Making an example of asylum seeker children


Asylum seeker lies on bed in detention centre. Stil from Four CornersThe plight of children who seek protection in Australia has recently been in the news. A Four Corners program on Manus Island (click image to view in full) showed them confined under conditions that produce mental illness in their families, and seeing people act out their despair by trying to take their lives and sewing their lips.

Last week, too, the Minister of Immigration announced that families with children would be given bridging visas that denied them the right to work and left them to find accommodation and feed themselves on an allowance, less than the dole, which could be withdrawn. For many families, too, even the allowance would be unavailable.

Neither predicament is in the best interests of children. It may be helpful to look at the various conditions under which Australia makes children who seek protection live, and ask why it happens some are chosen for Manus Island and others for penury in the community.

The factors that affect the treatment of children, as of other asylum seekers, have nothing to do with their merits or needs. The salient factors are whether they arrived by plane or boat, which point they have reached in the processing of their claims, and whether they arrived before or after 13 August 2012.

Those arriving before 13 August 2012 faced three possible destinations. Some were confined in detention centres on Christmas Island or the Australian mainland.

But more recently, many children and families, among other asylum seekers have been placed in community detention, administered for the most part by community organisations. They live freely in residential accommodation in the community and are eligible for free medical treatment and prescribed medicines.

Although they are not allowed to work, they receive 70 per cent of the special benefit out of which they had to pay for all expenses except accommodation. Children are entitled to free education until they turn 18.

A third group live in the community on bridging visas. Most have been able to work and receive 89 per cent of the single benefit, out of which they have to pay for accommodation, food and transport, until their case is reviewed at tribunal level. They are entitled to Medicare but must pay for prescribed medicines.

If their cases are rejected by the tribunal, their benefit is cut off. If they cannot work — and few employers will employ people with only elementary English on short term visas — they are destitute. Many families who have arrived by plane to claim protection are in this condition.

People who arrived by boat after 13 August 2012 must wait at least five years before their cases are processed. They were to have been sent to Manus Island or Nauru, but because the number of arrivals has far exceeded the capacity of these centres some, including children, remain in detention on Christmas Island and the mainland.

Others, including families and unaccompanied children, are put in community detention under the same conditions as those who arrived earlier, except that they receive only 60 per cent of the basic benefit.

Other single adults live in the community on bridging visas, with no right to work. They receive 89 per cent of the single benefit to pay for accommodation and all living expenses. On turning 18, many young people are often placed immediately on bridging visas.

From now on families with children, regardless of when they arrived, will routinely be placed in this predicament. For many it may mean living without income.

Not simply on Manus Island, but in all these arrangements, children are at risk.

The trauma suffered in their own nations, the dangers on the way to Australia, the responsibility unaccompanied children feel for the families who sent them out of danger, their anxiety and guilt at the danger still facing their families back home, the uncertainty and fears intensified by the delay in being able to get on with their lives, and the family stress expressed in domestic violence and other ways, all threaten their mental and physical health.

And now they face the reality and threat of indigence.

The rationale for this cruelty lies in the No Advantage policy, by which people who come by boat seeking protection from Australia must not be seen to get ahead of those who choose to remain in Indonesia. The corollary of this principle is that any disadvantages of coming to Australia by boat should be expanded and made clearly visible. Children too are conscripted to act in this play of human suffering.

To that end it was essential that families with children be sent to Manus Island and Nauru. What was glimpsed on Manus Island was doubtless not intended for Australian audiences. But it was scripted to impress families weighing the merits of coming to Australia against staying in their home countries, Malaysia or Indonesia.

The principle of No Advantage also dictates that asylum seekers should live in a world of arbitrariness, enjoying certainty neither about the hearing of their cases nor about the conditions they will live in next. The application of the principle means children will suffer, but this is seen as an acceptable price to pay.

Many Australians believe it is not decent or just to inflict suffering on people, particularly on children, to achieve the goal of sending messages to other people. It is doubly repugnant when the policy is incoherent and inept.

At latest score almost twice the number of people has this year come by boat to seek protection than came last year. Many of them are families with children, driven to travel together because of the long delay in processing and in family reunion. To save children from dying at sea we drive more children to risk dying at sea. And then we inflict more indignities on them when they arrive. It is not a policy to be proud of. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, asylum seeker children, Nauru, Christmas Island, Manus Island



submit a comment

Existing comments

And all this cruelty costs $3.2 billion a year and our lazy media still will not get it through their thick skulls that it is nothing to do with people smuggling and everything to do with people seeking asylum which is perfectly legal. Even the ABC interviewed international refugee law experts on this and then ignore what they say so they can prattle again about people smugglers. They also never ask why we are the only country that calls it smuggling when our own courts first said 13 years ago that it is not smuggling but simple transport to the authorities here. During Frank's human rights hearings I noted that even though the refugee convention is domestic law and we ignore it why would we respect human rights for anyone else and there was no answer. How did we become so deranged? And why use the drowning of kids when 8 million kids under 5 die each year from preventable disease and starvation and we cut aid to them so more die. As a mother and granny I am mortally offended.
Marilyn | 15 May 2013

