Children in detention: child rights not refugee fight

| July 3, 2013

The new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has set the issue of asylum seekers high on his political agenda. Leila Druery, a refugee advocate for activist group GetUp!, describes the plight of children in mandatory detention and argues that their rights should come before political considerations.

We all have different childhood experiences; however I think we can agree that all children should live free from persecution and violence. All children should have an opportunity for education, and through such opportunities they should have the chance to grow, learn and one day be whatever they want to be. To deprive any child of this through the atrocity of arbitrary indefinite detention is not only inhumane, but an issue of child abuse. When children seeking asylum are brought into the picture, the fear mongering and back and forth over refugee policy becomes inconsequential –  it is a child rights issue.

Imagine spending your days behind tall fences, sleeping in shipping containers with no windows and no air-conditioning with the temperature at a scorching 40 degrees. You live in fear of the rioting and abuse that occurs in the bachelor camp, metres from your container house. You watch a man climb a tree, tie a rope and jump. The first time you see this you scream and hide your eyes. The second time, you watch and wonder if that man found peace. Worst of all, you never know when or even if you will ever be free.

There are 1632 asylum seeker children currently detained in mandatory detention in Australia. This is a shameful national record. Until recently, 22 of these children were on Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, literally living the nightmare that I’ve previously illustrated. Thankfully, the government has begun transferring families and children off Manus Island, a sign of the failure of the policy.

So why did we subject children to this in the first place? Offshore detention does not work. It is not a deterrent for desperate people with no other option. Despite not one asylum claim having been processed since the opening of Manus Island on 8 November 2012, lives are still tragically being lost at sea because desperate people are still fleeing persecution. Detention in this form is arbitrary, a form of punishment to those who have committed no crime, and it is especially damaging to children. It seems the government has acknowledged at least this, by removing children from the centre.

The abject failure that is Manus Island has also resulted in the pointless squandering of billions of taxpayer dollars. But the cash is never as important as the kids. GetUp has heard directly from the children detained on Manus. They spoke of their fears of flooding, mosquitoes, detention guards and snakes. Parents of these children were concerned with the lack of protection against the extreme heat and the limited schooling or play areas available for their kids.

The Government has also shown a complete lack of transparency by banning media access and applying severe restrictions on NGO visits. All this is an attempt to conceal the conditions on Manus Island and render these families out of sight and out of mind to the public.

We have just seen the release of United Nations’ figures showing a staggering number of newly displaced people, the highest since 1999. The reality is that asylum seekers will continue to seek protection in Australia and across the globe. In relative terms, Australia does not have a ‘refugee problem’ because only a tiny proportion of the world’s refugees ever come here.

Both major parties continue to shamelessly exploit asylum seekers arrivals, creating and then capitalising on fear and ignorance within the electorate in order to gain votes. This fear mongering has infected public debate to such a point that our major political parties are now competing in a sick, immoral race to the bottom.

Countless decisions have been made at the whim of politicians and this has changed daily, not simply through the election of new political parties.

What we need to see is leadership on this issue. We need the engagement of child experts and policies that recognise and protect people. Overly politicised ‘quick fixes’ will not address this complex humanitarian issue; we have seen this repeatedly, and certainly in this latest incarnation of Manus Island detention. There are alternatives and now is the time to start a genuine commitment to a better asylum policy; one where the Australian Government upholds both its domestic and international obligations while ensuring a sustainable solution.

What asylum seekers endure today will tomorrow be remembered as a shameful chapter in Australia’s history. And when that tomorrow comes we will say sorry to the thousands of children for taking away their childhood, destroying their dreams and stemming their laughter and maturity. The damage we are inflicting to these young future-Australians will cost us economically and socially for years to come. The impact is incalculable. The rights of children must come before base political considerations. Elections, like politicians, come and go. But you only ever get one childhood.