A day with PIAC

Hi Jane, thank you for taking the time to chat with us about the important work PIAC are doing!

Firstly, could you please share a little about PIAC’s work?

PIAC works for justice for disadvantaged and marginalised people. We are an independent, non-profit legal centre best known for running test cases and leading systemic change. We are at the forefront of improving access to justice and finding solutions to complex social problems.

Over the years, PIAC has pioneered public interest advocacy in Australia. We tackle issues like discrimination, Indigenous justice, asylum seekers, the interaction of youth and police, homelessness and fair energy pricing for consumers.

PIAC secures change through a unique combination of strategic litigation, policy and law reform and education and training.

How long has PIAC been operating for and where did the inspiration stem from?

PIAC was launched in July 1982. At the time the organisation had just four staff, headed by Peter Cashman (now a Professor at Sydney University and the Kim Santow Chair in Law and Social Justice). The inspiration was, and is now, to promote social justice – real change to the lives that people lead – through creative and strategic legal work.

One of PIAC’s projects supports asylum seekers living in Australia’s immigration detention centres to access basic health care. What is the issue and how are PIAC addressing it?

Our Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project aims to secure basic, humane standards of medical and mental health care for asylum seekers languishing in Australia’s harsh immigration detention network.

A maximum-security prisoner in Australia has the right – guaranteed in legislation – to reasonable medical care and treatment. An asylum-seeker in an Australian immigration detention centre has no such rights under the Migration Act. We think that’s wrong.

Despite the high levels of trauma suffered by asylum seekers and the damage to mental health caused by long-term, indefinite detention, conditions of detention are unregulated. And people are suffering without the basic care that they need.

Through test case litigation, we will highlight the failings of the current system and the urgent need for medical and mental health standards under the Migration Act. We will also be working to secure support for changes to the law and policy to fix this situation.

What are some of the major roadblocks in providing access to medical and mental health care to asylum seekers in detention?

1. Asylum seekers in immigration detention have unique health needs. Many asylum seekers have survived torture and trauma before fleeing to Australia. The medical profession has long said that detention can cause serious mental harm to such a vulnerable population. The Commonwealth Ombudsman recently found that almost 75% of long-term detainees were suffering from mental health problems.

2. Our immigration detention system is a complex geographical web. Every day, Australia holds close to 1500 immigration detainees in onshore facilities. A further 1500 asylum seekers are held in offshore facilities. We have clients in all the major mainland facilities who are not receiving adequate health care. This is a system-wide problem.

3. Australia’s processing time is at a record high. Immigration detainees in Australia are held for an average of 478 days. In the US and Canada, immigration detainees are held for an average of 32 and 25 days respectively. The longer our clients remain languishing indefinitely in detention, the more likely they are to suffer from medical and mental health issues.

Australia is not currently complying with international human rights standards for asylum-seekers held in immigration. In this context, who is Australia accountable to and how is our government responding to this?

Australia’s mistreatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention is a long-standing human rights issue which has been contested politically over many decades.

The unfortunate reality is that international accountability mechanisms haven’t been effective. But there’s still much we can do locally. In PIAC’s project, we join a dynamic and tenacious legal community that has long sought to challenge the role and responsibilities of the Australian government to protect asylum seekers from further harm. Healthcare in immigration detention is just one piece of the puzzle. This is a hard slog at times, but we are determined and will continue to stand for basic dignity and fairness.

What can our community do to help support PIAC’s vision for ensuring humane treatment and basic medical and mental health care for asylum seekers in Australian detention centres?

Litigation alone will not move this issue. We need a multi-faceted advocacy approach which enlists the support of the community more broadly. As PIAC transitions to the second phase of the project, we are working up our law reform and communications strategy, outside of the courtroom.

We want to partner with the community to maintain pressure on our lawmakers, galvanise local activism, share our clients’ stories to give a face to the problem, and identify fresh opportunities to educate politicians about the urgent need for change.

PIAC tackle some hard-hitting issues – how does your team celebrate successes, for example when you win a case for a client?

Our celebrations are often pretty subdued – because so often we are dealing with clients whose lives have been deeply damaged by the treatment they have received. Also, sometimes it makes sense to be quieter about things if that means that real change can happen behind the scenes.

But we do make an effort to enjoy the wins and our annual Social Justice Dinner in March each year is a great chance to celebrate with friends and supporters.

Refugee Week is around the corner (18-24 June) and will acknowledge and celebrate the valuable contributions of refugees in Australia. The 2017 theme is “With courage let us all combine” – what does this mean to you and your organisation?

Essential to PIAC’s work is our connection with the community. We are on the ground, dealing with the changing needs of the Australian community on a daily basis. We are strengthened as a legal organisation by our clients, other legal organisations, our partners in the sector and a range of stakeholders committed to improving access to justice.

The community spirit – joining forces to create change – is fundamental to the way we work and the way we secure reform.

And we also need courage combined with strong leadership to end current practices!

Thank you.

Sarah Long