Aro Valley, Wellington.
A world and a half away from human rights violations?
If I have learnt anything since these teenage days, it is that what you see on the outside is always different from the reality. Maybe that's the sceptical PolSci student in me coming through. I do not deny that the human rights situation (to use the term loosely) in overseas countries is far graver than anything comparable in New Zealand, however, that does not mean that everything is cheery at home. Recently I wrote about the phenomenon of migrant exploitation which takes place on our dairy farms, in our fishing boats, in our homes even, and on other occasions I have written about the effects of inequality on at-risk populations within our shores. Today I want to write about a grave situation which is taking place a little further from home, but certainly not as far as La Paz or the Peruvian Amazon. This is the predicament of detained children in Australian prisons. It is an expansive topic, so this might transform into a duo of posts, but we'll see how we go.
It is the policy of the Australian government to keep children who reach Australia without a valid visa in closed detention until they are granted a visa or removed from the country. With large numbers of asylum seekers heading by sea for Australia, and the government taking a hard line against illegal immigrants, this has led to a situation where, in May last year, 983 children - who come from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan - were held in detention facilities across Australia. (The numbers are somewhat reduced now but still above 700.) Detention facilities are located not just on Christmas Island and Nauru, but also in cities such as Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Hobart. News sites have reported on the situation affecting two teenage Indonesian boys who were just recently released from prison after having remained there for two years, in facilities designed for adults.
Hundreds of immigrant children are held in detention in Australia.
The boys / men (depending on who is telling the story) were convicted under the Migration Act 1958 for their involvement in people smuggling and, along with an older man, sentenced through the Australian courts to a 3 1/2 year jail term with a non parole period of 21 months. (You can find the update on this news site.) This happened in spite of the judges knowing about the boys' peculiar circumstances, such as their impoverished backgrounds and lack of English language speaking ability. The sentence angered many Australian lawyers, politicians and activists who noted that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Australia has ratified), the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall... only be used as a measure of last resort... every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interests not to do so. The boys have just returned home to Indonesia, but one of the pair apparently spent both Christmas and New Years Day in detention.
This is not the only case which Australian lawyers and human rights activists have been ups in arms about. A large section of Australian society is outraged that so many children have been detained in their country. There are various reports to suggest that these children, who have needless to say already been through so much fleeing their country and travelling across the seas, have been suffering from severe trauma and mental health issues. For instance, paediatricians have reported speaking to children who have been having nightmares, wetting the bed and pulling their hair out. They believe that although some of this behaviour is to be expected given the children's recent experiences, detention is only exacerbating these problems. Other reports (including one which was leaked) suggest that frightened children, who may have travelled alone and are now far from their families, are engaging in self-harm. Andrew Wilkie, an MP in Tasmania who questioned Tony Abbott about the practice of child detention, noted that children were referring to one another in the detention centres by numbers rather than names. (Tony Abbott acknowledged Wilkie's concerns, but was adamant that this was the only way to stop the boats and that the Labour government had got them into this tight spot in the first place.)
MP Andrew Wilkie and PM Tony Abbott.
A Save the Children report testified that the situation was even more dire than feared; children were going unsupervised, they were living in unhygenic conditions, some had even been sexually abused on the island. The Australian government accused Save the Children (who were providing welfare and health services on the island) of fabricating these claims and ordered an independent inquiry to be undertaken. Paul Renolds, the Chief Executive of Save the Children, held that his staff would not make up such allegations. It will take some time until we can determine the real story, but in any case the government was quick to suspend Save the Children's contract on the island pending the findings of the investigation.
The Save the Children testimony was provided as evidence to a commission of inquiry on the situation of children in detention. In 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission examined the issue of children in detention and concluded, among other points, that the Australian government could well be breaching international human rights law to which it has subscribed. The Commission, lead by Chief Gillian Triggs, decided to launch a second inquiry ten years later, in response to growing numbers of children in detention (over 1o00 in 2013) and widespread concerns about their living conditions. The inquiry was guided by principles drawn from the Refugee Convention and the aforementioned Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last year the Commission received public submissions and conducted meetings on the topic at various locations around Australia. You can read the public submissions on this site.
HRC Chief Gillian Triggs has been embroiled in controversy.
To add another twist to this sad saga, it appears that the inquiry is now finalised but that it has not yet been released by the government. Critics accuse the government of lying low and trying to dodge responsibility. In the meantime, reports abound of detained men, women and children in Australian centres going on hunger strikes and sewing their lips together in protest at their living conditions and their indefinite detention. Large numbers of Australians have protested at this miserable situation and you can find YouTube campaigns calling for an end to the detention of children. (For example, in this one featuring Australian celebrities, we are told that "we're better than this.")
The situation in Australia is highly politicised and impassioned, and it is difficult to get the full story behind the reports and accusations. Whatever the case, large numbers of children have become political footballs and their daily lives have been particularly bleak. If you've made it to the end of this post, I encourage you to follow up on some of the links I have included here and to continue the reading. There is a lot of material out there and the topic is both frightening (especially given how close to home this is) and highly relevant today.