Suffer the little children…

Sev Ozdowski hands down the report in 2004.The Human Rights Commissioner’s 2004 report paved the way for release of refugee children from detention. We’ve regressed: now more than 900 kids are behind bars and razor wire. It’s time for some moral leadership from the top, writes the author of that report, and CLA member, Sev Ozdowski.
Photo: Sev Ozdowski hands down the report in 2004.

Suffer the little children…

By Sev Ozdowski*

It has been nearly seven years since I was Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner and tabled a report in federal parliament detailing the human rights breaches of children in our detention centres.

While travelling the country investigating the issue, I met children with clinical depression and post traumatic stress disorder, children who were plagued by nightmares, bed-wetting and suicidal thoughts. The final report, A Last Resort? National Inquiry Into Children in Immigration Detention, sparked a national debate about our detention policies and paved the way for the children to be released.

It frustrates me, to say the least, to see these gains being squandered by a chronic lack of moral leadership among our national leaders.

The situation in our detention centres is nothing short of a national disgrace. According to statistics released by the Immigration Department in February 2011, more than 900 children are living in locked detention facilities. The government’s claim that children are not being held in detention centres is at best a sham.

Many of the existing facilities have simply been renamed, and many, such as the Alternative Places of Detention, are actually worse for children as they lack recreational facilities and outdoor spaces.

It speaks volumes that the lobby group ChilOut (Children Out of Detention), which disbanded after the Howard government’s about-turn in 2005, has reformed to again push for change.

In the absence of any leadership from the federal government or the Human Rights Commission, it’s heartening to see non-government organisations again taking up the cause.

In my time as the Human Rights Commissioner I was struck by the ambiguity of the authority afforded by the position. On one hand the commissioner’s role is mainly symbolic, involving little more than issuing strongly worded press releases that generally receive little more than lip service by people of influence.

But the power afforded to the commissioner once an inquiry is called is extraordinary. The commissioner can call witnesses, subpoena evidence, and through their advocacy help bring about meaningful change.

I note the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has recently been tasked by the government to investigate the treatment of women in the defence force, and I wish her the very best for the investigation.

Yet what direct action is being taken for the children still suffering in such appalling conditions in our detention centres; the boys and girls who, through no fault of their own, are forced to live in prison-like institutions indefinitely in a supposedly civilised country?

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the fact that our present Human Rights Commissioner is also the president of the commission. As president, Catherine Branson QC is required to be commission chair and an impartial conciliator of complaints, while as commissioner she is required to advocate for change.

I find it hard to see how this arrangement could produce a commissioner who is prepared to stand up to well-resourced and powerful parties wielding influence at the national level.

It’s one thing to issue media releases raising concerns about detention centres, or to table a report restating the commission’s long-held view that the Christmas Island detention centre should be closed. It’s another thing entirely to spark ructions with powerful political and bureaucratic figures who are intimately involved with the inner workings of the national government.

The other part of the problem is obvious.

The federal government foolishly brought the "Pacific Solution" to a close without determining another viable response for all new arrivals, such as allowing asylum-seekers to settle temporarily in the community while their claims are processed.

We are now left with the worst of both worlds, a situation where more boats are arriving because of the new laws, leading to more innocent children being placed in detention for longer periods of time.

Much has been made of Robert Manne’s conclusion that it would have been better to keep the Howard-era border protection policies because they ultimately reduced the number of people being detained in detention centres. But the focus on this statement only looks at one side of the equation. It seems no-one is considering dismantling the border protection regime while also doing away with mandatory detention. Surely this would be the Labor way?

But it seems the government is in no mood to revisit the issue. Aided in part by an acquiescent Human Rights Commission, the government refuses to acknowledge the system is failing.

It is failing the asylum-seekers, who are forced to live in increasingly cramped conditions for longer periods of time while their claims are processed.

It is failing the children who for whatever reason are seeking a new life in Australia, by breaking their wills and their minds in what can only be described as state-sanctioned sensory deprivation facilities. It most likely breaches our international human rights obligations.

And it is failing the taxpayers who are forced to cough up when asylum-seekers win compensation payouts for the mistreatment and trauma they have endured or when they incur on-going health problems.

Surely there is a better way.

Considering the lack of movement by the federal government, a thorough, timely and independent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission, as opposed to a string of strongly-worded press releases, would be a good first step.

While no doubt important, I suggest inquiries into the riots on Christmas Island pale by comparison with the ongoing, protracted and festering sore of children in detention: an issue that is being swept under the rug but still needs urgent – indeed immediate – attention.

  • Sev Ozdowski was Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner from 2000 to 2005. He is Adjunct Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the University of Sydney, and Director Equity and Diversity, the University of Western Sydney, as well as being President, National Committee for Human Rights Education. Mr Ozdowski is also a member of Civil Liberties Australia.
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