"AUSTRALIAN HUMAN RIGHTS - INSIDE
AND OUTSIDE THE WIRE"
ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB,
CANBERRA, 25 AUGUST 2004
BY DR SEV OZDOWSKI OAM AUSTRALIAN
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSIONER AND DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION COMMISSIONER
Thank you (Ken) for those
kind words of introduction.
Allow me to start in the
customary way. I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the
traditional custodians of this land.
Our lives today pass in
a blur of media reporting. Great issues come and go and, before we can absorb
them, it is time to move on to the next story.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib
prison seem to fade in the past. And the shadow of what is happening in Sudan
is yet to unfold.
So let us press the pause
button for a moment:
- to share with you what
has happened since we released our report into Children in Immigration Detention
- to look at what still
needs to be done.
- and then to look at
another, equally disturbing issue that I have just started learning about.
But - since I am here, at the National Press Club, let me declare
a different interest.
I could become a fan of Reality TV!!
The first program I intend to watch will not be "The Block"
but a program that is screening on Channel 4 in the U.K. and on Foxtel in this
It's called "No Going Back".
It's about a young and energetic English family who had their
migration visa applications to Australia rejected. They applied again under
the Business Entry category, and were accepted.
Now, everyone is watching to see if they meet their business
targets and get permanent residency in Australia.
You see, their temporary visa is a kind of Temporary Protection
Visa - a TPV. They have to prove that they can qualify to stay here.
What do you think is their chance of getting permanency after
all that publicity? Pretty good, isn't it?
There are scores of Afghan refugees on TPVs who have taken
jobs at Burrangong Meats, in Young. The business would
be dead without them.
This situation has also sparked intense lobbying and media
reports. It put so much pressure on politicians that they had to revise the
hard line on TPVs.
The point of my story is: - the English family, and the Afghans
working in Young meatworks became real people to us when we learned their names,
and saw their photographs and talked to them. They took on a personality when
words about them, written by journalists and committed volunteers, became a
A weapon that caused authorities to act.
Children in Immigration Detention Report
Today I would like to share with you what the power of words
has achieved recently. Just under three-hundred-and-ninety-six thousand words,
to be precise.
That was the number of words it took to write our Children
in Detention Report, called: "A Last Resort?".
The report is the result of two years of detailed research
We visited all detention centers in Australia - some of them
a number of times - and spoke to staff and detainees. We also conducted many
focus groups with former detainees.
We compelled the Department of Immigration and ACM to provide
us with key documents - some 50 to 60 large folders of them.
We carefully analyzed all those documents.
We also took oral and written evidence from DIMIA and ACM,
child detainees and their parents, and a vast range of individuals and organisations.
The inquiry was extensive. It was exhaustive. It was comprehensive.
The information and images it revealed were compelling. It
brought anonymous, faceless men, women and children to light and to life. It
gave them personalities and we shared their occasional smiles and many, many
What is particularly important is that the Inquiry put the
issue of children in immigration detention on a national agenda and helped the
emergence of informed discussion. It assisted the development of a powerful
civil rights movement around the issue. Possibly one of the larger civil rights
movements since the Vietnam War.
New national organisations emerged such as Chilout and Rural
Australians for Refugees. Established organisations such as the Refugee Council
of Australia took a leadership role in, for example, assisting local councils
to establish Refugee Welcome Zones.
During the time of the Inquiry public opinion has changed from
one of strong support for the mandatory detention policy - to one that challenges
it. According to current public opinion research 77% of Australians believe
that keeping children in immigration detention is wrong and 61% want asylum
seekers arriving by boat to be allowed to enter Australia.
So what did the report show?
It showed that children's rights had been breached by making
immigration detention the only resort rather than the last
Rights had been breached by ignoring the children's best interests.
Rights had been breached by the very length of immigration
detention - the longest being a child who was behind the wire for five years,
five months and twenty-one days. This child was eventually recognised to be
a refugee and now lives in Australia.
Rights had been breached:
- with regard to
the mental health of children,
- to children with
- of children who
The report revealed that all this had occurred despite the efforts of several
watchdogs who were supposed to oversee the welfare of these children.
The report destroyed many myths about people in detention and highlighted stories
of personal despair and bureaucratic indifference.
