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'UN human rights chief must address Manus, Nauru during Australian visit,' psychologist says

Michelle Bachelet has urged Australia to adopt "more humane policies" towards refugees. Source: AAP

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, must address the situation for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru during her Australian visit, says the head of STARTTS, one of Australia's leading organisations for the treatment of refugees who have experienced trauma.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is expected to be the keynote speaker at the Australian Human Rights Commission’s conference: Free and Equal: An Australian Conversation on Human Rights, in Sydney on October 8.

While it's not clear whether she plans to hold talks with government officials, there are growing calls for the former Chilean president to address Australia's detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island during her visit. 

Psychologist Jorge Aroche, the Executive Director of STARTTS, a NSW service for the treatment and rehabilitation of torture and trauma survivors, told SBS Spanish that it was the "most obvious" and "pivotal" step for Bachelet to take.  

"It's a serious problem that shouldn't exist. That's one of the problems Australia has to solve because the impact of this kind of situation is tremendous and people have been in limbo for so many years," he said.

Australia has come under considerable scrutiny by a number of international bodies, including the UNHCR, for its treatment of asylum seekers who attempted to reach the country by sea since the federal government reactivated its process of offshore detention more than seven years ago. 

Since August 2012, some 4177 people have been sent to Nauru and Manus Island and until August 28, 2019, there were 288 remaining on Nauru and 306 in Papua New Guinea, in addition to 53 detained by Papuan authorities, according to official data.

During this period, there have been numerous instances of suicide and self-harm within the detention centres. 

Refugees on Nauru
Refugees on Nauru

According to a medical audit conducted by Melbourne surgeon Neela Janakiramanan, 97 per cent of the nearly 600 refugees in PNG and Nauru evaluated to have a physical ailment and 91 per cent suffer from mental illness.

Among the asylum seekers, most of whom had fled conflict, there were children.

"There are children who have grown up and become teenagers. This is extremely harmful, it's something that's probably going to stay in the annals of Australian history and people studying in twenty years from now this period of history will say 'how could this be done?'," said Mr Aroche, who is also president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT).

In 2018, the medical community warned of the situation of asylum seeker children on Nauru, who suffered from the so-called "resignation syndrome".

The children, many of whom became teenagers on Nauru, not only grew up tormented by the horror of the violence they left behind in their countries of origin, but also by the anguish caused by detention.

"Their situation is more serious because the context in which people have the capacity to heal is important and in a detention context the context is more traumatising. The events they lived through before will obviously have an impact on their mental health," the Uruguayan psychologist explained.


30 years of STARTTS

During the 1980s, a commonly held belief among medical professionals was that refugees who survived trauma and torture could immediately and smoothly adapt to life in their new country. 

However, experts now know that these people are marked by deep wounds needing psychological treatment and community support, with a strong cultural focus, to rebuild their lives - that's where STARTTS came in.

Created more than thirty years ago, STARTTS changed the focus in Australia to treat refugees who brought with them the deep wounds of the past.

Mr Aroche said the horrors that tormented people who had lived through traumatic events before they came to  Australia, can only be treated with the proper professional help.

Jorge Aroche STARTTS
Jorge Aroche

STARTTS fosters a positive recovery environment through the provision of training to services, advocacy and policy work.

The organisation has treated more than 70,000 people and has had "a positive impact on their lives," Mr Aroche said. 

Prior to the creation of STARTTS, which was an initiative of a group of South American mental health professionals working in western Sydney, the Australian government and health centres believed that survivors of trauma and torture "would come to Australia and be fine. And it wasn't," Mr Aroche explained.

In that decade of the eighties many refugees from Chile, Argentina or Uruguay were already living in Australia, but also people who fled conflicts in Indochina (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia), while other conflicts gestated in the world that later in the following years would give rise to the entry of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Peru, Colombia, Nepal or Burma, to name a few.

"People had been traumatised and continued to suffer from the impact not only of torture but also of being refugees. Not always do most people manage to leave that impact behind. Thirty per cent are impacted in a way that will affect their lives, at least in their ability to have a full life and make use of all their faculties," Mr Aroche said.

In addition, the wounds left by trauma and torture are physically manifested and during that time the health centres treated, for example, a panic attack as a heart problem, or considered that the stories of tortured people were symptoms of paranoia since the health professionals at the time were not familiar with the contexts in which these people lived.

"Many times they interpreted some of the people's things as symptoms of paranoia, when [for example the patients] said that they were afraid that the DINA was recording their calls and things like that and well later it was learned by WikiLeaks that it was suspected that the DINA was working here," Mr Aroche recalled, referring to the stories of some of the Chileans tortured by the secret services of Augusto Pinochet's regime (1973-90), the DINA.

Vital mental health support services for refugee detainees on Nauru have been scrapped.

Mr Aroche emphasised that STARTTS' work rested on four basic pillars; The knowledge of trauma and its impact on the brain and nervous system, the understanding of the context that surrounds each survivor, the cultural aspect that frames the person and their narrative, as well as the support to the staff that treats these people so they can give their best while listening to the horrors suffered and suffered by their patients.

He highlighted the importance of the support of the federal and NSW governments, in terms of funding, given that in other parts of the world this type of centre works through the solidarity efforts of the people or with the help of human rights organisations.