29 November 2012

Cruelty in the name of all of us

On Monday 26 November The Canberra Times published an opinion piece by Amnesty International refugee policy expert Dr Graham Thom, who had just visited Nauru to examine the living conditions of asylum seekers who have been banished there. He writes:

For people seeking our protection, the accommodation is totally inappropriate. There were 14 men sharing the large tents, and five in smaller tents where there was little room inside to do anything but attempt sleep. The oppressive heat and humidity made staying in the tents during the day impossible. When it rained, tents leaked, forcing men to sleep on soaking beds. They showed us painful skin conditions caused by the heat and damp. On average 85 people a day visit the medical facility.

Outside the tents the rocky ground exacerbated the heat. With little shade, the men hung around the camp perimeter where the encroaching jungle provided some relief. If or when construction of a permanent processing centre begins, it will be just metres from their tents, claiming more of the little open space they now have to move around in. The noise and the dust created from construction, added to that from the nearby phosphate mining, will be horrific.

To read the full piece see Cruelty in the name of all of us. For an account of Dr Thom’s visit by The Age’s National Affairs Editor Michael Gordon see Floods, new rules add to refugees’ misery.

As Tony Windsor says (see here), we should all hang our heads in shame.

I have just four questions for the Prime Minister:

(1)  Did she not know, or did she not care, that the temperature under canvas would reach 50 degrees Centigrade on Nauru at this time of the year? She had a duty to know and a duty to care.

(3)  Did she not know, or did she not care, that the selected campsite was flood-prone and would inevitably flood during the wet season?

(3)  What consideration was given to the adequacy of medical and mental health facilities to cope with either a rapid expansion of the total population or the special needs of people who have been through the refugee experience? The total population of Nauru is less than 10,000 people. This is about the size of my home town of Armidale when I was at secondary school there in the 1950s. The medical facilities were perfectly adequate for the routine needs of the population but if you needed to see a specialist you went to Tamworth and for a variety of procedures you would fly to Sydney (as you still do). And if the local medical facilities were suddenly called upon to deal with hundreds of additional people, many with pre-existing ailments, trauma and mental health issues, it simply would not have coped.

(4)  Does she really believe that she can leave it to the Government of Nauru to process the claims of all the people she proposes to send there – or again, doesn’t she care?

It is hard to know whether it is incompetence or wanton cruelty that is at work here – probably a mixture of the two – but the situation that is unfolding on Nauru will demonstrate that incompetence can be just as dire for the recipients as cruelty.  It takes a great deal of logistical skill and a finely tuned supply chain, once you have deprived hundreds of people of any possibility of providing for themselves, to ensure that each and every one of them, every single day, gets the requisite food, clothing, shelter and preventative medical care (such as prophylaxis against mosquito-borne diseases), and that timely and appropriately specialised medical care is available when needed. In depriving people of the right to live and work in the community and take responsibility for their own lives our Government has taken upon itself a very heavy responsibility, but it shows no sign of being alive to that responsibility.

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