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The slow torture of kids in detention


Julian Burnside taunted his audience at La Trobe University in 2010 with the suggestion that we take a couple of children out of detention and publicly execute them.

'And if killing seems a bit tough, well then what say we just take half a dozen kids from detention and torture them for a while. Publicly, so that everyone will get the message.'

The idea of his 'thought experiment' was to illustrate that we are not bothered by the torture of children in immigration detention because it is out of sight. Burnside's logic was that if the torture was conducted publicly, and not behind razor wire, most Australians would be bothered. The politicians would act immediately to stop child detention.

The torture is also out of sight because it is mental and there are no physical wounds. The evidence will only come to light in the form of mental illness, which the children will suffer in years to come. 'The torture is slow and unseen and the damage much harder to fix.'

Sister Anne Higgins has been involved with families in immigration detention for over ten years. She says it's well documented that people detained for even three months suffer mental illness. She stresses that children are especially vulnerable.

'I recall in particular a 12-year-old girl who arrived at a detention facility with her parents and younger sister.  She was a bright-eyed child relieved to be safe from the danger experienced in her country of origin.'

Higgins was alarmed to learn that after several months, the young girl was suicidal. As in many detention cases, the refugee determination and review processes were drawn out. 

'Her parents were powerless; they could not change the situation. The local guards also did not know what to do. As the child's life was now in danger from her situation, the doctor attending the centre placed her in hospital. This bright-eyed, engaging young girl had now become a sad, listless child. After many more months the family were eventually accepted but severe damage had already been done to this young person and to her family.'

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), Australia currently holds 528 children in secure and remote facilities. Last week it released its Captured Childhoods report at the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The authors spent two years listening first-hand to the stories of children and parents from all over the world who have experienced or been impacted by immigration detention. 

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen responded with a statement that that the 'Federal Government is continuing to move children and vulnerable families out of detention facilities'. Effectively it underlined how slowly this is taking place, as if there is no urgency. 

The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition said nothing. It was left to the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young to urge legislation to outlaw child detention and to declare that it is 'shameful that Australia is on the list of countries that locks children up simply for seeking refuge and safety'.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Julian Burnside, Sister Anne Higgins, Sarah Hanson-Young, Immigration detention, mental



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Existing comments

Maybe if many of us who are concerned about this matter wrote to the Treasurer volunteering to have our tax rates increased by 1% to cover the costs of children (with parents) being processed in the community without ever having to be imprisoned on arrival, it may just be such a force of conscience that no politician could reject. Even if the Treasurer does not accept our offer, could we start up a special fund and each of us bank the 1% into it - as the amount rises, it sure would be a sign to the politicians that Australian mostly want children out of detention (never in it).

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 26 March 2012  

Here we go again! The people smuggling industry has always used children as their “secret weapon” to defend their multibillion dollar trade in human misery. They use children as “human shields” to defend the trade in misery. They are highly effective to use caring simple minded people within churches and welfare organisations to provide “moral support” for their business. Whilst some people are just too naive to see how these crooks operate, some others exploit it either for their own financial or political gain. I feel sorry for all the children being victims of this horrible industry. Don’t blame the Government, blame the people traders.

Beat Odermatt | 26 March 2012  

"...as if there is no urgency." There IS no urgency for any matter connected with our present group of some 650,000 severely mentally ill Australians. Why worry about the present and future severe mental illnesses and preventable suicides we are knowingly creating? Let them join the ranks of about 55% of the present severely mentally ill who receive no treatment t all (according to the mental health Council of Australia, 2009). There is a ghastly political logic to our governments' actions. It is not just money, Father MacAndrew, it is intent. For decades now our treatment of refugees, remote indigenous people and the severely mentally ill has been regressing; at present the life expectancy of the last two groups is some 55 years.

Caroline Storm | 26 March 2012  

Thank you, Michael, for this challenging reminder of 'our' continuing disregard for children's lives. Amnesty International's recent report (late Feb) suggests that asylum seekers enduring detention for extended periods view self harm and attempted suicide as ‘a fact of life’. Among other acts, Amnesty International recommended: prioritising and expediting the moving of unaccompanied minors, families and long-term detainees into the community; a maximum 30-day time limit on the detention of asylum seekers; the closure of remote, isolated immigration detention centres; and the enabling of communication on the part of detainees. The decapitation of Labor in Qld bears witness to the potency of electoral fury. One Seven Network commentator suggested this morning that, as well as the remaining anger over K Rudd, and various unfulfilled representations and misrepresentations, Bligh's government was eviscerated because nobody knew what Labor stood for any more. Federal Labor faces the same electoral fate; it will lose the votes of centrists and lefties over humanitarian issues such as the continuing imprisonment of children in detention centres, and the intervention.