The banal way politicians and commentators talk about this cruel and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers makes me cringe and squirm and feel angry to the core. Australia will look back on this era of our history the same way the Germans look at Nazi concentrations - but with one exception - German bystanders didn't have today's technology to actually see in realtime what is happening. There is no excuse for this. Australians should be ahamed.
AURELIUS | 15 May 2013

Let's remind ourselves that by the end of John Howard's term there were, in effect, no boat people. Hence no deaths at sea, and no problems with creating incentives this end for people to shove children onto boats. What we are witnessing is a disastrous mess totally the creation of Rudd/Labour's self-serving abandonment of the Howard government's policies, and its refusal to acknowledge the manifest, abject failure of this move. Then let's ask Fr Hamilton for his non-Howard, totally obvious, humane, problem-free solution to this dilemma. Do we just fly in Qantas jets of asylum seekers/refugees from all countries all over the world into Australia? Why not - that's the safest solution, surely? Put up, or shut up. And, please, if the airy-fairy term "negotiated regional solution" is deployed, game over - it's up there with a Swan/Gillard "surplus".
HH | 15 May 2013

Thank you for this article. Many Australians live with the shame of our government's policies toward refugees in particular and children in general. What is the point of schools of excellence when a child's physical and/or mental ill health is established before the age of five? Please read "Poverty as a childhood disease.", Perri Klass M.D., The New York Times, May 13th, 2013.
Caroline Storm | 16 May 2013

HH, my understanding is that there were fewer asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat during Howard's reign, largely because the Taliban fell. Rumour has it that John Howard achieved that. He went to Afghanistan all by himself, raised his hands and bade the tide of Taliban to turn back. Miracle.
Janet | 16 May 2013

HH, let's not play politics on this. It would be convenient if asylum seekers just went away somewhere else or just joined to end of a very long UN queue somewhere but that's not the reality for everyone. "The poor will always be with us".
AURELIUS | 16 May 2013

Well said, HH! You must be very careful, however, in speaking the truth and pointing to another glaring example of the spectacular failure of the current Australian Labor Party. To date it is difficult to find one thing amongst all of the alledged policies that Gillard claims as great achievements, that has not been an unmitigated disaster in some aspect (other than the apology to the Aboriginal people by Kevin Rudd). Same will apply to these disability and education "initiatives" - more deceptions, protecting their own political seats (jobs) and thus their superannuation retirement benefits. This mob don't give a tinker's curse about each other (witness Gillard's professed loyalty to Kevin Rudd) let alone an asylum seeking child. As you suggest it seems much easier for commentators to be critics of the current state of affairs rather than advocates for a system which will meet their demands for justice and provide a solution for those poor people who fear for their children and their futures and seek nothing other than a reasonable and safe life. Mind you, condiderable numbers of them could do a damn sight more to advance their own cause as could the leaders in established communities of ghettoed, successful asylum seekers now living in Australia who never seem to offer any hand of welcome to others seeking asylum.
john frawley | 16 May 2013

I remain amazed how skilled the people smugglers are. The have managed to get naïve people within charity organisations and churches doing their dirty work. This may be nothing new, after we had the crusades, witch hunts and inquisition during the middle ages we have moved to modern times with child abuse and support of people smuggling. No wonder that many Christians have become cynical.
Beat Odermatt | 16 May 2013

Could HH & John Frawley please explain why John Howard's Pacific solution doesn't work when reinstated by Julia Gillard? They both trumpet the success of the Howard government anti-asylum seeker policies and actions, but ignore the fact that since the Pacific solution was reinstated by the Gillard government, the boats keep coming.
Ian Fraser | 16 May 2013

A timely and important overview by Andy Hamilton, thank you. Effectively, welfare for asylum-seeker families has now been almost fully privatised/voluntarised. We are in a situation now where it makes as much or more ethical sense to donate to organisations helping asylum-seekers in Australia, like Edmund Rice Foundation in NSW or Romero Centre in Qld, as to give to overseas aid organisations like Caritas. The need is just as great here, thanks to government punitive strategies. Victimisation of children? Go back to the sinking of SIEV X in 2001. Most of the 353 drowned were children and women. And 12 years later, there still has been no honest accounting of what Australian border protection agencies knew, when they knew it, and what they did or did not do to save lives. I am fearful of another major SIEV X type tragedy at sea. We have already in the period December 2011 - August 2012 had some major sinking disasters reference my previous articles in Eureka Street) on which the Australian rescue response was questionably tardy and reluctant. We are going into a similar period of desensitisation and debasement of public language now as in 1999-2001. Asylum seekers are now 'people smuggler customers'.
tony kevin | 16 May 2013

