Fear and Hypocrisy in Australia: Immigration Detention and Free Speech

It was not long ago that the Abbott government vowed to champion free speech, pledging to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a section of the act that made almost completely useless speech illegal. This commitment was re-affirmed a number of times, including again in early 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It seems however the government’s commitment to free speech is largely selective, actively working to keep the marginalised and powerless out of the debate, happy to gag and attack those who dissent.

The recently introduced Border Force Act has raised the ire of a number of individuals and professional bodies, gaining significant media attention with a possible two year prison sentence for speaking about the conditions in immigration detention. Much has been said about how this will impact on the ability of health professionals to report abuse and advocate for patients, however less has been said about how this will only further silence those who are genuinely voiceless.

Silencing the Silenced

The stories we hear from within detention centres are often told through third parties, with many former employees feeling compelled to speak on behalf of those who could not. For all the noise surrounding immigration detention policies, how many of those voices are refugees or asylum seekers?
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Hannah Arendt explored this powerlessness in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that even though human rights are proclaimed to be universal, asylum seekers and stateless persons were left with nothing to protect their rights, effectively in limbo, no longer a member of a community where their rights could be enforced. This precarious situation has often been referred to as “the right to have rights”.

“… but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.”

She emphasised how this stripped away the right to make oneself heard and opinions matter.

“The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective… They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to have an opinion”

Managing and processing the powerless

Immigration detention in Australia compounds this powerlessness by further limiting asylum seekers ability to control their own lives and speak candidly about their circumstances. Andre Dao reminds us that this powerlessness can manifest in asylum seekers gambling on their bodies, a symbolic way to regain some control, to be heard. As Dao puts it “you are no longer a human being with free will. Instead, you’re a problem to be managed, an object to be processed.” Few better statements sum this up than these words recalled by an ex-detainee on a hunger strike who was being spoken to by a department employee.

“You understand that your life is in our hands. Your death is also in our hands because we won’t let you die.”

Although a number of asylum seekers have spoken out over the years, their voices rarely make it to the mainstream. Furthermore there remains the expectation of silence both during and after detention, it is not until permanent residency has been gained and families reunited that many feel safe to speak about their experiences.

Silenced subjects and misinformation

Maintaining this silence is key to maintaining our current approach to asylum seekers. The system has been built around rhetoric and misinformation, from children overboard to the present day. Most people can bark back three word slogans, but fewer could tell you what percentage of the world’s asylum seekers arrive on our shores or begin to explain the trauma and torture many have faced before finding safety.

The voices we most need in our debates around asylum seeker policy in Australia are absent, not only that, they are actively excluded. So as well as threatening professionals with gaol time, the Border Force Act only further ensures that that we never get to hear these stories, it ensures that we don’t know who we are locking up or for what reason.

It’s not obvious how the Border Force Act serves to “stop the boats” or “smash the people smugglers business model”, taking into account the boats stopped a long time ago. In attempting to justify this legislation however, the rhetoric has boiled down to a very familiar means justifying the ends rationale, something we should all be careful of and something where it seems appropriate to leave the last words with Hannah Arendt.

“The crimes against human rights, which have become a speciality of totalitarian regimes, can always be justified by the pretext that right is equivalent to being good or useful for the whole in distinction to its parts.”

Ryan Essex

PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney.

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EVENT: Symposium on Academic Publishing and the Futures of Research

Image taken from page 213 of 'Queen Mab. A novel'
The Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (VELiM) is hosting an event on the academic publishing industry and the commercialization of knowledge production.

In recent years there has been a lot of self-reflection about the effects of neoliberalism on the university and the practices of teaching and research. This symposium will focus on academic publishing and the impacts of paywalls on academic practices, but also democratic access to knowledge required for policy-making and informed public debate.

Speaking to The Guardian, Dr Claire Hooker outlined some of the concerns associated with current academic publishing practice, saying:

There are people out there who are worried about the effects of medicines, or who want to know more about the evidence informing the health policies that affect them, but they can’t find the answers because they hit a paywall.

