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Issue #1650      August 6, 2014

“State sanctioned child abuse”

“That children who come to us seeking asylum are to be regarded as a significant threat requiring detention and deportation represents the utter moral failure of leadership in our country,” a damning and telling conclusion by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, in its report Protecting the Lonely Children*. There are currently around 4,380 children in the immigration detention system, with close to 200 of these on Christmas Island and more than 250 in Nauru.

An Action by ChillOut: The dolls inside the “cage” outside the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney symbolise the 983 children locked up by Australia. The public were asked to “free a child” – an action that involved entering the cage, removing the doll’s ID card – which is a letter to Federal MP’s (and Immigration Minister). (Photo: Anna Pha)

“The evidence is clear that children are experiencing terrible physical and mental suffering. This is state sanctioned child abuse which the Taskforce believes will warrant a Royal Commission. There is no sustainable resettlement possible in Nauru. It is a painful façade offering no real solution.”

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, a deeply religious Pentecostal, attends the American-style mega-church Shirelive where the gospel of prosperity is preached. (The church is an Australian branch of the US-based Assemblies of God and has close ties with the money worshipping Hillsong.)

Morrison claims his faith has imbued him with “the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness”, a faith that has not softened his cruel, punitive treatment of unaccompanied children seeking protection on our shores.

Morrison treats these vulnerable and already wounded children as pawns in a political game called “Stop the Boats”. The government claims that the brutal treatment is necessary to deter people from embarking on the hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean. The Minister would have us believe that this treatment offers the most humane and Christian approach!

Hardline Prime Minister Tony Abbott adheres to an ultra-conservative brand of Catholic politics.

Protecting the Lonely Children report is based on a very different kind of Christian values to those of Abbott and Morrison. They put the best interests of the child first, not political opportunism, in line with one of the basic principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The report reveals how the government also runs roughshod over the other three underpinning principles of the CRC – non-discrimination; survival, development and protection; and participation, and a right to have a say in decisions that affect them.

“Children on Nauru are locked up behind wire, living in cramped, rat infested vinyl tents where the temperatures are extreme. They have poor access to the most basic of subsistence needs, such as water and are considered ‘at significant risk of sexual abuse.’ Children are witnessing adults self-harming, including by hanging, wounding, and starvation,” the report notes.

“Removing hope”

A former Immigration Department official, Greg Lake, who worked on Nauru told a Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in detention that he understood the purpose of detention was to “construct an environment where people are used as examples to remove hope.”

It is certainly successful in that regard judging by the rate of mental illness, self harm and attempted suicides.

Conflicted interests

“The Minister for Immigration is the guardian, judge and jailer of unaccompanied children,” the report notes. As legal guardian, Morrison has responsibility in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) for unaccompanied children but any parent or teacher, treating children in a similar fashion would be arrested, charged, tried and jailed.

As the report points out, Morrison has a conflict of interest and “should cease to be the legal guardian of unaccompanied asylum-seeker and refugee children” and an independent guardian appointed to treat the children in accordance with child-welfare and relevant international laws.

“Stop treating unaccompanied children like unwanted cargo – demonstrate strength by upholding children’s best interests,” the report demanded.

“The Minister locks up unaccompanied children, like animals, indefinitely behind wire in Australian immigration detention centres. These shocking environments are considered by the Minister to be acceptable places of care.”

Deterrence does not address the question of refugees. “As Professor William Maley has pointed out, any success in stopping the people smugglers here, will ‘not put an end to the phenomenon of people smuggling, for this is simply a market response’ to the desperate need of people to find safety. Rather in his opinion, it simply pushes people towards other regions and other risks, such that the ‘real message of the new Australian approach is a simple one: ‘Go and die somewhere else’.”

If the government were serious about saving lives, it would treat asylum seekers with humanity and warmth, accept them into our community. It would also address the reasons why so many people are fleeing for their lives. War is one of the main reasons, and Australia has played a role in its involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and support for repressive regimes including Israel and Sri Lanka.

