Reza Berati’s name has been prescient in Australian minds in recent weeks. His death in Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre during a protest two weeks ago has sparked Australia-wide candlelight vigils, protests on the mainland, and an outcry against our current immigration detention policies. It is truly horrible to be confronted with the death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker who came to Australia looking for a new life.
However, why must it take a violent death for people to speak out against this practice of offshore detention? It has long been known that these facilities are atrocious and unsafe for those asylum seekers who are held there.
Conditions within Australian Immigration Detention Centres have been described, at best, as “jail-like” and at worst as “totally unacceptable”. In an affidavit by an Iranian refugee who had spent nine years in a Pakistani detention camp, she stated IDCs had worse conditions. Asylum seekers held in IDCs explain feelings of being jailed, treated like cattle, and being called numbers instead of names by the staff, who often have a history of working in prisons. This is in addition to stories of extreme punishments, such as being deprived of blankets and held in solitary confinement with no toilet facilities. On top of this, a study found most facilities did not have a full-time doctor, nor psychiatric specialist and some facilities had just one nurse and an on-call doctor for up to 1,000 detainees. Despite these conditions, the cost of a bed in offshore detention centres is upwards of $900 a day for one asylum seeker.
What am I arguing here? Do I believe that people should be put up in five-star hotels while their applications for asylum are being processed for years at a time? Obviously not. However, seeking asylum is perfectly legal in Australia and wholesale jailing of people is not legal.
Add these conditions together, along with the high rates of self-harm of children (approximately 80 % of whom have self-harmed) and adults in Australia’s offshore and onshore IDCs, and you have to wonder why it takes this particular death to raise the alarm bells for the people of Australia to take notice of what’s going on within our IDCs. Why is there less media commentary surrounding the lack of response to the detention of children on Manus in comparison to the outcry of this death?
While Reza Berati’s death is nothing to dismiss, his death in an immigration detention centre is not the first. There are other detainees in Australian IDCs who have died because of poor medical treatment or who quietly took their own life in desperation that need to be recognized and counted (See the full list at The Border Observatory’s Border Death Database). It is well past the time to start questioning our policy of treating asylum seekers like illegal invaders and look for a humanitarian-based, on-shore response. It is not safe for women, children, or men in these detention facilities , so it is time to close the doors on centres and open the doors to asylum seekers who are looking for a new life.
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