During my first visits to the Nauru “regional processing centre” in 2014, I knelt down to speak with a six year-old girl. Asking her name, I was disturbed when she answered with a boat number, “EZB037.” Believing she misheard, I asked again, only to hear the same letters and number repeated. We can only imagine what brings a young girl to replace her name with an identification number.
Thomas Albrecht, UNHCR regional representative in Canberra
This account was part of a report by Albrecht (who has worked for the UNHCR for 30 years) published in the Guardian on 2/10/17 under the title: ‘Australia’s refugee policy is a failure. This is not the time to shirk responsibility‘.
And yet, no one with any responsibility for this situation has – before or since – demonstrated any shame or concern in relation to the reality of the offshore processing and mandatory detention policies that have bipartisan support in the Australian parliament.
Not even when, 20 months prior to the Guardian report, the following was quoted during the parliamentary Grievance Debate on asylum seekers, Feb 2016:
In December 2014, a paediatric nurse and I travelled to Nauru to consult on children in detention. The conditions we witnessed typified those described by Goffman as occurring in institutions such as asylums, prisons and concentration camps, which he characterises as causing ‘mortification of the self’. Detainees lacked privacy. Families were housed in adjoining tents, and guards walk in without warning. Showers and toilets were up to 120m away. At night, the long dark walk under the eyes of guards was enough to deter many women and children, who wet the bed, then put the mattress out to dry in the sun. Shower time was limited; guards would offer longer if women exposed themselves. There was constant bullying and humiliation. We also observed dehumanisation and denial of personhood: children and adults coming to the medical centre are referred to by their boat numbers.
Anna Burke, Labor MP
quoting from Professor David Isaacs’
“Are healthcare professionals working in Australia’s
immigration detention centres condoning torture?“
Journal of Medical Ethics, British Medical Journal
What Ms Burke didn’t have time to quote aloud were the words that followed. (The full BMJ article, along with numerous other pieces of similar documentary evidence, has been available to the Australian parliament since that debate.) Professor Issacs continued …
When we asked why, we were told ‘there are too many Mohammads’. Such acceptance of the normalisation of dehumanisation by healthcare professionals has been described previously. One woman confided she had been raped at night by a cleaner, but did not want her husband to know. We organised for a female psychologist to see her. Next day, the psychologist described how the woman dressed provocatively and described asking her why she had not cried out when being raped. This victim-blaming approach typified how many International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) staff had come to see people seeking asylum as guilty and unworthy of normal human consideration.