ANMF (Vic Branch) members resolved to campaign for the compassionate treatment of asylum seekers after a distressing presentation by a registered nurse and midwife about ‘disgusting’ conditions at Nauru detention centre and the poor mental state of asylum seekers held there.
Marianne Evers told 681 Job Representatives and Health & Safety Representatives at the ANMF Delegates Conference that on her first night at Nauru she treated a psychotic asylum seeker who was crawling in the dirt begging her to let him die.
Ms Evers arrived in Nauru at the end of 2012 and resigned ‘in total disgust’ because she felt that by continuing to work there she was party to torture. Ms Evers said the detention centre fits the definition of a concentration camp. She said:
- Asylum seekers, including children, were addressed by their boat number, not their names.
- Asylum seekers were sleeping in open tents on stretcher beds or boards, surrounded by security guards, with no privacy whatsoever
- Asylum seekers were being bitten by rats and mice. One man, ‘in floods of tears’ had awoken to a sharp pain in his foot to find that a rat had bitten into the nail bed of his toe
- Gastro-enteritis and other illnesses were rife as a result of insanitary conditions and lack of water
- Suicide attempts, self-harm including sewing together of lips and hunger strikes had become increasingly common
- Ms Evers took an asylum seeker to hospital after he had been on a hunger strike for six weeks to discover that there were no intravenous fluids available.
‘Why in a country which boasts prosperity and peace are asylum seekers demonised for seeking safety and freedom?’ Ms Evers asked the audience of nurses and midwives.
‘Why does Australia have policies that result in degrading human treatment amounting to torture without the general public even batting an eyelid?’
Ms Evers described successive Australian governments’ rhetoric about the asylum seekers being ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ as dishonest, saying that it was not illegal to pursue asylum and to arrive by boat without papers.
‘The idea that desperate people will conduct themselves as if waiting for a bus is not only ludicrous, it reveals a complete lack of empathy and understanding of why refugees flee in the first place,’ Ms Evers said.
Australia – a large country of prosperity and peace – received a miniscule number of applications for asylum compared with smaller European countries. Over a period of 37 years Australia had received 69,445 applications for asylum, only slightly higher than the 67,400 that Germany had received in the first six months of 2014.
Ms Evers said the indefinite nature of asylum seekers’ incarceration on Nauru, together with the appalling conditions, were leaving people in a dangerous mental state without hope.
‘I simply cannot get these men, with their sad eyes, trying to commit suicide, being assaulted, and suffering from the worse human rights abuses…out of my mind,’ Ms Evers said.
Ms Evers’ courage in speaking out was applauded by Fabienne Baldan, Principal Adviser, Major Projects and Inquiries, Australian Human Rights Commission, who presented at the conference on the ‘Forgotten children inquiry into children in immigration detention‘.
The report of the inquiry, which was headed by Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, was released last year. It was the largest study of children in detention, Ms Baldan said, collating the experiences of 638 children.
‘The level of dehumanising of children (in immigration detention centres), even of babies, is extraordinary,’ Ms Baldan said.
‘What we found was that, by the end of our inquiry, 726 children had been detained for more than a year and two months. I don’t know what kind of crime you have to commit in Australia to get that kind of sentence but it’s usually something fairly serious.’
The Inquiry found that children in immigration detention centres had significantly higher rates of mental health disorders than Australian children and that the government, by detaining children, was are in serious breach of the rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Delegates resolved to commend the work of Professor Triggs and her team in exposing the appalling treatment by successive federal governments of those seeking asylum and develop a campaign strategy to lobby for parties to take humane asylum seeker policies to the next federal election.