In Australia, animals have better rights than asylum seekers

Detainees protest in the Woomera centre in 2002: ‘Animals in Australia have more rights than we have!’ one wrote. AAP/Tom Miletic

Several years ago an asylum seeker wrote a letter about his experiences at the now-decommissioned Woomera Detention Centre. This is an extract:

I have been in this cage for 13 months … Why should all these women and children … be in this cage? What have we done? Where should we seek justice? Who should we talk to and tell our story?

Aren’t we human beings? … Animals in Australia have more rights than we have! They worth more than we do.

He was right on the last point: animals do have greater rights than asylum seekers in Australia. In fact, Australian law requires that animals be treated humanely, yet allows humans to be treated like animals.

Let’s start with animal rights. Legislation to protect animals in Australia dates back as far as 1837. Today, every state and territory has an animal protection act.

The federal government has taken an active role too, developing the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy in 2005. The strategy was implemented to ensure “that animals under human care or influence are healthy, properly fed and comfortable, and that efforts are made to improve their well-being and living conditions”, so that they receive “proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care and humane handling”.

For its rationale, the strategy explains that “a sentient animal is one that has the capacity to have feelings to experience suffering and pleasure. Sentience implies a level of conscious awareness”. It concludes:

Sentience is the reason that welfare matters.

Contrast this with asylum seekers’ rights in Australia. Asylum seekers and animals are both sentient beings, but Australia does not treat them with equal tenderness at a practical level. Instead, the government is solely concerned with dissuading boat people from reaching Australia, indifferent to the impact of a deterrence policy on those who risk their lives to get here.

An asylum seeker fleeing to Australia today can expect to face not only the risks of drowning or indefinite detention, but also the risk of being seriously wounded or even killed while under Australian care.

Disparity enshrined in law

This disparity is even more pronounced at a legal level. In Victoria it is an offence to torment or terrify an animal; to load, crowd or confine an animal in a place likely to cause unreasonable pain or suffering; or being the person in charge of an animal that is confined or unable to provide for itself, to fail to provide the animal with proper and sufficient food, drink or shelter.

In New South Wales, it is an offence to convey an animal in a manner that unnecessarily inflicts pain; to fail to provide an animal in your care with proper food, drink, shelter and even exercise; to commit or authorise any act of cruelty on an animal; and to fail to take reasonable steps to alleviate the pain of an animal that is suffering.

Penalties range from fines (up to $100,000) to imprisonment for a maximum of five years. Conviction rates are relatively high.

Allegations of cruelty can halt live animal exports, but Australia ships asylum seekers offshore regardless of evidence of their suffering. AAP/Xavier La Canna

Asylum seekers do not enjoy such protections. In recent times the treatment of boat people has been actively hostile.

On arrival at Christmas Island, most people are fairly distressed. Typically, they have spent five or six days in a small boat on the open ocean; have not had enough water to drink or food to eat; and have had no opportunity for ordinary sanitation, so they are likely wearing clothes soiled with their own faeces and urine.

After disembarking, they are not allowed to wash or change before their initial interview with Immigration Department officers. There is no obvious reason for this humiliation.

They are searched soon after arrival. Any medications or medical documentation are confiscated. Packets of tablets are popped out of their blister packs into a bin and thrown away. Medical prosthetic devices – artificial limbs, dentures, hearing aids, spectacles – are confiscated and not returned.

System causes suffering and sickness

A group of doctors employed by International Medical and Health Services (IHMS) to work in the system wrote to their employer in 2013 to protest at the conditions. Their letter reported:

… numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards, which have posed significant risk to patients and caused considerable harm.

The letter included statements that:

• Patients are “begging for treatment”;

• Asylum seekers must queue for up to three hours for medication. Some have to queue four times a day;

• Basic medical stocks are low. Drugs requested by doctors are not provided; and

• There is a high risk of depression among children and no effective system for identifying children at risk.

One doctor who had worked on Christmas Island told of a woman who was displaying signs of extreme mental disturbance, which continued for many days. Working out the cause of the problem was made more difficult because the medical consultation took place via an interpreter who “attended” by phone from Sydney.

Ultimately, the doctor discovered the problem: the patient’s clothes had been confiscated on arrival. She had been issued with fresh clothes but no underwear; she was incontinent, so she could not walk around without urine running down her legs. The humiliation was driving her mad.

The doctor had difficulty arranging incontinence pads – these are not normally available. Even when it was agreed that pads would be made available, the department provides an inadequate supply. The woman has to ask for more each day, thus keeping her humiliation fresh.

For some asylum seekers, the consequences of mistreatment are even more severe. The tragic case of Reza Barati, who was killed while under Australian care in the Manus detention centre in February, has still not been satisfactorily accounted for.

Asylum seekers in immigration detention slip into hopelessness and despair as an entirely predictable result of their circumstances. They have no legal remedy because this mistreatment is mandated by Australian law and ignored by PNG and Nauruan law. Amnesty International has described the conditions in which people are held in Nauru as “a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight”.

Australian law entrenches clear protections designed to ensure that animals are treated responsibly, humanely and with dignity.

Asylum seekers should be so lucky.