Australian government punishes child refugees

May 14, 2013
A photo of children on Manus Island, taken by fellow detainees.

The federal Labor government is desperate for you to believe that its “no advantage” refugee policy is working. And from offshore detention to impoverished “living in the community”, children and teenagers will be no exception to its increasingly cruel measures.

Immigration minister Brendan O'Connor derided the mounting calls to have children and families removed from the Manus Island detention camp after its appalling conditions were exposed by the ABC’sFour Corners.

He said up to 30 children must remain stay in the camp — for up to five years — to accord with the “no advantage” policy. This “composition”, he said, would prevent further children from getting on boats to Australia.

It's difficult to see his point. Thousands of refugees have arrived since Prime Minister Julia Gillard suspended the processing of all new boat arrivals and announced a rebranded “Pacific solution” on August 13 last year. More than 14,000 had arrived since the beginning of last month.

Among them, about 3000 children have arrived by boat this year alone. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that, including women, this was a 30% jump.

The rise has overwhelmed the government's original plan to send most refugees to Nauru or Manus Island. This has made the threat of offshore processing more like a lottery, which has resulted in severely ill, heavily pregnant women and traumatised children ending up in the squalid tent cities of the detention camps.

Four Corners revealed that children with anaphylaxis and anaemia, one refugee with a “growth on his neck” and women with difficult pregnancies were all being sent to the camp which has woefully poor medical services.

Healthier children were also witnessing the horrific psychiatric breakdown that was to inevitably come with locking people up and telling them they would wait years before even the chance of resettlement.

The tragic but predictable consequences of this was demonstrated recently when a young woman who was held on Manus Island, now living at Inverbrackie community detention in Adelaide, had a miscarriage last month. She told Amnesty International that the stress of facing indefinite time on Manus Island was the cause. “Manus took my baby away,” she said.

Children Out of Detention (ChilOut) is running an “Out of Sight, In our Minds” campaign online, which has collected and published drawings and letters from children on Manus Island. “I don’t feel safe here,” one letter by an eight-year-old said. “My health is in danger here … Why [do] Australians detain us here, why torturing children?”

Manus Island and Nauru continue to be the worst the government has to offer, and hundreds of refugees are suffering needlessly while wondering why so many other refugees who arrived in Australia with them were able to stay in Australia.

But the picture isn't much better in Australia. The government is rushing to reopen many of the country’s most notorious detention centres to house the influx of women and children. But the growing number of asylum seekers being held with no new processing underway is sending Australia's detention network to breaking point.

To cope with this, the immigration department initially began releasing adult male asylum seekers — and now some families as well — from detention, hurriedly giving them temporary “bridging visas” and expecting overburdened charities and non-government organisations to support them.

This has led to hundreds of male asylum seekers living on next to nothing and still facing the prospect of years without refugee status or family reunion.

Family reunion has always been a difficult and long process for refugees. But a key recommendation of the Houston “expert panel” report was to discriminate against refugees that arrive by boat.

Although every situation is different, many families facing danger or persecution make the decision to sell what they have to buy passage for one member — often a father or older son — to Australia. They hope to receive refugee status and then sponsor their family to join them in safety and security.

This is a huge risk, but it is a life-or-death decision in most cases. Now, under Labor, those refugees are being told they should have stayed “in a camp” and waited to be processed “in the queue”. Instead they will wait “up to five years” — Labor's arbitrary wait time — in detention or in poverty to even have a chance to be recognised as a refugee. And they cannot help their family, who must wait in Malaysia, or Indonesia, or their home country.

The consequences of this vary. In some cases, it means men in detention learning that their family members have been killed in their home country, such as when a bomb blast in Quetta, Pakistan, in January, left men held on Nauru grief-stricken and alone.

In other cases, unsurprisingly, their families will arrive on boats.

Denying refugees the right to reunite with their family was also a key policy of former PM John Howard. This directly led to the 353 mostly women and children who drowned in the 2001 SIEV-X disaster. Many of them had husbands or fathers in Australia who could do nothing to bring them here safely.

Yet still, absurdly, O’Connor insists that making the lives of refugees in Australia miserable and unstable will “deter” yet more refugees overseas from seeking passage to Australia by sea. To justify paying people on bridging visas 89% of Newstart allowance, he said this was “adequate support, but it will not be so generous that it encourages people to come to Australia by boat”.

O’Connor, Gillard, opposition leader Tony Abbott and opposition spokesperson for immigration Scott Morrison all blame “people smugglers” for “selling” the boat journeys to Australia. They will also blame people smugglers the next time a boat — now more likely to be carrying children — sinks or disappears.

But even if the government continues to punish refugees and permanently harm children, teenagers and adults, people will not stop trying to seek safe refuge.

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