Barry G | 26 March 2012  

I applaud the careful research that the Interational Detention Coalition has conducted. Whilst Australia does still have children in detention, a reality I do not defend, there has been an enormous amount of work done by the Department of Immigration, the Australian Red Cross and a range of welfare agencies to safely place more than 3,000 people including a significant number of children in the community over the past 18 months. This task was a huge challenge and could not have been done any more quickly than it has. Despite the fact that children should not have been in a closed detention environment in the first place, these agencies deserve some credit for literally building a sector of care in such a short period of time. The task now is to keep it going and secure the evidence to show that community placement is a far better alternative to closed detention.

Caz Coleman | 26 March 2012  

Beat there are no people smugglers doing any such thing.

They are children who came and asked us for help, parents often send one child so they can save one member of a family.

Giving refugees transport is not smuggling, no-one is being smuggled here because they don't have to be smuggled here because they are allowed to come here.

Even the courts are now making directions to juries to acquit and send people home.

We are the only country in the world who calls seeking asylum people smuggling even though there are 6 treaties and protocols that say it is no such thing.

We do not punish children because of some mythical creature created in Ruddock's feeble brain.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 March 2012  

Caz, we manage to house 4.5 million students, tourists and migrants every year without all the tripe we involve ourselves in with this detention nonsense of the 4,500 who come here to seek refuge.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 March 2012  

I am glad to see this situation publicised in the hope that the powers that be can take appropriate action. My experience sees this adverse treatment of refugee childrenas an international issue where children who are seen as refugees are often denied their rights by the very states that are particular about rights of the child other than the refugee child

Betty | 27 March 2012  

This article is the best thing I'ver ever read and i havent even finished reading it!

Valery | 27 March 2012  

An on 14 March there were still almost 500 kids illegally jailed including 19 Indonesian fisher kids.

What sort of nation are we that we have to waste lives to do this.

Bowen and Morrison are both out again today with the non-news story that less asylum seekers came here last year as if that is a good thing.

20% increase in the rest of the world who already carry 99.9% of the yearly asylum seekers, a 9% drop here and still they whine about Malaysia and stopping the boats.

People who seek asylum here are people but they are not a news item.

Marilyn Shepherd | 27 March 2012  

The use of children as “human shields” by the people smuggling industry is maybe one of the worst cases of abuse of human lives affecting Australia. We still have people defending these evil traders because of greed or a sick hypocritical attitude. The outcome remains the same. Hundreds of people die every year after they have paid for their “tickets” to Australia. Similar to the first steerage passengers coming to Australia, there is no incentive for the traders to deliver the “good”, as they already have the money. The trade remains a sick abuse people's aspirations for a better life.

Beat Odermatt | 28 March 2012  

Justice for Children Australia is very concerned about any children who are suffering. But what really concerns us that there is no Julian Burnside for children who are suffering and dying because of cruel and inhumane Family Law and child 'protection' decisions. If you want to hear the sound of silence, listen to what is said about THESE kids. Nothing. And yet they are detained aginst their will, they are subject to trauma and abuse. They are removed from their loving protective primary carer - often their mother who has looked after them since birth and who has done them no harm. When is anyyone going to stand up for these kids?

Ariel Marguin | 29 March 2012  

I'm sad to say that I have been involved in so-called instructive discussions and public community meetings where the otherwise invisible "politically correct",give speeches about meeting the needs of the dispossessed, but would not raise a wet finger to help anyone.

Claude Rigney | 30 March 2012  

Would someone please come up with some sort of solution, lead the way and then ask the rest of us to support that stand unilaterally: is it through Getup or if not, what?

Winsome Thomas | 31 March 2012  

Winsome there is a solution that we refuse to uphold.

that is the law.

Marilyn Shepherd | 01 April 2012  

I just read this after reading Michael's article on 6 Victorian Bishops writing to every parish requesting parishioners write to Parliament in opposition to marriage equality.

I look forward to reading about the Bishops' letter to all parishes about this issue as well. What? Oh.

Justin | 02 April 2012  

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