Opinion

Editorial
Asylum seekers face a septic processing system

We know what killed Reza Barati, the Iranian asylum seeker beaten to death while detained on Manus Island by the Abbott government.

Reza Barati was killed by a racist antagonism built up between detainees, centre staff and the Papua New Guinean police – by a combustible situation dreamed in Canberra and forced onto the shores of a developing neighbour.

As one of the detention centre’s staff told the Cornall inquiry: “The locals took the view that while transferees did not want to be in PNG, PNG did not want them here either.” 

Robert Cornall’s report was damning. To the volatile struggle in which asylum seekers and their foreign warders were locked was added inadequate training, overcrowding and dilapidated facilities. A final element was stacked on by the minister, just before the riots: now no one on the island would ever be settled in Australia, regardless of the legitimacy of their claims.

Accepting the Cornall report, Scott Morrison seemed to miss its point. His assessment: “There would have been no incident that night had there been no protests, I think that’s clear to say.”

Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island by a processing system designed, in its deliberate cruelty, to deter asylum seekers. His death said in the most extreme terms what consecutive governments have been saying for some time: Australia does not welcome refugees.

That statement was made again on Manus Island this week, when it emerged a 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker named Hamid Kehazaei was allowed to develop septicaemia at the centre. For months now, it has been known that medical facilities at all offshore detention centres are inadequate, and yet little has been done. But the deliberate cruelty continues unchecked. Kehazaei was reportedly flown to Brisbane, brain dead and suffering kidney failure.

At the same time, leaked reports from the centre’s operational staff show asylum seekers are being punished in an isolation facility not shown on official maps. Detainees, deemed “non-compliant” before being sent to isolation, reported being fed bread and water and being forced to sleep in mud. The logs showed “major incidents” almost every day at the centre. In the worst case, one of the men who witnessed Reza Barati’s murder slashed his chest and face with a razor.

Earlier, the chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers, Peter Young, had told Guardian Australia the detention system had been designed to deliberately harm those within it.

“We have here an environment that is inherently toxic,” he said. “It has characteristics which over time reliably cause harm to people’s mental health. We have very clear evidence that that’s the case.”

It was, he continued, a kind of torture: “If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.”

There is, in this blood and mental anguish, in the children made wretched by worry, regressing in development, forced back into nappies or out of speech, a moral barbarism that must be corrected. Australia must no longer say with the lives of the vulnerable that it does not welcome refugees.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "A septic system". Subscribe here.

Editorial