sited hundreds of kilometres from main centres, Curtin had difficulties in attracting staff and critics say inmates had little access to health services such as dentistry, medical specialists and psychiatric counselling, let alone the torture and trauma services inmates so desperately needed.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Centre, which was closed by the Howard Government, it was reopened in April 2010.
Initially it was supposed to house 500 male detainees but this has ballooned to 1400 with many sleeping in marquees or in the hastily converted dormitories.
As before, the problems attracting staff and access to all important medical and health facilities and support continue. As one inmate told the Human Rights Commission, "if we have a physical problem they give us panadol, if we have a mental problem they give us sleeping pills."
However despite the Report slamming the chronic overcrowding, remote location, intense heat and lack of activities for the men housed at Curtin, Bishop Saunders believes the real problem is the length of time they are being kept in detention, with some having been incarcerated for almost two years.
"The issue is one of time for these people. They have no idea how long they will be kept there and having done nothing wrong, are in despair," he says.
One tragic case he cites is that of a 13-year-old and 14-year-old at Curtin who were found to be genuine refugees but as children they had been forced to join the Tamil Tigers, considered a terrorist group by ASIO. So they remain in detention with no security clearance and no idea when or even if they will ever be free.
"If they (the authorities) told us you will be here for three years, maybe it will be easier instead of always waiting for next month, next month and it never comes," one Sri Lankan man at Curtin explained to the Commission.
Another detainee's plea was even more poignant. "People cry for animals kept in cages - why aren't they crying for us, we are human beings in a cage?"