They have just pretended they can excise the mainland for asylum seekers and then will kid themselves that we are good global citizens doing the right thing by victims of war and our lazy media will continue to pretend that it is about saving lives and people smuggling even though it is not now and nor has it ever been smuggling. The notion of jailing and torturing children because their parents paid someone other than Qantas so they could save their lives is so beyond deranged I can hardly spit with the rage I feel.
Marilyn | 16 May 2013

Umm..has the world been frozen in the state it was at the point John Howard fumbled about with his refugee policy? I understand that there have been a few changes in balances of power in countries other than Australia (thanks SM) which may have prompted many who would quite like to stay alive, un-tortured and with a future ahead of them and their children. I read somewhere that there is some sort of war in Syria and that the Burmese now liberated were making life difficult for the Rohingya, but I guess we still live in a Howard era world?
Ross Chambers | 16 May 2013

Correlation doesn't mean causation - as we now know from the bogus attribution of global temperature increases from the late 1970s to the late 1990s to CO2 increases over the same period. That being said, isn't it a wee bit uncanny that within a couple of months of Rudd haughtily abandoning the Howard boat policies, the boats started arriving again, and from then with ever increasing numbers? And that the Gillard govt's half-baked retreat has failed miserably, especially now with the smugglers knowing the show will be over in September? Moreover, why not listen to someone who might know? "SAYED Abbas, allegedly one of the most prolific people-smugglers operating out of Indonesia in the past five years, says John Howard knew how to stop the trade but Kevin Rudd re-opened the gates."The Australian government can stop (the boats) like before when John Howard was there," Abbas said. "If they were more serious, they could stop. It's very easy." QED. And please, will someone Lefty put up: non-Howard SOLUTIONS, anyone?
HH | 16 May 2013

Why didn't you wait until the change in fed Govt. Just wait for the iron fist of a conservative Govt that has spruiked turning back the boats etc, they will need to make examples of the poor blighters (unconventional arrivals) Or the Herald Sun will not be required to keep the head count on behalf of Rupert once Tony is in power.
Gary | 17 May 2013

HH, the fact is the number of refugees in the world is the number of refugees in the world and no so-called boat policy is ever going to change that. Since you ask though a few things happened in late 2008 and onwards that has caused a 37% increase in refugees, most of them the result of our two wars. 1. Iraqi surge incited civil war, more refugees had to flee. 2. Bogus Iranian law that still sees all dissenters fleeing torture and persecution. 3. So-called end of Sri Lankan civil war which saw between 40,000-70,000 slaughtered mostly by the government. 4. the surge in Afghanistan by the Taliban, ditto in Pakistan where there is an ethnic cleansing of Hazara who are most of the refugees on the way here. Now Jordan has 4,000 Syrians a week arriving yet they have no refugee law or policy. Our policy decisions have zero bearing on whether or not people flee from their home countries.
Marilyn | 17 May 2013

It puzzles me, Andy, that your concentration seems to be entirely on asylum seekers who have headed towards Australia. Surely if the thousands who are in camps overseas patiently waiting their turn to have their applications considered were processed much faster, many less people would risk a perilous voyage in a leaky boat. Shouldn't we be widening our vision to include refugees in camps overseas?
Anna Summerfield | 17 May 2013

Anna, the only people covered by the refugee convention are those who are seeking international protection, if they are in other nations and have protection they have zero entitlement here. Resettlement is a small, voluntary and very expensive migration program that has nothing to do with protection per se. WE pretend it does as a sop to the ignorant, but there is no legal basis on which to hang resettlement. States assess the claims of people in their own territory, not everyone elses.
Marilyn | 18 May 2013

ANNA SUMMERFIELD, have your ever visited one of these fabled camps where asylum seekers "wait patiently for their turn"? I would like to know if they exist. Many of these larger camps are becoming permanent slums overrun by crime mafias. I would not "wait my turn patiently" in such a place and I wouldn't pass harsh judgment on someone who decided to "skip the queue".
AURELIUS | 20 May 2013

No, Marilyn and Aurelius, I have not visited these camps, but near my home is a group of Karin Burmese. The matriarch of this clan saw her resistance-fighter husband killed in the forest in Burma, fled across the country with her children, leaving absolutely everything behind, and made it into a camp on the Thai border. She waited there for a number of years before being given permission to enter Australia. I think that people like this deserve our attention too.
Anna Summerfield | 20 May 2013


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up