Professor Paul Komesaroff (Monash), who will also be part of the symposium, argues that more open and democratic models of publishing are needed. According to Komesaroff, scholars are looking for these models. However, it appears that the current institutional arrangements and intensives make it difficult to imagine alternatives.

The symposium looks to explores some of these alternatives. For more information see the below.

Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons
The Ethics of Academic Publishing and the Futures of Research

Type: Seminar
Date: Wednesday 26 August 2015
Time: 9.00 AM to 4.00 PM
Venue: State Library, Mitchell Wing
Cost: Free
Click here to book

Speakers include: Emeritus Professor Stephen Leeder, Professor Paul Komesaroff, Associate Professor Andrew Bonnell, Dr John Byron, JoAnne Sparks, Dr Virginia Barbour, Rosalia Garcia (SAGE), and Professor Christopher Wright.
Chair: Dr Claire Hooker

The symposium will comprise four sessions:

  • 9:00-10:30 Session 1: Corporatization and the commercialization of knowledge
  • 11:00-12:00 Session 2: Democratizing knowledge or selling the farm? The emergence and challenges of ‘Open Access’
  • 12:00-1:00 Session 3:  Dissolving barriers – and boundaries: Scholars and the possibilities of the new digital knowledge commons
  • 2:00-4:00 Session 4: Taking up the challenge of ethical academic publication

Catering is provided

For more information please contact;
Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine
T +61 410 161841 | E velim.event@sydney.edu.au

Politics, Power and Children in Detention

Politics are all around us, playing out in national, local and even domestic governance. Politics have to do with the polis, the people who make up groups of any kind. In that sense, politics are unavoidable. Our relationships with others always contain a political element. Party politics are a subset of politics in its broad sense. Party politics are partisan, ideologically informed patterns of thought and action that suggest how politics should translate into governance in a way that is consistent with a set of underlying values. They condense around different beliefs in power relationships between governors and governed, in the rights and statuses of the different groups that make up the polis, in the control and dissemination of information, and in the responsibilities of government and individuals towards one another.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Party politics is made up of what Gallie termed ‘essentially contested concepts’. No one, for example, disputes the existence of the multitudes of people fleeing poverty, instability, persecution and fear. Nor do they dispute the reality of the moral and practical problems they pose for the countries to which they try to flee. But the agreements end at about this point. Some interpret this mass movement as a challenge to their sense of humanity and to their obligations to observe human rights. Others, while acknowledging the human problems of displacement, feel that local territorial rights and laws take precedence, and that the welfare of the host countries is paramount. Turning unregistered and unscreened refugees (“illegals”) away is, in that ideology, a better and safer and fairer alternative to dealing with them by taking them in.

Australia has been foremost among western countries in ‘turning back the boats’ and in making off-shore detention inevitable for those who do manage the journey, pointing to the success of that policy in preventing drownings and restricting the numbers of refugees who reach Australian territorial waters. By contrast, Italy has done its best to rescue enormous numbers of people fleeing North Africa, and to find some kind of accommodation for them. Neither side can be said to have found ‘the’ answer to a massive humanitarian crisis. Italy’s resources have been overstretched. The Australian mode of management appears to contravene United Nations conventions on refugees.

Party-Politics & the Report into Children in Detention

Into the middle of this dilemma, which is partly political in the broad sense and strongly party political in a narrower sense, came the Report into Children in Detention, chaired by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs. The Report found more than 200 children to be in off-shore or Australian detention under conditions that harm their development and infringe the UN statements on human rights. The Commission’s findings seem to be supported by doctors who have visited the detention centres, and by various leaks from people who have worked in Nauru and Christmas Island. The Australian Government’s response has been to deny the accuracy of the report, to attack Triggs’s integrity, to accuse her of partisan reporting, and to call for her resignation.

