Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers

Yesterday I spoke at the launch of a new report urging Australians to consider the long-term consequences of asylum policies.

This report by the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, and commissioned by Good Shepherd Australia, estimates the long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers. For the first time in Australia, it does so by applying innovative costing approaches developed in the Netherlands.

It is now well established that lengthy periods in detention cause significant mental health problems for asylum seekers. The Howard Government recognised this in 2005, when it agreed that 25 of the 27 detainees then remaining on Nauru should be brought to Australia. This was after doctors had diagnosed serious mental health conditions.

More generally, a study of detained asylum seekers in Australia found that more than one third of those detained for more than two years had new mental health problems in 2006-07. This was ten times the rate of mental health problems for those detained for less than three months.

There is good evidence that such trauma causes long-term mental health problems. The new report estimates the lifetime health costs of such trauma. On conservative estimates – that trauma sufferers will have lifetime mental health costs 50% more than the average – the report shows this will cost an additional $25,000 per person.

In recent years, more than 80% of detained asylum seekers have eventually been successful in settling in Australia. This means that such additional health costs have to be met by the Australian health system, and Australian taxpayers have to pick up the tab.

The Australian immigration system already has extensive health checks for migrants seeking to come to this country. One of the key reasons is to protect public expenditure on health and community services. It is ironic that another element in current immigration policy – mandatory detention – has the direct effect of increasing public expenditure on health and community services.

So as well as the clear moral and humanitarian basis for deep concerns about current asylum seeker policies and processes here is a financial perspective about long term costs of current practices. This is in addition to the already established very high cost of detaning asylum seekers compared with community-based processes.

Tuvalu in crisis

Australia’s neighbour Tuvalu is in a fight for its life.

As reported in the Fairfax newspapers this week Tuvalu faces an immediate crisis in the form of a severe and protracted drought. This tiny Polynesian country, whose name means ‘eight standing together’ (the eight islands and atolls that comprise the nation), has a population of just over 10,000 and just three days of water left. A state of emergency has been declared by the Tuvalu gGovernment and requests for immediate assistance have been sent to Australia and New Zealand.

The Uniting Church in Australia is in partnership with Christian Church of Tuvalu and in close contact with church leaders in Tuvalu. Its leaders report that the southern island of Nukulaelae is most severely affected by extreme shortages of water and locally produced food. The Church Secretary reports has reported that ‘the coconut tree tops have started falling off, breadfruit trees are dead, banana plantations are dried up and the traditional pulaka pits are rotten because of the drought.’

In the capital city, Funafuti, the government has sealed all the water catchments and water is being rationed to at 20 litres per day per household. The Australian Government and the Red Cross are responding with rehydration packs for the hospital, emergency supplies of drinking water and desalination plants to help our neighbours survive this immediate threat.

However this immediate issue cannot be considered without acknowledging the longer term threats to life in Tuvalu and neighbouring Kiribati.

The Prime Minister of Tuvalu Willy Telavi reported to the United Nations in New York that his nation would not survive without international assistance. ''It's mostly climate change” he told the General Assembly.

The highest point on Tuvalu is only 4.5 metres above sea level so it has long been vulnerable to natural events like king tides. But with rising sea levels associated with climate change, the future prospects for sustainable life on Tuvalu are bleak. The rising sea is contaminating underground fresh water tables and no rain has fallen in months despite this being the rainy season in Tuvalu. The long term weather forecast predicts dry weather for months to come.

A recent Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting called for urgency in addressing to the major issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Pacific Conference of Churches has called on Governments to address the issue of resettlement and to assisting the people of Tuvalu to resettle in other places, including Australia, in the event that Tuvalu needs to be evacuated.

Australia and New Zealand are responding with emergency measures to address to current crisis but must also respond to the longer term crisis.

One desirable response from the Australian Government would be to offer a guarantee of special immigration status to the people of Tuvalu in the likely event that the country becomes unviable for human habitation. ‘Eight standing together’ will soon be not enough and Tuvalu is looking to its neighbours to stand with them in this critical time as they deal with drought today and possible inundation in the future.