In the heated debates about asylum seekers, including the tragic death of Reza Berati on Manus Island, there is one group that is always forgotten: children. Ten years ago we lamented the fact that there were about 100 children held in Australia’s immigration detention prisons, arguing that those children were subject to ”organised” and ”ritualised” abuse by the Australian government.
We used the term ”ritualised abuse” to explain that the children were subject to formal and repeated acts of abuse, carried out under a belief system that the government adopted to justify such cruelty. We used the term ”organised abuse” to illustrate that children were being abused by many perpetrators who acted together in ways they knew could be extremely harmful.
Ten years later, there are 10 times as many children subject to this organised, ritualised practice on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island and Nauru. Children without parents, dismissively referred to as ”unaccompanied minors”, are now joining transported families with children on Nauru.
As the abuse has markedly increased, we have further refined our definition to incorporate ”commercialised trafficking” in children. Australia is now trafficking more children across national borders, defying UN protocols of trafficking in persons. As the tragic events on Manus Island unfolded, there was barely a murmur about what was occurring in the second offshore imprisonment site of Nauru, with 10 unaccompanied children forcibly sent there from Christmas Island; more have now followed. Through deliberately misleading and confusing terminology, these trafficked children are described in various ways; ”transferees” and ”illegals” are being sent to ”secure” detention sites, rather than to imprisonment.
According to a definition found through the UNICEF website, based on engagements with international agencies, ”A child has been trafficked if he or she has been moved within a country, or across borders, whether by force or not, with the purpose of exploiting the child”. Among the factors that render a trafficked child vulnerable, according to this definition, are that they ”cannot speak the language, are disadvantaged by their legal status, suffer a lack of access to basic services (such as education and healthcare), or do not know the environment”. All these apply to children we have trafficked to Nauru.
There is more. All those who contribute to this movement of children, and know what they do is likely to lead to child exploitation, are themselves traffickers. They include ”recruiters, intermediaries, document providers, transporters, corrupt officials, employers and exploiters”.
”Duty of care” and ”risk management” are terms familiar to Australians. Sending children to Nauru is a serious abrogation of duty of care and poses untold risks to unaccompanied children. Riots and fires on Nauru last year, and recent events on Manus Island, starkly reveal the impact of locking up innocent people and taking away all hopes and rights. For children to witness such events, sometimes without the protection of a parent, increases the well-documented harm that results from being locked up for indeterminate periods.
Imprisoned children’s voices are haunting. In Human Rights Overboard we recounted narratives about so many childhoods lost. One boy who was 11 when detained on Nauru told us: ”I felt my childhood was being washed away by detention. It’s like watching an R-rated movie you are not supposed to watch. It included sexual content, very coarse language, violence, suicide and every horrible experience that you can imagine. Children experienced the grown up world when they are not ready for it.”
Last December a well-known non-government organisation advertised for an ”Unaccompanied Minor Manager” on Nauru, specifying that a key objective would be to ”reduce the risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation or harm to unaccompanied minors”. A noble statement, but given the remote location, the tensions and children’s past experiences, such a goal is not achievable.
In 1992, in his renowned Redfern speech, Paul Keating referred to indigenous stolen children and spoke of our failure to imagine such things happening to us. Ironically, it was Keating’s government that introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Our national cruelty continues as we fail to imagine what it would be like if our own children were harshly imprisoned without cause, without limit and without hope.
In effect, the government is moving children for profit, exactly what they accuse people smugglers of doing. The profit is not only financial for the range of stakeholders, but unashamedly political. Those colluding with exploitation of children for political and financial gain include government departments, ground and air transport personnel, private security companies and ”humanitarian” organisations. In this tangled web, ritualised abuse of children is shrouded by the shrill, simplistic message of Stop the Boats, unconscionably punishing these children to deter others.
In 2004, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention found children held in these facilities ”had suffered numerous and repeated breaches of their human rights”. The inquiry found that our detention policies ”failed to protect the mental health of children, failed to provide adequate healthcare and education and failed to protect unaccompanied children and those with disabilities”.
Such are the continuing concerns that the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, announced on February 3 that she is leading another inquiry, 10 years later.
During the past 10 years, there were occasions when we foolishly hoped that children would be freed. Not only were these hopes dashed, but imprisoning asylum seeker children increased in scale, intensity and cruelty. This cruel punishment has become less unusual.
We live in a vast and wealthy nation ”with boundless plains to share”. We can afford to be fair. Unless we reverse this blight on our nation, children’s anguish will continue to shame us.
How many more childhoods will be washed away while children remain imprisoned?
Linda Briskman is professor of human rights at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology.
Chris Goddard is adjunct professor, Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, at Monash University. Their book, with Susie Latham, Human Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia, won the Australian Human Rights Commission award for non-fiction in 2008.