I am delighted to see the way the Report has been embraced and debated.
And I welcome the Federal Government's move in removing most children from
immigration detention, at least on mainland Australia.
But the release of the report, and the release of most of the children in Australia
is only one small step for this country. Remember, Australia is currently the
Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
And we still have the laws which make detention of children a first resort,
not the last resort and the laws that permit detaining them for an indefinite
period of time.
And we still have children in detention in Port Augusta, on Christmas Island
and in Villawood, to name but some.
We are still robbing these children of their childhood.
We are still in breach of our obligations under the Convention on the Rights
of the Child.
And all this while we are still the Chair of the United Nations Human Rights
Commission, sworn to uphold these rights.
The words in our report provide graphic descriptions of the impact on the mental
health of children in detention.
Here is one such image:
A 13 year old child who has been seriously mentally ill since May 2002. The
boy regularly self-harmed.
In February 2003, a psychiatrist wrote: "When I asked if there was
anything I could do to help him, he told me that I could bring a knife so that
he could cut himself more effectively. He said it was more effective than the
plastic knives that were available"
There were 20 recommendations from health professionals saying this boy needed
to be urgently released, with his family.
All the watchdogs were ignored. All the oversight bodies were ineffective.
Two years later, please note the time, TWO YEARS LATER, this family was finally
released from Baxter on a TPV. They are now living in South Australia.
Of course, mental health disorders were not just confined to children. They
occurred in their parents as well.
As Professor Procter has said: "What the system has done, is to
add mental anguish to the trauma of flight and dislocation from their homeland"
In other words, we locked them up, we traumatised them and now as they join
the Australian family, we are going to have to pay a price for that treatment.
But when we started looking at what sorts of treatment are available, a whole
new picture of human rights concerns emerged from the shadows.
Mental health consultations
Over the last two months I have been conducting, jointly with
the Mental Health Council of Australia, consultations on mental health issues.
It is some 11 years since the Human Rights Commission published the Burdekin
report on mental health.
So far we have listened to the people in Adelaide, Brisbane,
Perth, Sydney and Canberra and in some regional centres including Bunbury in
WA, Rockhampton and Broken Hill. We have also received well over 100 submissions
The story that is unfolding is not a pretty one. The people
consulted make two main points.
One, that there is increasing evidence that widespread use
of common drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, alcohol and ecstasy is contributing
to an increased rate of mental illness among young people. In addition they
are making those young people even more disturbed when they finally present
And two, that in the treatment of mental illness, it is the
state government services that are failing in the delivery of proper care.
It is often a tragic tale of medical neglect and community
indifference. Those with a mental illness are still being blamed for being sick.
In fact the reports coming from our current consultations are
horrifying and affect ALL Australians - not just refugees or children of refugees.
Mental illness affects veterans from distant battlefields, it affects prominent
It affects those who care after the ill in every State and
Territory. And, tragically, it affects the young.
I listened to many, many first hand accounts where alcohol
and drugs were linked to schizophrenia and depression. Stories about violent
behaviour, suicide attempts and endless bouts of hospitalisation or imprisonment.
It makes young people "thrash around on the wings of madness"
- to use Jo Buchanan's words, while the authorities seem unable to stem the
You see, there are almost no services available to deal with
both drug addiction and mental illness. Medical policy dictates that drug addiction
be treated first, before the mental illness is tackled.
And this may lead to at least 20 years of life expectancy being
Suicide rates in teenagers and young adults remain historically
high. We were told a great many stories of preventable suicides of young people.
Let me tell you two of them:
A Central Coast teenager was admitted to a psychiatric unit
because of attempted suicide. He was prescribed Valium and released the next
day with no follow up. He died hours later after throwing himself in front of
a moving train. The coroner found that he was inadequately assessed and discharged
too early, because of an on-going shortage of beds in the unit.
In Canberra we were told about a young man with a history of
depression, and openly suicidal, who jumped from a sixth floor balcony only
two days after being refused admission to the psychiatric unit following a second
The most frequently mentioned gap in mental health services
was the absence of early intervention services for young people. In all States
I received reports of children and young people being admitted to inappropriate
Also emergency services are overburdened and often inaccessible.
