No assistance for asylum seekers

The Federal Government has moved to disband the independent body which provides advice on the physical and mental health needs of asylum seekers.

After recommendations from the Comrie and Palmer Inquiries, which examined immigration and mental health services following the inappropriate handling of Vivian Alvarez and Cornelia Rau, the Immigration Health and Advisory Group (IHAG) was established in 2006.  All the members of IHAG have now been sacked, except Dr Paul Alexander, who is believed to be heading a Government Advisory Panel. IHAG members claim that Dr Alexander, an Australian Defence Force medical expert, has little mental health experience.

Many of the members of IHAG were not expecting the news, Professor Louise Newman being one, “The group was informed on Friday that it has actually been disbanded, which is of course an issue of grave concern to the medical and health professionals involved,” she said.

“We’re certainly concerned that there’s currently no formal independent process of reviewing or oversight of the situation within detention.”

Associate Professor Amanda Gordon, the Australian Psychological Society’s representative to IHAG, believes that the Government has been planning to disband the group for some time, with meetings being cancelled and subgroups abolished. She also conveyed concern for the medical needs of those detained, “We are very concerned that people’s mental health needs will be completely unattended to and no one will look after them,” she said.

“In fact they are being only cared for in terms of security and that they are individual human beings who are going to be pawns to Government policy.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles was also surprised at the move to abolish IHAG, especially in the wake of such a damning Amnesty International report on the condition of Manus Island detention centre. “This is an inopportune time to disband the detention health advisory group at this moment because this is one of the mechanisms by which governments can ensure that appropriate standards are maintained,” he said.


Opinion: Why take the risk?

The removal of the independent health group which advises on the needs of asylum seekers seems to be foolhardy at best, but sadly I fear the worst.

It seems the Federal Government doesn’t have enough on its hands with the closure of Holden, the diplomatic crises with Indonesia and Timor, the carbon tax debacle and Qantas’ plea for help. No, this little bag of issues wasn’t enough for it not to deal with, it had to go and open itself up to potential claims of not giving two hoots about the health needs of asylum seekers.

The news that IHAG will be disbanded comes hot on the heels of the announcement that the Salvation Army’s contract to provide humanitarian services to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru will not be renewed, proving that this Government simply doesn’t care.

The concerns that Dr Paul Alexander doesn’t have the necessary experience in mental and psychiatric health should set alarm bells ringing. The research published in the latest edition of Medical Journal of Australia reveals that, in 2011, of the immigration centre detainees in Darwin who visited the Royal Darwin Hospital emergency department, 187 adult attendances were for psychiatric problems, including self-harm.

Before you all start jumping up and down and saying ‘they shouldn’t be there anyway’ and ‘they deserve it’, you’re right; they don’t deserve it and they shouldn’t be there. These are human beings and no matter what journey they embarked on, they have a right to be safe and their basic needs looked after. This is what Australia signed up to way back in 1954, when we were a nation that cared, when being a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees meant something. So before you start bleating about sending them back, perhaps you want to remind yourselves of what we agreed to be part of.

And in the true spirit of keeping the public in the dark, no-one from the Government returned any media calls for comment on this matter.

Is the Government’s hard-line policy on asylum seekers working? Who would know? Who will foot the bill for the mental health of all those unnecessarily incarcerated on Manus and Nauru? At Christmas, do you care?

Written by Debbie McTaggart