Cover-up and lies

A “Letter of Concern”, written by medical officers working for International Health and Medical Services Management (IHMS) on Christmas Island, detailed “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted, medical standards which have posed significant risk to patients and caused considerable harm.”

The letter described an appalling situation of inadequate health care. The children and adolescents, the letter noted, “frequently had backgrounds of rape, torture and trauma, and were/are a high-risk group for mental illness such as depression, anxiety and PTSD”.

It said, “Limited treatments were available, and their conditions were exacerbated by indefinite, mandatory detention.” Most of the children on Christmas Island had been in detention for six to eight months.

Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission observed after a site visit: “The overwhelming sense is of the enormous anxiety, depression, mental illness but particularly developmental retardation ... The children are stopping talking. You can see a little girl comes up to you and she is just staring at you but won’t communicate.”

The government has done everything it can to hide the truth from the Australian people and Parliament. The extent of the government’s lies and cover-ups was revealed during the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry.

Dr Peter Young, former medical director for mental health employed by IHMS (the private health care contractor) told the Human Rights Commission inquiry that the department had told IHMS not to publish a report exposing the high levels of mental illness caused by the harsh environment. Dr Young said they had collected data showing “significant’’ mental health problems among child detainees ... But he added – when pushed – that the Immigration Department “reacted with alarm and asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting’’.

Another doctor reported that written clinical decisions by doctors were “altered and routinely being downgraded”. Dr Sanggaran said detainees’ glasses, hearing aids and medication were taken when they arrived on the island. He gave an example of a three-year-old girl suffering epilepsy whose medication was taken from her when she arrived at Christmas Island leading to seizures.

Gillian Triggs noted when she visited Christmas Island, that nearly all the 174 children were sick, depressed, self harming, having nightmares, swallowing poisons, wetting beds, wandering aimlessly behind barbed wire. She said it was chilling to hear babies were not crawling.

Reverend Peter Catt, the Anglican dean of Brisbane, said, “We’ll never again stand by and do nothing about child abuse. We have an absolute duty to make sure the events that came out from the Royal Commission aren’t repeated in any setting.” A number of other Christian church leaders made similar comments.

Last weekend Morrison secretly smuggled 157 Tamil asylum seekers (50 of them children) to Nauru, denying them the opportunity to speak to their lawyers when they were in Australia.

It is important that Christian church leaderships have exposed what is happening and taken a strong stand in defence of the children. The refugee action groups and collectives are the backbone of the movement in support of these children and other refugees. The ACTU at its last Congress adopted a sound policy in support of the rights of asylum seekers but little action has followed. Unfortunately the Labor opposition’s policies are little different to those of the government.

The Australian Greens have a strong position in defence of the children and other asylum seekers and deserve our support.

Unions for Refugees is seeking to build a network of unions and rank and file union members and activists as part of building a broad campaign to establish a humanitarian, “welcome refugee” policy in Australia. (unions4refugees.org.au) The trade union movement has an important role to play in countering the racism that is being fostered by the government amongst workers.

* The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce is an initiative of the National Council of Churches in Australia. The report, which is compelling reading, may be found at australianchurchesrefugeetaskforce.com.au

Some key rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child

  • children should not be detained unlawfully or arbitrarily (Article 37(b))
  • children must only be detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest period of time (Article 37(b))
  • children seeking asylum have a right to protection and assistance – because they are an especially vulnerable group (Article 22)
  • children who have suffered trauma have a right to rehabilitative care – recovery and social reintegration (Article 39)
  • children have a right to family reunification (Article 10)
  • children in detention should be treated with respect and humanity, in a manner that takes into account their age and development needs (37(c))
  • children in detention should have the right to challenge the legality of their detention before a court or other independent and impartial authority (Article 37(d))

Next article – Another monstrous development threatens Sydney Harbour

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