Published 18 February 201428 February 2014 · Politics / Polemics Punitive refugee detention: how much worse can it get? Lizzie O'Shea The breaking news about the fatal attacks on asylum seekers in Manus Island is horrific. But over the last few years that I have been representing refugees, I have heard many stories that compete in their nastiness. I have heard about a man with an acute mental illness detained for days on end in solitary confinement in a detention centre in searing heat. I have heard multiple stories of rape in detention. I heard about a male child who was repeatedly raped, after warning guards that it would happen. He was told he could not be moved to another location. I heard directly from the parents of a female child raped in detention, so crippled with shame she withdrew her police complaint within hours of making it. I have heard about women being administered vaccinations while pregnant. I have heard many stories of women miscarrying, including incomplete miscarriages without proper medical care. If you are living in the community and you are taken into detention, you are required to hand over any valuables to Serco, who run the detention centres. I heard about a widow who handed over her jewellery and her precious, precious savings, only to be told upon release that they were missing. The jewellery is one of her very few physical mementos of her husband, killed in war. She has never seen any of those possessions again. I know that people are flown to the mainland to receive medical treatment regularly, but it’s not clear how this policy is implemented. Currently, it seems that all pregnant women held on Christmas Island are being flown to Australia to undergo routine scans and then flown back again. This policy seems to have started after a woman lost her baby offshore. Ominously, I’ve heard nothing about care given to pregnant women in Nauru or Manus Island. Consider: if you are held in an offshore setting in another country, Minister Morrison insists he owes you no duty of care at all. In Australia, one way we hold people accountable for breaching their duty of care (when we have proven that duty exists) is enlisting the help of a lawyer and suing the person responsible for negligence. It is very difficult to access asylum seeker clients, especially as many require an interpreter and to fly to where they are held is prohibitively expensive. Moreover, by a happy accident for the department – or, more likely, by design – such people are often far too terrified to sue, even when they are no longer in detention. The department has taken on the mythical characteristics attributed to the Stasi: it is regarded as all-knowing, all-powerful, unaccountable and invisible. As a result, we end up with policy that is clearly dangerous, contorted idiotically by the department’s obsession with evading (while at the same time outright denying) liability for the welfare of refugees. The other option for holding the government responsible is to have journalists investigate and report on these stories. But with the government leading the stern criticisms of the ABC in recent weeks, I have noticed a ‘chill factor’, which makes it seem increasingly unlikely that journalists will feel able pursue the stories I have outlined. The system we currently have is dangerous, inefficient, impractical – as well as obviously morally wrong. The movement of people through the system is utterly chaotic. People are being flown all over the place. Contractors breach their obligations all the time without consequences. It is policy made on the fly, dedicated to upholding small ideas without any consideration of consequences, material or otherwise. It results in a senseless waste of money and resources. This is not a government that knows what it is doing. So, punitive deterrents are not actually stopping the boats. What alternatives do we have? There are about 26,000 refugees in Indonesia. There are currently about 31,000 people in immigration detention in Australia (both in centres and community detention), on bridging visas or detained offshore. We currently supposedly issue about 20,000 visas annually under our humanitarian program. Something has got to give. Basically, we could fix some of the immediate problems if we tripled our intake over the next twelve months. That would mean accepting 57,000 refugees, which would still probably represent only about 23 percent of the 250,000 or so migrants we accept each year. In contrast to all the punitive strategies that have been put forward in the last decade, this strategy probably has the best chance of actually stopping the boats. People who are detained or are on bridging visas would then obtain the right to work and build a life. We would also save somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion. There would be increased costs of resettling people but these are likely to be cheaper than the current system – and even if they’re not, it’s surely better to spend the money on something other than a system designed to break the spirits of vulnerable people. Instead of thousands of people damaged by detention, we would have thousands of enthusiastic members of the community. I am not a demographer or a policy expert. So I may well have missed something; I am sure it is not that simple. But I am also not sure it is the big problem everyone in parliament makes it out to be. The obvious contentiousness lies is the fact that it is possible or perhaps even likely that more people might come to Indonesia seeking to come to Australia. We cannot stop this. I accept that many people who leave their home country are seeking a better life for their families. That is a natural and perfectly understandable human instinct. Indeed, it is an instinct that is still acted upon, despite the cruel and punitive responses from our government. Looking for a better life is not something that people should be punished for, just because they do not fit the rigid historical definitions of refugee. But even if we double or triple the number above, we get an estimate of 171,000 people coming here for that purpose. That’s still less than our current migration intake. It is worth remembering that most people, most of the time, want to stay where they are, rather than move. One female refugee I spoke to, who now has a protection visa, would quite like to see her mother who is dying of cancer. She cannot return for she has a well-founded fear of persecution. I am sure she is thrilled her son is getting a better life than he would have had if they stayed in their home country. But there are reasons people stay in their home countries. Most people most of the time do not want to leave their family and friends. A paradigm shift in policy will create lots of winners. The only loser will be Tony Abbott. Lizzie O'Shea Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology. More by Lizzie O'Shea › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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