Monday, October 12, 2015

Today by Nick Feik

Kids in camps
Public opposition to keeping children in immigration detention is reaching a critical point


“I knew it would come to this,” said Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent, talking about children in detention on ABC radio. “It has come to this again. The Australian people are standing up and saying, No, not on.”

It’s arguable whether the broad Australian public has ever said stood up and said it's “not on” regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, but there are tantalising signs that keeping children in indefinite detention has now become broadly unacceptable.

On the weekend the Royal Children’s Hospital, one of Victoria’s most trusted and admired institutions, made a dramatic intervention on an issue that often seems immune to such things. “It’s almost impossible to treat these children while they remain detained,” said its doctors in an officially sanctioned statement. “Our duty is to support child health. We cannot accept or condone harm to children. Detention causes harm and it must end.”

“Free the kids,” said the front page of the Sunday Herald Sun, along with a picture of hundreds of protesting RCH staff.

The Australian Medical Association immediately backed the call, as did Victoria’s health minister, Jill Hennessy (“Doctors and nurses are putting the interest of children first … we will support them”).

Even the federal Labor Party is sniffing the wind and backing away from the most egregious effects of a detention regime whose current offshore incarnation it largely created. Shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles is apparently planning to introduce a private member’s bill for mandatory reporting of child abuse in all offshore and onshore detention facilities. (As the Guardian notes, Labor joined the Coalition to vote down a Greens amendment to do exactly this just four months ago.)

Predictably, immigration minister Peter Dutton immediately rejected any suggestion of a need to alter government policy. By his brand of utilitarian logic (born of Scott Morrison and, earlier, “father figure” Philip Ruddock) there is no limit to the cruelty that can be meted out to the few in order to safeguard the comfort and welfare of the many. Tough luck, kids.

And yet, the level of dysfunction experienced by all asylum seekers effectively imprisoned indefinitely by the government has reached such proportions that public sentiment will also soon tip into widespread revulsion if nothing is done. The prospect of major reparations is an ever-growing risk, too, though this should be the least of concerns.

In Nauru, the recent decision to allow asylum seekers out of the detention centre was portrayed as a means to give them greater freedom. In fact it’s a disaster in the making: one thousand damaged souls are now roaming around an island the size of Melbourne Airport, with only an unsympathetic, under-resourced police force and a broken legal system to protect them, amid a population of 10,000 who are already struggling and in many cases viciously resentful. It barely needs to be said, but our government is entirely responsible for what happens next.

In Manus, local authorities are furious that Australian detention centre staff were shipped out of PNG to avoid investigation following an alleged rape; and no-one is any closer to reaching a long-term solution for detainees.

When doctors are refusing to cooperate (some have refused to send children back into detention) and openly flouting the law, when lawyers and welfare workers are up in arms and even superannuation funds are weighing up their liabilities, it’s obvious that the current situation cannot stand. The government’s increasingly strange and expensive attempts to send the detainees elsewhere – the Philippines is the latest target for negotiations – along with the changes in Nauru are tacit acknowledgement of this.

Even the wiser heads in the government (i.e. not Peter Dutton) may still be avoiding it, but most will see that the situation is a ticking time bomb. Call it a first major test for Malcolm Turnbull.


Today’s links

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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