The report calls for the early release of children from detention, and for proper acknowledgement of their rights, particularly their rights to grow into reasonable adulthood, equipped with education and some sense of identity and stability. It makes many comments about the suffering of adults, but its focus is on children and the overwhelming impact that violence, insecurity, uncertainty, heat, lack of space and lack of hygiene will have on their lives.

The report does not deal so much with the original party-political decision to turn back the boats. It does take issue with both political parties’ decisions to enforce mandatory detention, and it does so predominantly in the context of the impact of that policy on children.

Triggs & the Ruin of Party-Politics

It makes disturbing reading. Presumably that is why it has provoked such extreme responses from both sides of party politics.

On the right, party politicians and right-wing newspapers have belittled Triggs and accused her of bias against them, of dishonesty and inaccuracy. They question the timing of the inquiry, which began soon after the election of the LNP in 2013. They have recommended imprisonment for anyone who leaks relevant information to the media, such as those who supplied some of the information that Triggs relied upon.

On the left (and in the centre), politicians, commentators and media have called for the report to be taken seriously, for secrecy to be lifted and for legislation to protect refugee children. For these people, the timing of the report is irrelevant because its contents demand some major response. At the same time, those who oppose the present government’s theories and practices have used the report as a lever to destabilise the government’s refugee policies more generally, pointing out that what happens to the children is a consequence of what happens to “illegal” refugees at large.

All these conflicts of interpretation and accusations of dishonesty signal the presence of an essentially contested concept. The big concerns for us are:

  1. That politics in the broad sense have been confused with a much narrower party politics;
  2. That the present government’s refusal to allow access to the detention facilities effectively disables any public debate;
  3. That the punishments threatened against anyone who reveals ‘classified’ information about the centres are Draconian;
  4. That the government’s vigorous attacks on the report and its author suggest that they had a pre-formed notion of what the report should say.

Essentially contested concepts make up a significant part of our ‘political’ lives – they always have and they always will. What is important is the way in which these contests are handled. A totalitarian government will settle them one way; a liberal democracy will try to find another.

Ignoring the Real Issue

What is at stake in this confrontation is not Gillian Triggs’s credibility, but the public perception of its preferred mode of government. Apparently, more than 50% of the population approve the present government’s approach to refugees or believe that it should be more extreme. We can only hope that they understand that Triggs, in her appointed role as Human Rights Commissioner, was writing about children in detention, and that government decisions to discredit her well-supported findings by political force majeur raise serious concerns about the reality of our much vaunted participatory democracy.

Emeritus Professor Miles Little, University of Sydney

Miles was the Founding Director of the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (1996-2003). He was also the Foundation Professor of Surgery at Westmead Hospital in 1978 and a Co-Founder of the World Association of Hepatic, Pancreatic and Biliary Surgeons (1987). Since 1996, Miles is an Emeritus Professor of Surgery at the Sydney Medical School. At the VELiM, he continues to teach and is directing the Cancer Survivorship Project. Miles interests include Medical Sociology and Biomedical Ethics. He is also a published poet.

Profiting from asylum-seeker detention: Time to divest

Christopher Mayes and Ian Kerridge

On the 25th May 2015 the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) called on the Australian Government to end mandatory detention and release asylum seekers from offshore processing centres. President of the RACP, Laureate Professor Nicholas Talley outlined the College’s Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health Position Statement, which calls for:

  • more rigorous health assessments for asylum seekers on arrival;
  • better access to healthcare for asylum seekers and refugees in the community;
  • increased support services for refugees; and
  • an immediate end to mandatory detention and the release of all asylum seekers into the Australian community.

Physicians and health care professionals have witnessed first-hand the trauma of asylum-seekers in detention and have repeatedly made public the insufficient medical care available in these facilities. Professor Talley states that “Our Fellows have been inside the detention facilities. We have treated refugees and asylum seekers during their detention and after their release into the community…These people are not numbers, they are our patients.”

A time to boycott?

