Children released from detention, but others remain locked up

August 22, 2014
148 children are detained on Christmas Island and 183 on Nauru.

The release of up to 150 children under the age of 10 from residential detention is not a humanitarian move by the government, in case you were wondering.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison claimed that issuing bridging visas to 150 children and their families to live in the community was a “dividend of stopping the boats”.

This false correlation between the Coalition's brutal border policies and whether asylum seekers stay locked up in Australia is some impressive spin, not least because “stopping the boats” means children are now locked up on Nauru and could soon end up being dumped in Cambodia.

The federal government has pushed to reduce the number of refugees being held in detention on the Australian mainland and close facilities opened by Labor, such as the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia and Inverbrackie detention centre in Adelaide.

Similar to the Coalition's announcement to accept 440 refugees from Iraq and Syria, which masks the shrinking overall intake of refugees, the release of some children masks the government's aim is to shrink the onshore detention network — where advocates and media can access detainees — and expand the offshore dumping of refugees.

Many advocates pointed out it was not a coincidence Morrison announced the plans before he was due to appear before the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into children in detention.

But the real indicators of the shallow and political nature of Morrison's announcement are the 148 children on Christmas Island and 183 on Nauru, who will stay locked up in some of the worst conditions ever seen.

These conditions have been brought to light in recent months through the Human Rights Commission inquiry. President Gillian Triggs said children held in detention facilities on Christmas Island are showing regression and symptoms in line with post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Nauru, a recent anonymous report by Save the Children Australia (SCA) workers said refugee children had been “subjected to multiple violations of their human rights and wrongdoing from multiple parties”.

SCA holds the government contract to provide support for children held in offshore detention. The staff submitted the report to the inquiry anonymously because the contract has confidentiality clauses.

The document describes the desolate conditions of the camps on Nauru, including the gravel yards, crowded and hot tents with 12 to 15 families in them, amenities that flood and leave faeces on the floor, and constant noise levels that prevent children from getting adequate rest.

But SCA staff were most concerned by the cultivated hopelessness that has come with receiving no answers about processing their claims and “no timeframe” to their detention stay.

“As time progresses, SCA staff have seen the most resilient children and families begin to lose motivation to participate in activities, lose their willingness to engage with SCA staff because they believe that 'nothing changes' in reference to their concerns.

“We have seen children stop attending school, withdraw from social activities, stop eating regularly and become depressed and increasingly hopeless about their future. Some children have engaged in self-harming behaviours or have become increasingly preoccupied with self-harm.”

The government shows no signs of addressing this abuse of children in its custody. Morrison has refused repeated calls for children to be exempt from offshore detention, arguing it would “encourage” people to put their children on boats.

There's no evidence to support this claim and, in fact, past events such as the Tampa crisis show that it is the government's harsh policies that put children on boats.

It is welcome news that 150 young children and their families have a chance at a more normal life. But it must be remembered that they have this chance simply because they came to Australia on a different date to those now receiving “no advantage”.

It is that arbitrary.

However, the commission's inquiry and concerted campaigning in the community is having an effect.

The fact that Morrison felt he should frame the transfer of young children from community detention to temporary visas as a humane move by the government shows he is defensive about ongoing revelations of children traumatised by detention.

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