Children in a cage

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead , 1862

Prisoners have better treatment. We don’t know when we will be free … Our hope is slowly going. Maybe I will be killed like Reza Berati on Manus Island.
Unaccompanied child, Phosphate Hill Detention Centre, Christmas Island,  March 4, 2014


Reza Berati was a young Iraqi Kurd refugee, an architect and by all accounts, a very gentle, kind man.  He was murdered by multiple blows to the head during a riot at the Australian offshore detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.


The detainees, all waiting for some undefined date for their processing, living in primitive conditions had been vocally protesting, but ended up in a physical altercation when PNG nationals aggressively raided the camp.

Reza was killed nearly one year ago on February 17, 2014. The anniversary of his death passed unnoticed, though the plight of other refugees has again come into a harsh spotlight once again.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has just released a shattering report called The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Australia is the only country that has mandatory detention for all migrants attempting to or entering Australia without a visa.

The report’s forward from November 2014 records 800 children “in mandatory closed immigration detention for indefinite periods, with no pathway to protection or settlement”. 186 children live in the Australian off-shore detention centre on Nauru, an island nation in Micronesia.

These young ones and their families have been detained in centres on the Australian mainland, Nauru, and the closest off-shore processing facility at Christmas Island for an average of one year and two months. There are no children currently at Manus Island.

The Sri Lankan father behind detention centre bars with his baby. Picture: Alf Sorbello
A Tamil man from Sri Lanka behind detention centre bars with his baby. The family was removed from Redcilffe detention centre in WA, and deported to Nauru in December 2014. Picture: Alf Sorbello

As of June of 2014, 3,624 people were held in immigration detention facilities and 3,007 in community detention.

There were over 167 births in detention since November of 2012. Some of those children were born to women who are without nationality, most are Rohingya people from Myanmar where they have been declared stateless.

Though the newborns should be protected by section 21(8) of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 that provides Australian citizenship for stateless migrants, the Federal Circuit Court has declared a child born to such a stateless asylum seeker is an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’.

It is an absurd twisting of decision to deny the veracity of humans in desperate straits.

So we are locking up children, despite the fact that section 4AA of the Migration Act 1958 states: ‘‘a minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort”.

The report is a documentary of the children as young as three diagnosed with depression, other mental health distress, children who are suicidal, have attempted suicide, have been the victims of sexual assault and denied basic freedoms of education, health care and special attention for those with supported needs.

Babies have been documented to have stunted development and mothers suffering mental health issues after birth have received inadequate to no care.

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The report stated that in the time frame of April 2013 to March 2014, criminal and desperate actions perpetrated toward children or upon themselves were:

• 57 serious assaults
• 233 assaults involving children
• 207 incidents of actual self-harm
• 436 incidents of threatened self-harm
• 33 incidents of reported sexual assault (the majority involving children); and
• 183 incidents of voluntary starvation/hunger strikes (with a further 27 involving children).

Children expressed feelings of fear, hopelessness, and day to day living beside adults burdened with mental and physical illness.

My hope finished now.
I don’t have any hope.
I feel I will die in detention.
Unaccompanied 17 year old, Phosphate Hill Detention Centre,
Christmas Island, 4 March 2014

There was a dismaying response of the current government and opposition to the Forgotten Children report. Rather than sitting in horror over the situation created, desperate to find an answer, the parties engaged in a heated finger pointing, eclipsing any chance at freeing these children and their families.

In a written response, the Abbott government said the report offered “little in the way of new insights or initiatives”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott even went so far as to say the Australian Human Rights Commission should be ashamed of itself. That it should. For targeting the Liberal government when Labor had more refugees in detention in their time.

Enough with the snitching.

In my opinion, any government that makes a practice of keeping innocent children and adults in a cages, no matter the size, but with every intent to limit freedoms, should be ashamed.

For most in detention, the wheels of processing grind either very slowly or stand in stasis. Unlike prison with a definite release or parole date, those in Australian detention are in a limbo as to the date of the next stage of their lives. Even then, no asylum seeker arriving ‘illegally’ will be resettled in Australia.

To combat the flow of seaborne asylum seekers making their way to Australia; to “stop the boats”, in 2014 the government re-launched their Pacific Solution, under the new name: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’.

The former title sounds disturbingly like The Final Solution, invoked by the Nazi party plan for the extermination of Jews and other considered undesirables.  A disposal technique.

The latter suggests the Australian coastline is under siege by felons, terrorists and people who will steal Australian jobs. As Abbott would say, “baddies”.

In light of the copious research, reports, documents, organisations, warnings from the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, even though Australia recognizes that people are seeking asylum, they still regard those who attempt to arrive on Australian soil as criminals, and these shores require protection.

Nowhere does it stipulate that those who seek asylum are engaging in illegal activity.

What I feel has become completely lost in the discussion is the humanness of the people who choose to leave all they know, enslave themselves to a people smuggler and make that potentially deadly trip across the sea.

I wonder if people see those frightened, worn faces and believe these people are not teachers, engineers, business owners, graphic designers, veterinarians, mothers and fathers. People with education, families, hobbies and children they adore.

These are the same people sometimes driven to desperation.


Who would ever stitch shut their mouth if they did not feel they were at the end of their options?

The Australian government is very careful to de-humanize asylum seekers by the language they use in relation to those on boats and in detention. They demonize the desperation of this emotional response to hopelessness. Words that inflame fear such as terrorism or national security serve to polarize the public opinion.

I think of the pressure on the average family when a parent loses a job, when the dog is chewing up the furniture, porn is found on the teen’s computer or a relation or friend dies. Maybe the family is confronting an expensive medical bill.

Common stress that can cause rifts in the family. This is nothing to the lives of those asylum seekers already carrying a lifetime of stress. How about your entire village leveled, your family massacred before your eyes, your mom and dad killed and you are left alone at age 14?

Then they enter the maelstrom of uncertainty of detention. The children are perhaps the least resilient. They are the most fragile of victims.

The latest plan for resettlement is transfer of asylum seekers to Cambodia. This is a country with a rich history and recent spate of human rights violations, a country barely able to sustain themselves. It cannot provide adequate health care, education and opportunities for just about everybody.

This would be defined as non-refoulement, and the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network has condemned the Australian government for this plan to settle refugees in a country which cannot provide these vulnerable people with sufficient protection.

After Australia detained and relinquished 41 Tamil and Singhalese refugees to the Sri Lankan navy last July, the UNHCR condemned this action and defined it as non-refoulement. In response, a bill was drafted and has been tabled in Australian parliament to exempt Australia from non-refoulement obligations.

When it comes to asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, which make up only one per cent of all humanitarian refugees in the world, this country will write their own book to meet their own priorities. They will use scare-mongering to gain public support for their initiatives.

It will help us to forget these are people just like you and me.

Nauru's children in detention (Image by scoop.co.nz)
Nauru’s children in detention (Image by scoop.co.nz)

Personally, I feel that as any developed, first world country who has played any part in the devastation and war wrought in countries, that has produced people seeking asylum, have an ethical responsibility to provide these people with the opportunity for safety and a high quality of life.

With streams of adults and children streaming in from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Myanmar among others, is Australia not obligated to do its part to repair its damages, and salvage the humans displaced by conflict and the destruction of their cultures and countries?