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Island return makes Seena's trauma worse

The Age

Friday February 18, 2011

By KATE HAGAN HEALTH REPORTER With KIRSTY NEEDHAM

THE trauma suffered by family members of asylum seekers who died in December's boat tragedy has been compounded by returning them to Christmas Island after they attended funerals in Sydney, experts say.The chairwoman of the federal government's immigration detention health advisory group, psychiatrist Louise Newman, said detention was not suitable for refugees who had suffered trauma and torture and was even worse for those who had experienced the boat disaster."The most damaging thing is to have them on the island which is a clear reminder of their trauma on a daily basis," she said.Professor Newman was among a group of psychiatrists and lawyers who yesterday lodged a complaint with the human rights commission claiming Seena's return to island detention breached UN conventions.She said the situation was even worse for the 21 immediate family members of the perished asylum seekers who were flown to Sydney to attend funerals this week."To give them a tantalising taste [of contact] with their families and community and then say, 'OK, that's enough, you're going to have another separation from people who care about you' they become despairing," she said.Professor Newman described as extremely disturbing the case of Iranian orphan Seena, 9, who witnesses say has been sitting waiting for his parents to collect him."This is a child who cannot accept the reality of what's happened. He's highly traumatised and having anxiety triggered by things like the sea rising or if a boat comes. If he sees someone who is wet or smells of saltwater it triggers a panic attack. It's like a Vietnam veteran who has been in combat."This is a very serious situation which needs urgent assessment and the sort of treatment that is not available on Christmas Island."Professor Newman said there was no resident psychiatrist on the island, only counsellors and psychologists who were stretched to their limits."I think there's a recognition [that more resources are needed], but it's very little and very late," she said."My professional view is I have no choice but to point out that it is extremely serious."Professor Newman said children like Seena who experienced extreme distress were at "huge long-term risk of an ongoing mental disorder and neurodevelopmental problems".Professor Pat McGorry, former Australian of the Year and the executive director of Orygen Youth Health, said the boat tragedy survivors were being used as a political football in a way that was "typical of what's been going on for the past 10 or 15 years"."Survivors of this disaster have probably already been through torture and trauma in their countries of origin, but in addition they've suffered massive trauma and grief as a result of this tragedy. They should be being looked after in a very nurturing environment and not a detention centre."

© 2011 The Age

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