Children in Detention: It’s Time

Children in Detention: It’s Time
Words By: Matt Norman
Image Credit: Colombo Mirror

On the 11th February 2015, the Australian Government tabled a report in parliament called The Forgotten Children. The report was produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) following an eight-month inquiry into the impact of mandatory and indefinite detention for children seeking asylum in Australia. It does not make for easy reading.

Informed by a wealth of medical evidence, the Forgotten Children report gives a frank assessment of the effects of our nation’s policies on the health of the children in our detention centres. In the words of the AHRC, “the overarching finding of the Inquiry is that the prolonged, mandatory detention of asylum seeker children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays”. This verdict is unacceptable. The high incidence of self-harm and suicide attempts in our detention centres is unacceptable. The high incidence of assault, including sexual assault, is unacceptable.

This article is not the place for a barrage of figures and statistics, but there is one finding of the Forgotten Children report that is simply staggering. Outside Australia’s detention centres, 2% of children in the community suffer mental health disorders serious enough to warrant treatment. Inside Australia’s detention centres, 34% of children suffer to that same degree. That’s a 1,700% increase in the likelihood of serious mental health disorders, and it’s completely and utterly unacceptable.

The Australian Government’s response to the Forgotten Children report has been no less than shameful. They waited until the last possible moment, two whole months after the report was submitted, to table it in parliament. Between the submission of the report by the AHRC and its eventual release, the Government launched a disgraceful smear campaign against the Commission and its President, Professor Gillian Triggs. The Professor’s judgement was publicly called into question and George Brandis wrongly asked her to resign, leading to humiliation for the Attorney-General. Since its release, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has labelled the report a “blatantly partisan politicised exercise” and rejected its recommendations. No action whatsoever has been taken to address the clear evidence of serious mental and physical health issues in Australian detention centres.

Moreover, the Government’s response to the Forgotten Children report has been proven to be entirely inappropriate. The report was followed, in March 2015, by a report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture that found various aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That report was followed in turn by the Moss Review, which revealed allegations of rape, assault and widespread self-harm in the Nauru detention centre. The evidence continues to mount against the current Government, and all of it indicates that the cost of this political battle is being borne by asylum seekers themselves; and in particular, by asylum seeker children.

As the Government would rightly point out, the protection of Australia’s borders is a project that will incur costs – costs which must be borne somewhere. Minimizing dangerous sea journeys by deterring illegal immigration comes at a cost. Combating an international criminal network of people smugglers comes at a cost. But while these statements are true, it is neither just nor expedient that the costs of Australia’s asylum seeker policies are translated into serious mental health costs for children who have done no wrong.

As reported by the AHRC, “both the former and current Ministers for Immigration agreed that holding children for prolonged periods in remote detention centres, does not deter people smugglers or asylum seekers”. Australia’s policy of mandatory and indefinite detention for children is without completely without logical justification; it does nothing to further the goals of Australia’s broader Immigration and Border Protection policy. The cost these children bare is a cost without a benefit. And it is a cost that needs to stop.

It is no longer an option for the Australian Government to do nothing. To do nothing would mean continuing to fail in our responsibility, internationally and ethically, to provide for the welfare of our asylum seeker children. To do nothing would mean continuing to allow children to develop serious mental health disorders in conditions that have been likened by the United Nations to torture. This path can lead only to greater psychological suffering and bring shame upon our nation on the global stage.

It’s time for the Government to swallow its pride and follow the key recommendation of the Forgotten Children report by releasing all children in detention and resettling them in the community. The political battle has gone on too long, and too much damage has been done to the mental health of these children. The policy that mandates their detention is baseless and ineffectual, but even if that were not so, it is not right that these children should bear such a devastating psychological cost.

Regardless of what you think of stopping the boats, it’s time to stop the suffering of children.