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Asylum Seekers Are Having Abortions to Avoid Raising Children in Australian Detention Centers

Conditions are so bad in Australia’s detention centers that some pregnant women say they have no choice but to abort their babies.

Lauren Gillin


Photo via Flickr user DIBP

The Australian public is by now used to hearing horror stories about conditions in detention centers, from self-harm and suicide to the murder of 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati on Manus Island. Reports of women choosing to have abortions rather than try to bring up their babies in indefinite detention might prove a bit harder to ignore.  

Australian women choose to have abortions for a myriad of reasons—the may lack financial security, they may be unable to provide a stable home for a child, or they simply may not be ready to have kids. But just imagine having to terminate your pregnancy despite wanting the baby, because you were afraid it would die, face poor health care, or take its first steps behind bars. In February, one couple made exactly that decision.

Salima and Mamun Motiur are Rohingyas—a small ethnic community of Muslims in Burma. Despite democratic reforms, Rohingyans still face violence and persecution at the hands of their government. Salima and Mamum were both in detention on Nauru Island when Salima became pregnant. They were then faced with bringing a baby into a life of indefinite detention under conditions that included oppressive heat, eight families sharing one tent, and up to two-hour queues for meals.

So they choose to terminate their pregnancy.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection told VICE that “all people in immigration detention, including pregnant women, receive professional and coordinated health care, in line with Australian community standards”. But in an interview with VICE, the Motiurs' lawyer, Mark Johnson, said what the minister and his staff are telling the public about the facilities is not the reality.

Johnson said the couple were concerned their baby would die in the conditions on Nauru. He said Salima had been examined by a medical professional about a month after her termination. She weighed just 77 pounds. “That should give you an indication of the conditions on Nauru. I am surprised they were even able to conceive a child,” Johnson said.

There are currently 983 children detained in secure immigration-detention facilities. Of that number, 208 are on Nauru, and 196 are on Christmas Island. In response to concerns over the increasing length of time children are being detained in detention and the hard line adopted by the Abbott government, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) launched an inquiry into the conditions endured by asylum-seeker children. The results—which aired last week at the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention—weren’t pretty.

Some of the inquiry’s testimonies uncovered high rates of mental distress and disorder, including 128 reported cases of child detainees committing acts of self-harm in the past 15 months. There was also a high level of physical illness among asylum-seeker children living in detention centers.

Professor Elizabeth Elliott from the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney recently toured the Christmas Island facility as part of the inquiry. She told VICE she was appalled by the conditions. ''They are living in very cramped conditions in a small metal room with a single window and a single door with really very little space for children to learn to crawl and walk and to play,” she said. ''Acute respiratory and gastro infections are exaggerated or exacerbated by the close proximity.”

While she was on Christmas Island, Professor Elliott also interviewed some of the detained children. ''The older boys could verbalize that they were depressed and feeling hopeless,” she said. ''There were boys who expressed severe anxiety about the potential of being transferred to Manus Island.” Some of the children showed signs of physiological regression. ''Since they had been in camp the last year, they had developed bed wetting or stuttering or stopped speaking.”

Salima and Mamun Motiur weren’t the only ones who didn’t want to raise children in these conditions. It is being reported that another two expectant mothers living in detention have also decided to terminate their pregnancies. VICE tried to clarify the exact number of detained women with the Department, but was told by a spokesperson that “further details on this issue are not able to be provided for privacy reasons."

Other things that came out of the inquiry include asylum seekers having their property seized upon arrival at detention centers. Gillian Triggs, the president of the AHRC, told VICE that one of the most shocking revelations was hearing that eyeglasses and hearing aids were being taken off people when they arrived at centers. “So they are left without that support,” she said.

“They took an epileptic child’s medicine and were not able to stabilize her on any other medicine available on the island. She then started to go into fits, which of course was what the medication was designed to prevent. A little boy had his hearing aids taken away from him, so that he had to learn to lip read,” said Triggs. “This sort of meanness and pettiness built into the system is having a very personal impact on asylum seekers.”

Triggs said the Department aims to create an environment so uninviting that asylum seekers will not even consider coming to Australia—and this overrides their legal and moral obligations. She said some people in power “understand that the interests of the child are the primary consideration, but when they are faced with government policy the duty of care is giving way to the deterrent policy of the minister." She said “deterrent seems to be the trump card."

''Of course, as a matter of international law, you may not use refugees, particularly not children, as a tool to deter others on some hypothetical or abstract idea that it will have some sort of an impact on the people-smuggling trade,” said Triggs.

Some women do decide to give birth in detention or conceive children after they arrive. At the same time that Professor Elliott was on the island, there were ten women on continuous watch because they tried to hurt themselves. ''They were all women with young babies, and the reason that they had self-harmed is that they had been asking for better conditions for their babies. They said it was just intolerable to stay in these conditions any longer,” she said. “I think that's an indication of just the strength of the feelings of the mother that detentions centers are no place to have a young baby.”

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