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Dignitaries at the launch of Human Rights Overboard at Curtin University, Perth WA
The launch at Curtin University, from left to right: David Wood, Pro Vice Chancellor, Humanities; Anita Lee Hong, Director, Centre for Aboriginal Studies; Robyn Quin, Deputy Vice Chancellor Education; the author Prof Linda Briskman; former Premier and MHR Dr Carmen Lawrence, and former MHR and Reconciliation Australia Chair Hon Fred Chaney. (click to open large image)

Human Rights Overboard: the Perth launch

The WA launch at Curtin University, with Carmen Lawrence and Fred Chaney

"We, the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work, began our work in 2005 when the government announced its inquiry into the circumstances of the detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau. Like many other advocates, we were concerned that this inquiry was so narrow."

"The Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work called the People's Inquiry to conduct an independent, open and transparent investigation in order to give voice to those previously silenced, to influence policy and to place the stories of detention on the public record."

What's on this page

This is a page about the Perth launch, at Curtin University, of Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia. In some way, this event may well be called the "home launch" of the book: Co-author of the book Professor Linda Briskman also is the Chair of the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University.

Quick links to the page sections

Related pages

Life Buoy19 August 2008: Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia - Human Rights Overboard draws together, for the first time, the oral testimony and written submissions from the inquiry in a powerful and vital book that stands as an indelible record of one of Australia's bleakest legacies. "This is a profoundly important book. It is an unflinching look at disgraceful events. Too many Australians allowed these things to happen. Our generation will forever be marked with the shame of it. It is not only an epitaph for the Howard government: it is also a caution to future generations."

Life Buoy10 September 2008: Human Rights Overboard: Media reviews and opinion reactions - "Using the first-hand accounts of former child detainees and their parents, Human Rights Overboard details the impact of mandatory detention on boatpeople and other unlawful entrants before the policy was watered down." Here is the news about this foundation document of Australian refugee detention and human rights issues.

19 November 2006: People's Inquiry into Detention: We've boundless plains to share - In response to the narrow terms of reference of the Palmer inquiry, the Australian Council of Heads of School of Social Work (ACHSSW) initiated the People's Inquiry into Detention. Here's the Introduction to the First Report of the Inquiry.

11 October 2008: Immigration Detention Inquiry: Politicians and the Whistleblower - Project SafeCom's presentation at the 9 October 2008 Perth hearings of the Joint Standing Commitee on Migration's 2008 Immigration Detention Inquiry, which includes statements from an Immigration Department whistleblower. "It was you, who created public vilification of asylum seekers, and it is you who need to create instruments that undo this damage..."

Prof Linda Briskman: presentation at the Perth launch


It is important to note that the People's Inquiry into Detention was a collective effort. We (Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work) began our work in 2005 when the government announced its inquiry into the circumstances of the detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau. We like many other advocates were concerned that this inquiry was so narrow.

After all the treatment meted out to Cornelia in detention had been the same for asylum seekers for many years. But they were not 'one of us'.

The ACHSSW called the People's Inquiry to conduct an independent, open and transparent investigation in order to give voice to those previously silenced, to influence policy and to place the stories of detention on the public record.

What we did

So on a shoestring budget but with a lot of volunteer support we:

The findings

The findings are comprehensively presented in Human Rights Overboard, with a strong emphasis on the oral testimonies. The book is themed into four areas:

The accounts bear witness to the brutality that occurred at every step of the process.

We heard heartbreaking evidence about the deaths of over 360 asylum seekers, including 148 children, during boat journeys to Australia in 2000 and 2001.

The Inquiry also heard that for asylum seekers who survived the dangerous journey, the relief and joy of sighting Australian land was short-lived. Those who were allowed to make claims for refugee status were placed in detention centres, mostly situated hundreds of kilometres from Australian capital cities or on far flung Pacific Islands. In making claims for refugee status, they faced obstruction and suspicion from the Immigration Department and struggled to deal with an assessment process the People's Inquiry heard is seriously flawed.

Essentially privatised prisons, the People's Inquiry also heard from numerous sources of shocking conditions inside detention centres. It was told of people being forced to steal food to feed their children, of assaults on both adults and children, of physical and mental health care so inadequate that many former detainees now have serious, permanent disabilities. The Inquiry also learned that between 1998 and 2008, 19 people died in these miserable surroundings and that the agencies meant to hold government to account on such matters were essentially powerless to affect change. This lack of accountability created a culture of violence and self-harm within detention. Protests were routinely met with armed force. The Inquiry was told of people eating glass and gravel and pouring boiling water on themselves, and was presented with images of self-harm too graphic to publish.

Once released from detention, many refugees told the Inquiry their experiences had irrevocably changed them. Many were unable to forget the violent images they had been exposed to in detention and suffered ongoing mental health problems. Others told how the uncertainty of their temporary visa status compounded their anxiety. Still others told of relationship breakdowns with wives and children overseas.

