The Forgotten Children

In 2014 Australia’s peak human rights body, the AHRC, releases a report detailing the terrible effects the country’s detention regime is having on hundreds of children — ten year olds self-harming, attempting suicide. The government says it’s all rubbish.

On 11 February 2015 the government tabled the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) ‘Forgotten Children’ report — the most extensive study ever conducted on the deleterious effects of detention on asylum seeking children. Its findings are damning but unsurprising: locking up children in sub-prison-like conditions for indefinite periods causes extensive, likely irreversible damage to their mental and emotional health and development.

During the 15 months of investigation, which included interviews with 1,129 children and some of their parents, the commission recorded hundreds of instances of kids self-harming and attempting suicide; they found over a third of children had serious mental health conditions, that a dozen born in detention were without citizenship of any nation, that many more had never experienced life outside a detention facility. On tropical Christmas Island whole families were found living in 3 x 2.5m shipping containers, over 100 children had been without any education for a year, they regularly referred to each other by their “boat number”, there were no toys. The first word babies spoke was often “officer”.

It also turns out our new, expanded suite of draconian policies aimed at Stopping the Boats violates about a dozen international laws, including human rights conventions of which is Australia a ratified signatory — like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the “detention of a child must only be a measure of last resort” and “must not be arbitrary”. In Australia, it’s the first resort, making it arbitrary by definition.

The report and its criticisms of immigration policy garnered vast support: the UNHCR, UNICEF, Amnesty Australia and Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. These and many more professional organisations unequivocally backed the report’s recommendations.

But our valiant and now former Prime Minister Tony Abbott didn’t intend on getting lectured to by these guys. He formally responded to the report’s findings a day after its release:

“I reckon that the HRC ought to be sending a note of congratulations to [former Immigration Minister] Scott Morrison saying ‘Well done, mate, because your actions have been very good for the human rights and the human flourishing of thousands of people’.”

A few days later, a 16-year-old girl climbed onto the roof of the Darwin detention facility and dived into the concrete below. Asked if he felt any guilt about how the children still left in detention were being treated, Abbott replied: “None whatsoever.”

The government simply wasn’t interested in engaging with the findings of the report. Instead, according to them, it was “a transparent stitch-up”, “blatantly partisan”, because its author and HRC president — Professor Gillian Triggs — had “lost the faith of the government”. They argued her politics had gotten in the way of her duties as gatekeeper to Australia’s human rights obligations. Why hadn’t she instigated the HRC investigation during Labor’s fragmented stints in government, they cried. It was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who reestablished mandatory detention for children — having been abandoned under his predecessor John Howard after the HRC’s earlier report into children in detention — which caused the number of locked up kids to skyrocket from 0 to a record high of 1,992. Labor had left Abbott with a mighty mess to clean up, and the HRC was unfairly punishing The Fixers. They pointed out that since winning the 2013 election the Abbott government had been gradually letting children out, there now only being a measly couple of hundred still behind bars. Surely, like Abbott suggested, we should be saying “well done” to Scott Morrison for only keeping a few hundred kids in prison.

But under the captainship of Abbott and Morrison other records were being broken. At the time of the report’s submission in November 2014, the average time for a child in detention was a record 413 days — up from 70 under Rudd. In contrast, Britain and Sweden (who both have much greater numbers of asylum seeker arrivals) have a legal limit of 72 hours of detention for children — and even this is a measure of last resort. Triggs’s reasoning was that it’s the amount of time in detention, not just the number of people, that has the greatest impact on the health and wellbeing of individual children.

The Abbott government must have accidentally overlooked the parts where the report is scathing of the Labor government’s immigration policies and praises the improved aspects of Abbott’s, and decided that because it didn’t fit their story of Triggs’s apparent “partisanship”, it shouldn’t get a mention. Or they failed to read it altogether — like ‘Father of the Senate’ Ian McDonald, who chaired the lengthy Senate estimates inquiry into the report but refused to read it, because he had decided it was so blatantly partisan.

The impassioned political right, fuelled by the morally bankrupt reporting of the Murdoch press, were quick to add to the anti-Triggs fervour, digging up her personal history to lend weight to their disrespect. How could Triggs claim to be Australia’s premier authority on human rights, they asked, when she’s repeatedly failed simple tests in basic human decency? What sort of mother, for instance, places her own daughter in institutional care just because she has Edwards Syndrome? What sort of compassionate human would advocate for the rights of a convicted wife-murderer? She’s done both! She obviously can’t be trusted to protect the rights of Australians.

These twisted half truths were aimed at deflecting attention from Triggs’s work in the HRC, which documented the undeniable truths of our immigration policies: that children have become collateral damage in the xenophobic, election-winning project of “border protection”; that we don’t just legally mandate child abuse, but celebrate it as a national victory; that children have become political bargaining chips in a twisted game of captains and knights. One of the more cynical examples: in December 2014 former Immigration Minister Morrison got children in detention to plead with independent Senator Ricky Muir over the phone, asking him to support a bill which gave Morrison unchecked, indiscriminate power to determine who is and who is not an asylum seeker — otherwise, the kids told Muir, they would be staying locked up over Christmas. An empathic Muir caved, and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection can now deny a person asylum based on the undefined, subjective condition of “character”.

On March 20, 2015, the government released its own report into the experiences of asylum seekers in the “offshore processing centre” on Nauru — the ‘Moss Inquiry’. It largely supported the HRC’s report, revealing endemic sexual abuse: guards demanding female detainees strip for an extra two minutes in the shower, kids and mothers being molested by staff and offered drugs in exchange for sexual favours, the authorities turning a blind eye in every instance. But again the perpetrators were not the ones to be punished but those who originally leaked the information — 10 staff from Save the Children were fired without reason or charges being laid. The government claimed these staff had been coaching asylum seekers to self-harm. (In May 2016, the government settled a law suit these staff brought against them for an undisclosed sum, the government’s convenient mistakes revealed once again).

Meanwhile the Australian Federal Police began investigating claims — mostly admitted by Julie Bishop and Attorney General George Brandis — that in early 2015 Brandis encouraged Triggs to leave her position as president of the HRC and take another, undisclosed position somewhere she couldn’t stir up trouble by calling the government to account on its human rights abuses. Her position is protected by law — it has to be above political influence. And “inducements”, such as Brandis’s alleged vocational baiting of Triggs, can carry convictions of up to five years’ imprisonment. It would have been an appropriate irony if the people hoping to rebury the state-sanctioned abuses of imprisoned children themselves ended up in prison, but it was unlikely. Instead, it appears the red herring has worked, that the report itself has been forgotten.

As of March 2016, there are still around 50 children held in the tent-city processing centre on Nauru, where dozens of rapes and sexual abuses have occurred without criminal repercussion, including by guards and locals. For most detainees, over 1000 days have passed without any ‘processing’ of their claims for safety — despite New Zealand offering to take in 150 refugees per year. The horror that forced them to flee their homes has not ceased and will apparently remain indefinitely under the guardianship of whichever government claims the 2016 election.

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