POLICE were called in to clear 15 grandmothers before allowing them into pre-arranged meeting at the Hastings office of Flinders MP Greg Hunt.
The members of Southern Peninsula Group of Grandmothers Against the Detention of Children presented a 400-signature petition to Mr Hunt which calls on the federal government to improve its treatment of refugees.
Ann Renkin said 15 members of the group were “checked out by two local and two federal police” before meeting Mr Hunt who “appeared unmoved by the arguments presented”.
She said the high number of signatures collected over a four-week period “reflects the consternation of many ordinary Australians who are concerned about the negative effects of long-term detention on the health and wellbeing of the refugees in these centres”.
“The condition of the centre on Nauru, where the Australian government is spending many thousands of dollars, was also a matter of great concern which we put to Mr Hunt.”
Mr Hunt described the 24 March meeting with the grandmothers as “an open forum where members of the group were invited to share their concerns with me”.
“It was an open and honest discussion and I appreciated them taking the time to share their views with me,” Mr Hunt said.
Blaming the former Labor government for the number of children in detention, he said the federal government “is determined to reduce the number of children in detention to zero”.
“The latest update is that the number of children in detention in Australia has dropped to just 17,” Mr Hunt said.
“Regional processing centres, such as Nauru, are open centres where asylum seekers are free to move around the island at their will.
“All people transferred and accommodated at offshore processing centres are treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards.”
The grandmothers’ petition urges the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to let the 267 refugees from Nauru currently in Australia stay; process their refugee claims in Australia; close the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; and to provide permanent protection for refugees.
The grandmothers say reports from the Human Rights Commission, and health and educational professionals, show that ongoing detention among refugees offers them little hope for the future and causes mental and physical illnesses.
Ms Renkin said Mr Hunt told the group that the government had cut to 29 the number of children in centres. But the delegation emphasised that the children were still in detention – and that this number did not include those on Nauru.
The group voiced its concerns over the time it takes to assess a refugee’s status, which “compares badly” with those of similar countries, such as Canada.
When asked about the reported detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of children in detention, he said several times that it “was worse to die at sea”, Mrs Renkin said.
“He did not agree government policies were causing harm and was not prepared to discuss numbers in Nauru.
“He repeated several times that the current government had reduced the numbers of children and families in detention, and that the ALP had had much higher numbers when in government.
“He asked where the grandmothers were when this was the situation, and intimated that we were ALP supporters, which we disputed.”
Mr Hunt told the group he had worked in refugee camps overseas in “appalling conditions”. He said conditions on Nauru were satisfactory and listed facilities there.
Mrs Renkin said the minister “gave us time and the opportunity to ask questions and state our positions … but he did not seem to change his attitudes or take note of facts and comments we made during the conversation”.
“His answers and comments were repeated several times, and he seemed unable to move with the conversation,” Ms Renkin said.
“He seemed impervious to the hardships the refugees face and that they are in limbo about their futures.”
Mr Hunt agreed to take the petition to the Prime Minister and Mr Dutton in Canberra.
Details: grandmothersadrc.org or call 0428 226 650.