In WA I was told about a twenty year old man who reported to
hospital suffering from an episode. The hospital's clinical response was to
chemically induce sleep for 20 hours, because there was no psychiatrist available.
A NSW hospital clearly took the "lock 'em up and
throw away the key" mentality a step too far recently. It locked
a mental patient and his two accompanying young police officers together in
a room, and refused to let them go until a doctor arrived. The constables remained
'locked up' with the patient, even after their police sergeant made a direct
request to hospital officials for their immediate release.
We are also seeing a pattern of underspending and lack of investment
in mental health. There are some brave words by some State governments - but
little real action. 1
With one exception-Western Australia took action. Within six
weeks of signing up to a National Mental Health Plan, the West Australian Government
withdrew $4 million dollars from mental health services. The reason? Different
Indeed, amongst all the consultations, the anecdotal evidence
about the State Governments, particularly those of South Australia, New South
Wales and Western Australia, has not been encouraging.
I will be interested in due course to receive their response
to these allegations.
The anecdotal evidence also suggests a lack of appropriate
accountability for money earmarked for mental health
Arguably it is easier to deal with physical health than with
mental health problems. I have been given accounts of some mental health money
from the Federal Government being diverted into the general hospital system.
This may have been less of an issue when we treated the mentally ill in hospital.
But now when community release is the preferred clinical response, we have a
duty to back the community with the additional money.
Add to this the stigma and stereotypes that surround the mentally
ill and you see the bleak picture.
And I fear that the media too must take its share of blame
in adding to this stigma.
Truly, all this gives flesh to the pattern of neglect which
has been described by the phrase: "Out of hospital, out of mind". The need for
urgent action is clear.
What have these initial consultations told us about what needs
to be done? Perhaps it is too early to deliver a considered opinion, but at
least a few suggestions could be made.
First of all, there needs to be real accountability
about where the money is going with regard to mental health.
Second, it is a good time to look at prevention
and early intervention, rather than face the high cost of the treatment, in
About 20 per cent of Australian adults will be affected by
a mental health problem each year. Three per cent will be seriously affected.
Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses.
With treatment and support, the majority of people with mental
illness can recover well.
Perhaps it would be appropriate for a Federal government to
provide more effective leadership with respect to the national coordination
of early intervention programs.
Or as somebody told us in Victoria: It is better
to build a fence at the top of the cliff, than to provide an ambulance at the
Next, there must be priority given to the
coordination of medical and psychological care or, in other words, drug and
Fourth, there must be a real commitment to
new and innovative return-to-work schemes. We are quick to push people out of
hospitals and into the community. But there are no jobs for them. Our success
rate in this is the lowest amongst the OECD countries. This is a federal government
Above all, there must be more money put on the table. The money
is for research, innovation and better services. For example, more money is
needed for research on links between drugs and mental illness in young people.
Australia currently spends about 7% of its health budget on
mental health.2 By comparison, other first world economies are spending
between 10-14% of their health budgets on mental health. New Zealand now spends
twice as much per capita compared with this country.
I opened my talk with a story of success: of a report that
assisted the Australian community to act and led to the release of some children
from behind the barbed wire.
I look forward to similar action on mental health. Governments
should be strongly encouraged by all of us to clean up the mental health mess.
We need to put this issue on the national agenda.
And I look forward to the media putting its strength behind
this story, as it did with the children in detention.
Australia is an extraordinarily wonderful and diverse nation
in every respect: physically, culturally and socially. It has a proud record
in the area of human rights and a commitment to the notion of "a fair go".
But not always. The ultimate test of our commitment to human
rights as a nation is not what we aspire to, not the Conventions we sign, and
not even the laws that are set in place. Rather it is how we treat our most
vulnerable and powerless.
Not surprisingly, at present the treatment of the mentally
ill is not in the forefront of our consciousness. Just as previously we did
not focus on children in immigration detention.
And we are not focusing, because it is about the rights of
the less visible and often stigmatized people in our community. They are metaphorically
-- and sometimes actually -- locked away from our society.
In closing, let me paraphrase a quotation: "The
statistics on sanity are that one out of every five Australians this year will
experience some form of mental illness. Think of your four best friends. If
they're okay, then it's you."
updated 26 August 2004.