Interview 2: Professor Elizabeth Elliot AM

I’m Professor Elizabeth Elliott, I’m a Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Sydney and a consultant paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead and in the last year or two, I’ve been involved with the Australian Human Rights Commission, particularly in relation to the inquiry into children in immigration detention. As a result of that, I visited Christmas Island and Wickham Point detention centres with the Commission.

 Just in the last 2 weeks, there have been 2 people who have set themselves alight on Nauru Island and questions have been asked by politicians, “Why? Why is this so? Why are people committing such dreadful acts?” And really one only has to visit the offshore detention centres to understand why people are absolutely desperate. They have been held for several years without being processed, they have no hope. They have been held in extreme heat, in extremely poor conditions, often in tents with no privacy. Children are sick, readily, people don’t have access to the sort of education and healthcare that we would expect in Australia. It’s not surprising then, that these people, without hope are resorting to self harm.

And in fact the Immigration Department themselves have provided data on self harm in children. Several hundred children in a 15 month period performed acts of self harm and I’ve interviewed many of those children myself. Children as young as 7 cut themselves with razor blades, drawing themselves committing suicide, who are bedwetting, who are having nightmares, who are refusing to eat or drink, all because of the trauma of the trip to Australia and then being kept in detention for a prolonged period of time and being surrounded by family and other people who are equally desolate and desperate. We really have to do this better in Australia and we really have to do better to use the evidence we’ve got to develop a regional plan for asylum seekers in the future and how we can care for them while they’re our responsibility.We are overseeing the healthcare provided to one man who has in fact been found to be a refugee. So his claims that he was persecuted and suffered trauma and torture while in Iran were found to be legitimate by the Australian government and he was released from Nauru detention but now lives in the Nauru community under the agreement the the Australian government have signed with the Nauruan government. This man, who was a highly functioning man back in Iran, who was tortured, severely traumatised, as was his family, managed to escape, come to Australia, ended up in Nauru, where he was imprisoned for 2 or 3 years. Despite all this he managed to remain optimistic, remained the model of the “good refugee” that Australia likes to perpetuate and was found to be a refugee. His application was approved, he was released into the community and did the completely appropriate thing, applied for a job working in a phosphate mining station and was trying to rebuild his life with his family.

He was set upon recently by some thugs in Nauru. They hit him several times with a machete amongst other weapons. He now has severe brain damage, he is incontinent, he is incoherent, he is severely depressed, he can’t sleep, he has trouble walking. He has lost most of his function and needs to be cared for by his wife. And unfortunately the Australian government have effectively abandoned him. He did the absolute right thing in terms of waiting for his refugee application to be processed, being found to be a genuine refugee, has been a productive member of society, was an engineer in the past, highly educated, and under the Australian government auspices, we have reduced him to being someone who is dependent on his wife for care.

And a lot of people don’t realise that people seeking asylum are educated, have come from wealthy background, are people just like all of us. People say, “How can they be genuine refugees if they have money? How can they be genuine refugees if they have mobile phones or Nike shoes?”. You know, because they are refugee doesn’t mean they are uneducated or poor, it means they are people who by virtue of the political upheaval in their country are reduced to losing everything, losing absolutely everything, and have taken the only path they see possible for them and for their family, which is to get out by any means possible. I think pretty much everyone in Australia would do the same thing, faced with the same circumstances.