It’s called Operation Sovereign Borders. “It will steadily be put into effect and I am confident we can stop the boats,” says Major General Angus Campbell, who will be running the new operation. Recently promoted to a three-star general, the military leader had previously served in Australia’s forces in the Middle East and East Timor.
It sounds like a dangerous military operation. They’re trying to “stop the boats,” like an impending invasion. But it’s not. Full of military language and coded with imagery of the shores of Australia being overwhelmed, Operation Sovereign Borders is the new Coalition government’s plan to divert boats of migrants and asylum seekers from ever stepping foot on Australian soil.
“If the government is successful in doing this, then conceivably there will eventually be no asylum seekers in the Australian mainland, and the mainland detention facilities will close, and we won’t provide counselling to asylum seekers,” says Bowen Summerton, Asylum Seeker Services Coordinator at Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS). ASeTTS, an IRCT member in Perth, Western Australia, currently has access to provide counselling and other mental health services for asylum seekers in detention in the region. However, with a different government and policy, this may change – an extremely worrying situation for torture survivors who seek asylum in Australia.
Asylum seekers and refugees are clearly a fraught issue in Australia. So much so that many have claimed the recent election of opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose campaign slogans echoed the “stop the boats” rhetoric, was as much about tax and political infighting as it was a referendum on the current immigration policies. More than 17,000 people arrived by boat in 2012, the majority from Iran, Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. This was up from around 4,500 the previous year.
Currently, all people who are unauthorized to be in Australia – whether arriving by plane, overstaying visas or coming by boat – are detained. Previously, there were some exceptions, namely the health of asylum seekers.
“Long term detention is significantly correlated with poor mental health outcomes regardless of a background history of torture and trauma,” says Bowen. ASeTTS has access to the three immigration detention centres in the Western Cape, of the total of eight in the Australian mainland, and alternative and community detention in the region. For those victims of torture in detention, they can provide counselling and, depending on needs, access to a psychiatrist.
Research strongly suggests that detention of asylum seekers greatly worsens health, particularly mental health, with many reporting systems of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. These are common psychological effects of torture, which are also greatly exacerbated in detention settings.
“Assisting recovery from torture and trauma is generally more difficult in detention, regardless of the length of time, because of the environment, which can counteract attempts to restore safety, meaning and dignity,” he says.
However, despite the risks of trauma and the health needs of asylum seekers, the new government has promised to end the exceptions. All unauthorized immigrants will be detained, many of them in the off-shore detention and processing facilities in Christmas Island, a territory of Australia, Nauru, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, or Papua New Guinea.
It’s far too politically easy to say simply “stop the boats,” backed by military might. Rather than quick slogans and three-star generals, Australia needs to assume the more difficult responsibility to international human rights obligations. As the Australian Human Rights Commission describes, “The Australian Government has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected… These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.”
Asylum seekers need to be screened for traumas, such as previous cases of torture, to ensure that they are both, not detained, but importantly, given access to appropriate care and treatment as soon as possible.
By Tessa, Communications Officer at IRCT