New Australians

The murder of Saeed Hassanloo

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An Iranian refugee on a hunger strike teeters close to death on in a Perth Hospital and Australia's cold Kafkaesque administration is content to let him die, writes Lyn Bender.

Saeed Hassanloo, 25, has not eaten for over 37 days. Medical staff “treating” him, say that he may die within hours

Indeed, he may die as I write this, because his human right to die is being upheld. He can choose to die, but not choose to live a full life.

When he fled, aged 19, from death or persecution in Iran to our cruel shores, he was placed in detention. Iran does not accept forced returns and being denied a visa in Australia left him in a detention no man’s land.

Ironically, Australia, it seems, judges his argument about fear of persecution, as rational and therefore he cannot be forced to eat. Were he demonstrably paranoid and his fear delusional, he could be force fed.

He has existed in Australia’s detention limbo for over four years. Perversely, he may die at Easter in this Christian land. It is also the time of The Jewish holy days of Passover, that memorialises the flight of the Hebrews from persecution and enslavement.

It is a double irony. We celebrates the resurrection and the flight to freedom, while standing idly by as a man – who only asked for his freedom – dies.

Under what crazy upholding of human rights is this being allowed to continue? Assisting rational suicides of terminally ill patients is illegal in Australia. Anyone who enables or assists a person with euthanasia can be charged with being complicit in a homicide.

The ABC reports the following rationale for inaction, concerning Saeed’s potentially lethal hunger strike.

It is understood psychiatric assessments have deemed him sound of mind, and therefore able to decide whether or not he wishes to eat.

That assessment is significant because people have to consent to eat while they are being treated in hospital, unless they are being treated under the Mental Health Act or under the care of a guardian.

The failure to save this man lies with the literal interpretation of  “refusal to eat”. The refusal to eat has become a suicidal act. But Saeed is deemed rational. So does this mean we can do nothing to intervene in his suicide in progress?

During my years working as a psychologist and manager of Lifeline Melbourne it was our policy that we had a legal ethical duty to save a life wherever possible.

It was and still is part of my ethical obligation to break confidentiality and other instructions from a client if a life or lives may be at risk.

Even if the act appears to be meant as a “so-called gesture” or “cry for help”, it’s the potential for harm to self or others that is the deciding factor, in an intervention.

Classifying Saeed’s desperate actions as a refusal to eat – rather than as suicidal – is Kafkaesque in its surreal distortion and absurdity. While involuntary treatment or intervention to save a life may be controversial, demoralising a young man over years in detention, then “allowing” him to starve to death is indisputably immoral. It also reaches the high water mark of incompetence.

Where does the duty of care lie?

Where is our compassion?

In my view, it is no different than administering lifesaving procedures to a person who has overdosed. Do we decide that it is a rational act and therefore not call an ambulance?

The right to refuse treatment is relevant in cases of terminal illness, where there is virtually no hope of recovery. In such cases, medical treatment may prolong suffering without measurable gains and refusal of treatment should be respected.

But Saeed falls into a completely different category. He is only 25 years of age and could potentially lead a long productive healthy life. He has committed no crime. He has demonstrated a strong desire to live by seeking asylum.

Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Refugee Convention declares the right to seek asylumThe Convention also states that persons seeking asylum shall not be returned to danger.

Under this international law to which we have signified we must abide, it is not illegal to seek asylum. Starving yourself to death is an act of utter despair. We have been told lies about what it is to be a refugee.

Where is our humanity?

Force-feeding should be a last resort, but for this tormented man, have all other avenues been exhausted? Apparently not, because Saeed's older brother was recently transferred to Christmas Island, so he is now without the potential support from his one family member. This could be restored.

Family support, a sense of hope, capacity to act, feeling accepted by those around you, feeling cared for and valued, and having a sense of agency, are all crucial in encouraging someone not to suicide.

The exact reverse has been implemented by the Immigration Department for over four years in this man’s life.

It is the Australian Government that, in effect, says: we will decide who can see this dying man. A psychiatrist has assessed him as fit to starve himself to death.

A spokesman for the Department of Immigration is reported to have said:

"The Government has made it very clear that when a person has exhausted all avenues to remain in Australia, they are expected to depart Australia."

So now Saeed is departing in the only way open to him.

It is well documented that detention is massively destructive of mental health. The abusive impact of our immigration detention policy has been investigated and reported for well over a over a decade — and most recently by the Moss Report.

I do not know Saeed Hassanloo personally, but I met many young men like him when I worked as a psychologist at Woomera Detention Centre in 2002.

I had frequent conversations with Iranian men held in Woomera in a detention limbo, similar to that of Saeed Hassanloo. I spent time alongside men on hunger strikes, lying in “graves" they had dug in protest against their detention. All they wanted was sanctuary.

I visited 25-year-old Akram a Palestinian refugee on a hunger strike in Woomera Hospital. I stroked his hair.

Akram was deported to Gaza, where he was murdered.

Former Prime Minister John Howard’s Pacific Solution, was claimed to have stopped the boats.

When any criticism of the treatment of refugees is proffered, Tony Abbott inanely recites nonsense about stopping the boats. Ask him almost any question regarding his achievements or failures and he will reply:

“We stopped the boats."

Saeed, like Reza Berati, who was murdered in detention and Leo Seemanpillai, who self immolated, is a victim along with thousands of others of this politicisation of human despair.

Refugees have been made a great big vote catcher. This has reached its nadir under the Abbott government. Stopping the boats, along with stopping all effective action on climate change has been amongst the most frequently espoused raison d’etre of the Abbott Government.

Saeed Hassanloo is starving himself because of “the punish and deter” Abbott immigration policy.

I don’t call that “a right to refuse food in hospital”.

I call it murder.

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