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Asylum seekers: the uncertainty and the separation

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Thursday, 22 October 2009

Sharman Stone's recent bizarre rhetoric about “exploding” populations of people on Christmas Island and accusations of corruption against UNHCR were last week replaced by Philip Ruddock's familiar doom and gloom warnings about “pipelines” and “floods” of asylum seekers coming to overwhelm us.

The Coalition built the Christmas Island detention centre at great cost to Australian people and now they don't seem to want to use it. So what is their strategy? A return to temporary visas and transporting people to poor Pacific islands?

The Pacific Solution cost more than $320 million, caused great suffering to genuine refugees, damaged our standing around the world and created dependency and division in the poor countries we bribed to hold people.


Such little concern was held for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees that people taken to the Pacific Solution camp in PNG in 2001 were placed at great risk.

Asylum seekers were housed in a malaria prone area and reports obtained under FOI show that they were not initially protected from this deadly strain of the disease. A health assessment more than three months after the arrival of asylum seekers found that “there was no supply of personal insect repellent (DEET based) available, no mefloquinine in the clinical pharmacy or hospital (despite a long- outstanding order). Fogging was being carried out irregularly, and that a cursory inspection of the camp and surrounding forests indicated a significant number of breeding sites.”

The capacity of the local hospital in Manus to manage an emergency was said to be "seriously limited" due to a “relative disarray of equipment and drugs, absence of key equipment, combined with a lack of staff familiarity”.

Reports noted that “in the event of a major emergency, particularly involving trauma or serious internal medical problem, we would be ill-equipped to cope”.

An example is given of a 14-year-old girl who had just been evacuated to Port Moresby for “emergency management and stabilisation” after the identification of early ketoacidosis of juvenile onset diabetes, months after her arrival. "Had she progressed to advanced ketoacidosis we would have been unable to manage her resuscitation and orderly evacuation. We have no soluble insulin", the report stated.

It seems that while Philip Ruddock was incorrectly telling us that asylum seekers were throwing their children in the water and that they were not the kind of people we wanted in Australia, Australians were unaware that Ruddock and his government were placing those children in danger. Australians were not allowed to enter those camps to see what was going on. This girl and her parents were on the "children overboard" boat. After their eventual evacuation from PNG they spent another year in an Australian detention centre where the mother was also diagnosed with diabetes.


In 2005 a group of 25 asylum seekers in Nauru were so badly traumatised that the Coalition Government had to bring them onshore to try to fix the damage caused by the Pacific Solution policy. A report from IOM noted that this group had been “suffering from their mental health cases for several years already and are deemed to be highly vulnerable to do self harm if they will still continue to stay in the Offshore Processing Centre in Nauru or any similar environment”.

Of the two remaining Iraqis in Nauru in 2006 one was evacuated to Australia because he had become suicidal. He spent six months in a mental health institution before he was released and is now on a permanent visa.

Temporary visas were designed to punish genuine refugees in Australia and some are only now reuniting with children after more than a decade of uncertainty and separation. When TPVs were introduced in 1999 we saw an increase in women and children getting on boats to reunite with their fathers and husbands. When the SIEV X went down on its way to Australia in 2001, 353 mostly women and children drowned. We can expect the same if this ineffective policy is introduced again.

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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