In September 2014 the Medical Journal of Australia published an article questioning whether the asylum-seeker policy and conditions were so bad that health professionals should boycott working in them. This article was widely reported in the mainstream media and raised awareness of the ethical and medical compromises forced upon health professionals.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

As others have argued, however, while a targeted boycott campaign should be considered, refusing to provide medical care to asylum seekers would only harm the already harmed. health professionals have an ethical obligation to their patients. As Professor Talley notes “we are duty bound to speak on behalf of our patients – especially since their human rights are increasingly seen as optional.” And it may be only when health professionals see for themselves the conditions in which asylum seekers are kept, and the standards of health care they receive, that they will be motivated to speak out against injustice and advocate for better and more humane care.

Time to divest

Compounding the ethical and medical harms resulting from mandatory detention is the fact that the Australian Government spends $3.3 billion a year to maintain this policy. This money is used to pay contractors and publicly listed companies to run and operate detention facilities.

Of these, the greatest beneficiary is Transfield Services. Transfield Services’s share price spiked after it was awarded a new contract to run the detention facilities on Manus Islands. Although the share price soon declined, mandatory detention makes companies like Transfield Services appear like a good investment option.

The superannuation fund, HESTA, invests in Transfield Services. At present HESTA is a significant shareholder in Transfield Services.[1] Considering that HESTA is the superannuation for the health and community services industry it is troubling that they are using the retirement savings of physicians, nurses, allied health practitioners and social workers to invest in a company that profits from the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Fifteen of Australia’s peak health organisations have publicly condemned the Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy. Yet, many of the members of these organizations may unwittingly be financially entangled with the very system they condemn. Rather than calling for health professionals to boycott working in detention centres, there is a campaign for health professionals with their super with HESTA to call on HESTA to divest from Transfield Services.

A multi-pronged strategy is needed to resist and disrupt the detention industry. Political and ethical arguments are essential to convince politicians and the public that mandatory detention should be abandoned. However, it is also important to recognize that detention is a business – that profits and financial gains are being made through the asylum seeker polices and that we may be unknowingly supporting and profiting from these businesses and policies ourselves.

It is time to divest.

[1] As of 27 February 2015, HESTA holds just under 5% of shares in Transfield Services with over 23.5 million shares. http://asxcomnewspdfs.fairfaxmedia.com.au/2015/03/02/01604569-575220267.pdf

Asylum seeker’s ‘brain death’ shows failure of care and of democracy

By Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney and David Isaacs, University of Sydney

The news that Hamid Kehazaei, a 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker detained on Manus Island, has been diagnosed as brain dead following his transfer to the Mater Hospital in Brisbane is a tragedy. That it is a tragedy for this young man and his family is unquestionable – but the extent of this tragedy may be much more pervasive than we realise.

If the emerging details of his case are correct, Kehazaei developed septicaemia as a complication of cellulitis (skin and soft-tissue infection) arising from a cut in his foot. This, in itself, is disturbing.

Severe infection can result in brain death – either from infection of the brain itself (meningitis, encephalitis or brain abscess), or from brain injury due to a lack of oxygen resulting from cardiac arrest (as appears to be the case here), or from reduced blood supply to the brain. Yet it is very uncommon, especially in a young, previously healthy man.

Such a case could occur in Australia and has been described in 2012 in young Indigenous adults in Central Australia. Nevertheless, severe sepsis resulting from a foot infection is preventable. And a case like this occurring in an Australian national would raise serious questions about the appropriateness of the antibiotics used and the timeliness of care.

Most cases of brain death result from traumatic brain injury, stroke or lack of oxygen to the brain following asphyxia, near-drowning, or prolonged cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

What happened to Hamid Kehazaei raises concerns about the adequacy of care provided to him during initial treatment, including wound care and antibiotics, and how soon he was transferred to expert medical care, first to Port Moresby and subsequently to Brisbane.

If this young man became ill and had his brain die while seeking asylum in Australia and while in our care, then we must examine the details of his case and ask ourselves not only whether it was preventable but whether our policies and processes actually contributed to his death.

But how can we even begin to ask these types of questions when we know so little about the circumstances in which he became ill, and his subsequent care?

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