The Recommendations

Human Rights Overboard concludes with three broad recommendations to address the human rights issues arising from the evidence presented. These are:

Among specific recommendations is the abolition of mandatory detention, which deprives people of their liberty for an indefinite period. We will be using the royalties from the book to keep monitoring the situation.

Photos of the launch

Photos by Gaylene Trethewey** and Jack H Smit. Click on the thumbnails to open the full size images.

Carolyn Fleahy, Linda Briskman, Lucy Fiske, Carmen Lawrence, Fred Chaney**
Linda Briskman, Carmen Lawrence, Fred Chaney**
Linda Briskman chats with David Wood
Rosemary Hudson-Miller, Fred Chaney
Chatting, finger food in the courtyard
Supplies: Curtin Uni bookshop
Almost full**
Linda Briskman**
David Coulter and a friend
The Centre for Aboriginal Studies...
...fills up rapidly
Fred Chaney, Carmen Lawrence and Linda Briskman
Anita Lee Hong**
Fred Chaney, Carmen Lawrence and Linda Briskman

Linda Briskman: testimony to the Joint Standing Committee for Migration's Perth hearing of the Inquiry into Immigration Detention in Australia

Today I particularly want to focus on a few specific points arising from the evidence that came out of the People's Inquiry into Detention, which hopefully most of you know about. Our findings have been published as Human Rights Overboard, and this has been submitted as an exhibit to your committee.

As you will have read in our submission, the people's inquiry was auspiced by the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work. We commenced our inquiry in early 2005 and held public hearings around Australia, and received written submissions. Our most compelling evidence was the oral testimony from the 10 public hearings that we held, one-third of which were from people who had been detained, and others who spoke to us included advocates, professionals, or people who had worked in immigration detention centres. In total, we heard 200 testimonies and received 200 written submissions.

Our major concern has been the policy of mandatory detention itself, and we hope to see it wiped from the legislative and policy map. Although we are pleased to see that there have been some policy changes in recent times, we believe that they are insufficient and there exists in the community an unfortunate misconception that the worst is over.

Before making my few specific points to you today, I would like it noted that the recommendations we make arise from the four themes that we have outlined in the book. They are important to note, because what we documented is not simply historical but is evidence of what happens within an unregulated privatised system. Although we hope for 'never again', there are no guarantees that deplorable policies and practices are not repeated in the future.

Very quickly, before I get into these main points, I want to let you know that the four themes that we have outlined here are the journey into detention - and a lot of that deals with the inappropriate use of the Australian Navy. The second main theme is the processing of refugee claims, and problems occur - as I am sure other people have talked to you about - both from the onshore and offshore processes. The offshore processes were by far the worst, particularly Nauru, and these problems are not going to go away while part of Australia remains excised, including Christmas Island.

The third theme is detention itself, and that is probably the biggest section of our book, and here of course people have been deprived of their liberty in the privatised prisons with a punitive culture, where anguish and suffering were the norm, where acts of self-harm were commonplace, and where there is evidence of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment - you only have to look at the convention against torture to see that - and settings where many people went mad. Then there is life after detention, the final theme of our book, which included lack of support for people on release, and ongoing health and mental health problems in particular.

Unless this is addressed now, it is going to be a major issue for the wellbeing of refugees and really for the wellbeing of this nation.

In making our recommendations, we focus on the removal of racism, restoring human rights and reinstating accountability. The recommendations arising from this are documented in the book, which we hope the committee will read, as what is presented will surely strike a chord, including the deaths that occurred, the mental health issues, and the cruelty meted out to children, which we have called 'organised and ritualised abuse'. We need a royal commission to fully expose the practices that occurred.

Given the time constraints, I will make some brief points today. Some of them are even more relevant given the recent boat arrivals, which have created the re-emergence of some hysteria from some politicians and sections of the media. The first point is that, despite the fact that the government is talking about a new set of values, there seems to be an overly strong emphasis on border protection and dealing with people smugglers, rather than articulating values of compassion. This may serve short-term political purposes, but it does not serve the purposes of common decency and compliance with human rights obligations, nor does it address the questions associated with the 'push factors' that cause people to flee their countries and to seek a safe haven elsewhere.

Secondly, there is still a lack of transparency and information. Getting information from the department or the minister's office remains the major problem which we have found. We still do not have enough detail on the current policies and how they are going to play out. For example, there is a question as to what is going to happen on Christmas Island after initial processing takes place. I feel great concern that people may be released onto Christmas Island itself, and maybe to the construction camp, and that we will all be duped into believing that they are not in detention. If this is so, it is reminiscent of Nauru, where we were told that people were not in detention but were on special visas that required them to live in a certain place.

