Humanity overboard for votes
Nelson Mandela once said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Yet this was a Labor Government which had promised a new humane approach to the problem of asylum seekers.
A Government that promised to repudiate the Pacific Solution, abolish temporary protection visas and the billing of refugees for their time spent behind the razor wire and get children out of detention.
Temporary protection visas and bills for nights spent in immigration detention are a thing of the past, but it is obvious that the Gillard Government has abandoned any intention of dealing with asylum seekers in a humane way.
So much so that critics of the Pacific Solution, such as refugee advocate Marion Le and former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski, have said its reinstatement would be preferable to the even more inhumane solutions the Government is proposing, including sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia.
And despite the promises to get children out of immigration detention, more than 1000 are still there, most of them in what the Government has euphemistically called “alternative places of detention”.
This includes the construction camp on Christmas Island, which was built as a construction camp for workers and lacking adequate facilities for children, a former mining camp at Leonora and motels in Darwin.
At all these facilities, children are locked up under guard and have little or no freedom of movement.
The Leonora camp was the subject of a recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which found it had only “limited access to the basics necessary for healthy psychological and physical development” and that its “hot, dusty and harsh physical environment” made it “inappropriate for children”.
In Darwin, the head of the Australian Medical Association in the Northern Territory, Paul Bauert, has said children as young as 10 were self-harming and attempting suicide inside its “community” detention centres – that is, dingy motels – and children of four and five were taking part in hunger strikes.
When he was human rights commissioner, Mr Ozdowski produced a landmark report on children in detention that ultimately resulted in the Howard government relaxing its hardline stance on keeping children in detention.
Mr Ozdowski said conditions for children in detention were as bad as they ever were under the Howard government, including a lack of adequate schooling, the breakdown of families under enormous stress and severe trauma and mental illness in children.
“What it really means is that it will take a long time before they recover and in some cases they will be for their whole life dependent on our welfare system,” Mr Ozdowski said last month.
Is that what we want?
Given that most asylum seekers are proved to be genuine refugees, do we want these vulnerable future citizens of Australia to be lifelong welfare recipients because of the mental problems they acquire when we lock them up?
These are innocent children whose parents only wanted a better life for them, children who have become pawns in a political battle, the race to see who is the harshest on asylum seekers.
These are children such as grief-stricken nine-year-old Seena Akhlaqi Sheikhdost, who lost his parents and brother when their boat was dashed against the rocks of Christmas Island last December.
He was flown from detention on Christmas Island to attend their funerals in February.
His anguish was heartbreaking to watch. A public outcry led to his claim for asylum being speeded up and he was released into the community days later.
His story is not an isolated one.
Child psychiatrist Louise Newman, head of the Government’s health advisory panel on immigration, holds grave fears for the mental health of children such as Seena in detention and believes it is morally indefensible.
She said psychological harm and distress were the inevitable legacies of such harsh treatment and that by detaining children Australia was breaching its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
But worse is in store for these traumatised children.
Not only are we preparing to send 800-odd asylum seekers to Malaysia, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said last week this number would include unaccompanied minors.
It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable person in the world than a child who has endured a lengthy, torturous and life-threatening voyage by sea without a parent. Yet such children are fair game for a Government as determined to send a message to people smugglers as it is to outdo the Liberal Party on hardline immigration policy.
After years of criticising the previous government for sending asylum seekers to Nauru, which had not signed the UN Convention on Refugees, it suddenly became acceptable for Labor to send them to Malaysia, which also is not a signatory.
And now it emerges that Malaysia wants to remove all references to human rights in the deal it signs with Australia, as well as decide exactly which asylum seekers it receives.
Malaysia’s abysmal treatment of asylum seekers is well documented. A good starting point for the uninformed is Amnesty International’s report of last year, Abused and Abandoned: Refugees Denied Rights in Malaysia.
The report found asylum seekers in Malaysia “were subject to arbitrary arrest, detention in appalling conditions, caning, extortion, human trafficking and deportation back to the persecution that they fled”.
In other words, just the sort of place a humane government should go to great lengths to dissociate itself from, not rush to sign a treaty with.
Enough is enough, and even Labor’s own think so. Fourteen WA Labor MPs sent a petition to the Federal Government on Friday stating their unequivocal disgust at Labor’s Malaysian solution for children.
They are right.
It is time Australia treated asylum seeker children like the innocent victims of trauma they are and let compassion and common decency override petty politics and shallow games of brinkmanship with the Opposition.
It is time to allow children and their families out of detention while their claims are processed and allow them to have some chance of a life free from psychological torture and oppression.
- What would you expect in a racist country governed by a racist Labor Party that saw its Whie Australia Policy as a saving grace? Human Rights is not in that equation (ikners.com)
- Human rights ‘critical’ in refugee deal (heraldsun.com.au)
- Human rights ‘critical’ to Malaysia deal (news.theage.com.au)
- Australia softens policy on child asylum seekers (guardian.co.uk)
- Malaysian deal still being fine-tuned (theage.com.au)
- Swan says Malaysia deal a ‘model’ (news.theage.com.au)
- Australia softens policy on child asylum seekers (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Pacific Solution preferable:rights expert (news.theage.com.au)
- Human rights abuse in Australian Immigration Detention Centre’s (iranianasylumseeker.wordpress.com)
- Australia criticized over child asylum seeker plan (seattletimes.nwsource.com)