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Asylum seekers being detained on Christmas Island and off shore on Nauru and Manus Island are being subjected to a regime of coercion and intimidation and living in appalling conditions in a deliberate bid to force them to go home.
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Well-placed sources working in the offshore detention system report that inadequate healthcare and, contrary to government policy, forced family separation or threats of separation, has created a toxic mix of despair and fear among the asylum population.
The Abbott government policy of deterrence is being felt in every corner of the detention system from the moment people get on boats in Indonesia right through to the hot, cramped tent camps and World War II bunkers asylum seekers are forced to live in on Nauru and Manus Island.
Children are being used as a bargaining tool to get people to return home. In a letter received this week from an Iranian on Christmas Island, he says he has been told he will be separated from his pregnant wife two months before she gives birth. ''I have requested from the Immigration officers to discuss my situation, however, they keep telling me to go back home if you want to be next to your wife during delivering the baby,'' he writes.
Several sources have described harrowing scenes on Christmas Island last month when Immigration officers forced two unaccompanied Sri Lankan children aged 12 and 14 on to a plane to return home. They were part of a group of 84 Tamils who had arrived on the Coco Islands after 34 days at sea and within 48 hours were put on a plane and sent back to Colombo.
''The children were crying and screaming and begging to be able to stay,'' said a witness. ''One of the security officers realised they were too young and no one was accompanying them and so took them off the plane. Then there was a stand-off while someone rang Canberra and were instructed by someone very, very senior to put them back on the plane.''
The latest figures released by the Immigration Minister show there were 1128 men on Manus Island, 606 men, women and children on Nauru and 2158 people on Christmas Island. The government will not reveal how many children are living inside the Nauru detention centre although child refugee advocate Sophie Peer estimates between 80 to 100.
''The leash is off,'' said Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. ''The hardliners in the Immigration Department can do what they like. And family separation is the tool of choice.
They can say what they like, it's happening. Under the old government it occurred but it was usually incompetence. Now it is deliberate. They are separating families on the wharf at Christmas Island.''
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed revelations of a 31-year-old asylum seeker, Latifa, who is being kept in detention for 18 hours a day in Brisbane while her week-old son is in hospital with respiratory problems. A spokesman said the mother could visit her baby during the day. ''Doctors at the hospital advise it is common practice for mothers not to stay overnight with babies in special care units due to bed restrictions,'' he said.
The revelations come on the eve of the release of what is expected to be two damning reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.
One Immigration source on Christmas Island described how much things had changed since Operation Sovereign Borders began on September 18. ''We have been told that we are not to engage with the clients now,'' she said.
''So the only message we are told to give them is to leave. We are deliberately intimidating them, we are told to tell them Nauru and Manus are full up and so their only and best option is to go home.''
The government on Thursday denied it was using intimidation to force people to return home. It was unapologetic for its treatment of Sri Lankan boat arrivals but did not deny the children were sent home unaccompanied. ''Anyone arriving illegally by boat from Sri Lanka faces a stringent process and anyone who is screened out will go back.''