Third, there are no changes to legislation and so there are no guarantees that the rights of asylum seekers will be protected now or in the future. Without changes to legislation, the current policy changes are meaningless and precarious. Fourth, and perhaps most important, is that mandatory detention is a policy that cannot be justified. It is not necessary, for the reasons that have been stated - health and security checks or to stop people absconding. Furthermore, it is outrageously expensive and is at its most cruel and heartless when used to deter others. The deprivation of liberty is one of the most serious sanctions a state can issue against a human being.

Mandatory detention applies most to asylum seekers arriving by boat, who tend to be overwhelmingly from the Middle East and usually Muslim. This is because regular and safe modes of arrival are generally not available to people meeting this profile, and so they must cross borders without visas. In this way, mandatory detention has impacted almost exclusively on Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian people, and reflects Australians' current fear of people from these countries.

Fifth, there is a question of accountability for the past, present and future. A royal commission will help address this issue for the past. Accountability will be difficult to guarantee while immigration detention facilities remain in private hands, where a lack of transparency of government actions is in place, and where there is a lack of independent scrutiny. If some sort of targeted detention is retained, it should not be privatised.

We believe that the government can offer a fresh start based on compassion and decency, and to enable Australia to be able to hold its head high in human rights communities at home and abroad. The government should listen to the many advocates who consistently oppose the policy of mandatory detention and all that flows from it. In the words of one asylum seeker who spoke to us, 'I'm asking the government to treat the people who came as a human being, not like an animal. That's all I hope for, because I face that and I don't want it to be the same for others. We have been an example and that's it. We want to finish it.

In conclusion, I wish to state that we will be monitoring the situation until we are satisfied that racism has been removed, rights restored and accountability reinstated.

Thank you.

Susan Harris Rimmer: Human Rights Overboard

Centre for Policy Development
Published Friday, 24th October, 2008
by Susan Harris Rimmer

If I let my inner dictator loose, every person in Australia would be forced to read this book, while listening to the Paul Kelly song "I get a little emotional sometimes". Human Rights Overboard is a collection of the oral testimony and written submissions from the People's Inquiry into Detention, established by the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work in 2005. The Inquiry was partly in response to the Cornelia Rau affair, whose harrowing story begins the book.

By 2005, a great deal of work had been done on the problems inherent in Australia's system of immigration detention by Federal Parliamentary Committees, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, psychological and medical experts, NGOs and in particular the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. We'd already come a long way from when I first started out as a refugee advocate for the churches in 2000 and not even SBS would run a story on children in detention.

We knew - even in 2000 when the numbers were swelling - that mandatory detention was inherently and irredeemably problematic, and ultimately irreconcilable with basic human rights and respect for human dignity. We knew mandatory detention had the propensity to result in arbitrary detention, which then took an unacceptable psychological toll on a vulnerable community. We knew the use of private contractors to administer detention centres led to problems with accountability and transparency. Those of us who regularly visited detention facilities in Australia and Nauru saw and reported systemic cruelty and damaged humans on all sides of the fence. By 2005, Australia was facing international embarrassment and condemnation on the world stage. By 2005, research had shown the availability of more effective and cheaper alternative models, which would still ensure the integrity of the migration system.

I knew then, before I read this book, that in, that our system of detention from 1994 until now, was "something systematically rotten". This was how Waleed Aly phrased his reaction to Human Rights Overboard in the Australian Literary Review and it is spot on. I knew it. I believe we all should have known it. And I cried anyway. I needed to hear the tale of the whole: we always need to hear the actual words of those who suffered, and we will need to reflect on where it all went wrong for years to come. It is also very important to record the many Australians who participated in this Inquiry, who stood up for these people, advocated on their behalf, criticised the system, visited people, wrote letters, engaged with individual cases and policy reform. I am proud of the many lawyers who tried their best to put the case for complying with Australia's obligations under international law and the most basic principles of justice that relate to detention.

But in my view, looking back, it was expressions of shared humanity, not legal argument or policy papers that eventually swung opinion polls and politics. It was the social workers, in my view. Their emphasis on the lived experiences of individuals and families is a language that can get buried in the words spoken in Parliament and courts. I congratulate the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work and the authors of this book, and on their continuing work on so many issues of preserving human dignity in our communities.

There is still a long way to go in the reform process before we can genuinely say "never again" in relation to immigration detention. Many people are still detained who are not asylum-seekers and their rights must be upheld. I was proud to be present in the ANU Law Library audience to hear Minister Chris Evans announce the changes to policy in broad terms. There are still elements of the old policy, like excision, to be grappled with, and uncertainty about how some issues will play out on the ground. There is excellent chronological description of policy changes in this book, and an equally excellent description of how all the various elements of law and government policy affected these individuals so adversely. Those laws are largely still on the books. The Department is seen as largely resisting the cultural change prescribed in the Palmer Report. The people described in Human Rights Overboard are now what advocates call the "legacy caseload" and there are still many more scenes to play out in the resolution of their situations. This book serves as a reminder to us to put dignity and humanity at the centre of our work now on immigration reform, and to stay strong.