On ABC’s 7.30 Wednesday night, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison accused Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs of lying about the wellbeing of children in immigration detention on Christmas Island.
His timing couldn’t have been worse, because the very next day five doctors, a social worker and a former Department of Immigration director all gave evidence under oath that not only corroborates the sentiment of the claims made by Professor Triggs, but provides the clearest picture we have had to date of the appalling and harmful conditions inside immigration detention centres on Christmas Island and Nauru.
This is how the exchange between Morrison and 7.30 anchor Sarah Ferguson went:
SARAH FERGUSON: Let me just move on. The Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs says that virtually all of the 174 children on Christmas Island are sick. Children are self-harming, biting themselves, banging into furniture, swallowing poisons. How can this possibly be justified?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well I don’t believe that’s true, for a start. Under this government we’ve reduced the number of children in detention by almost 35 per cent. The number of children on Christmas Island has dramatically reduced by over 60 per cent. Under this government, we’ve funded children going to school in detention. On Nauru, we’ve funded the establishment of facilities, including schools …
SARAH FERGUSON: That – actually, as you are aware, that wasn’t my question. You’re saying that Gillian Triggs is making up the evidence about the sickness of children?
SCOTT MORRISON: I don’t think there is evidence of the claim that the high – the Human Rights Commissioner has made in the way that she has made it. These are difficult environments and appropriate care is provided by our people. I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been made. She herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there who provide that care on a daily basis.
Each witness at the Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention today was asked whether they felt the facilities at Christmas Island or Nauru were safe environments for children to be detained.
Apart from the witnesses from the Department of Immigration, one by one, each witness gave the same answer – Christmas Island and Nauru are not safe environments for anyone to be detained, especially not children.
“Nauru is completely inappropriate. It’s inappropriate for adults but it’s totally inappropriate for children and I think it’s causing physical and mental harm to children,” said social worker Kirsty Diallo who worked for Save the Children on Nauru in 2013 and 2014.
She said the children felt imprisoned and were often witnesses to violence, whether it be from a parent committing self harm or through violence between adult male detainees and centre security staff. There were no toys, books or pencils available to the children, she said, even though parents repeatedly begged for books. Children played with rocks and sticks and sometimes climbed perimeter fences just for something to do.
“There was one 11-year-old girl who told me a story … about how she’d gone on an excursion and she wanted to take back in a shell that she’d found at the beach and she was searched by security and they took away her shell. She was distressed about the fact that she wasn’t even allowed to have an item like that,” Diallo told the Inquiry.
“I believe that Nauru is absolutely not a safe environment for children to be detained,” said GP Ai-Lene Chan who was a doctor in the IHMS – the medical service provider for immigration detention facilities – clinic for a six-week period from 2013 to 2014. In fact, Dr Chan claimed that the environment itself was responsible for most of the physical and mental ailments children suffered from on Nauru.
Diallo and Chan’s evidence highlighted a litany of inhospitable conditions on Nauru, including:
- hot and humid conditions
- a lack of privacy with accommodation consisting of huge marquees separated into rooms for different families by black plastic sheets
- poor hygiene in communal bathroom facilities
- rocky, sharp and uneven ground that means most kids don’t have proper shoes because they wear through them in weeks
- glare from the white rock that means staff are required to wear sunglasses and hats, but which most asylum seekers don’t have
- inadequate clothing for kids who often only have the clothes they arrived in, even if they are winter clothes (at least one child lived in flannelette pyjamas because that was the only clothing they had)
- bathroom facilities situated a distance from family tents that meant children were too scared to go to the toilet at night, resulting in high incidents of bed wetting (one 16-year-old boy was allegedly sexually assaulted by a cleaner near the bathroom facilities)
- dehydration caused by a lack of willingness to drink water so as to avoid using communal toilet facilities; and
- a complete lack of space for children’s play.
And if we thought conditions on Christmas Island might be better, three other doctors put paid to that.
In explosive evidence, Dr Peter Young – a psychiatrist and former medical director for IHMS Mental Health Services – told the Inquiry that the Immigration Department had asked IHMS to withdraw a report that showed alarmingly high rates of severe mental distress in children in detention.
Department of Immigration secretary Martin Bowles later denied any knowledge of the request to withdraw the HoNOSCA (Health of the Nation Outcome Scales for Child and Adolescent mental health) figures and said he was considering whether it was appropriate for the data to be included in standard monthly reporting.
Young also said detainees were made to queue for hours for medicine, and were stripped of basic medication upon arrival in the centre. He said medical recommendations made by IHMS doctors was repeatedly overridden by Department of Immigration staff. Doctors Grant Ferguson and John-Paul Sanggaran both testified that their urgent medical referral requests were overridden by the department or by their IHMS superiors. Dr Sanggaran said that the provision of medical care on Christmas Island does not meet Australian standards and that had been acknowledged repeatedly by senior doctors within IHMS.
Professor Elizabeth Elliot, who accompanied Professor Triggs to Christmas Island for three days earlier in July illustrated the depth of distress with the Christmas Island centre by telling the story of one family.
The mother was part of the group of 12 women who committed acts of self harm when they were told earlier in July that they would never be re-settled in Australia. She has three children with her – a 13-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a baby. The 12-year-old girl had retreated to her bedroom for three days at the time of Professor Elliot’s visit and had been refusing to eat.
“My life is death,” she told Elliot and said she hoped she would die by not eating. Her 13-year-old brother – who been abused before arriving in Australia – had started stuttering, then stopped talking and was displaying signs of hopelessness. The baby hadn’t gained weight for seven months.
“Why are we here? When can we leave,” Diallo said children often asked her.
One 11-year-old girl asked the Red Cross: “Why are we here? We didn’t choose to come here. This was our parent’s decision, why are we here?”
This is the question we hope this Inquiry will answer.
*Drawings featured in this article have been drawn by children in immigration detention. Supplied by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
*Gabrielle Jackson is a staff writer for The Hoopla. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, CNN, the Sydney Morning Herald and New Matilda. She has lived in Sydney, New York, London and Barcelona. Apart from reading and writing, her passions include politics, travel, cooking and eating. She also has a penchant for kebabs, but that’s another story. You can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellecj.