This week our Prime Minister promised that good governance would begin again. Perhaps he could start by releasing children from detention on Nauru. Also released this week was the report of the Human Rights Commission inquiry into children held in detention. It is sobering and disturbing reading. The report found that:
- 34% of children in detention centres were suffering from a mental disorder that would receive treatment in a public hospital in Australia. The rate of such treatments amongst Australian children is around 2%;
- 30% of adults in detention centres were suffering from a moderate to severe mental disorder, placing children in an environment where one in three of the adults around them is mentally disturbed;
- 67% of parents and children described themselves as often unhappy, depressed or tearful;
- 49% of parents and children describe themselves as less happy since coming to Australia, an extraordinary outcome when one considers that these are people who are fleeing persecution – violence, murder, false imprisonment;
- there were numerous reported incidents of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm involving children. This included 233 reports of assaults upon children and 33 reports of sexual assault, the majority of which involve children, and at least two allegations that children on Nauru were subject to sexual abuse in full view of staff.
The report concludes that two factors are particularly pertinent to the difficult conditions children face: length of time spent in detention – the longer the time, the greater the incidence of mental illness and loss of hope – and exposure to adults with mental illness. This finding is even more disturbing today. At the time the report was written 1086 children were held in detention centres on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island, and Nauru. Since that time the Australian government has committed to release all children from detention on the Australian mainland and Christmas Island. Children will however remain detained on Nauru, where their detention will be lengthy and indefinite, where there is no child protection framework, and where living conditions are deplorable.
One of the fundamental axioms of the treatment of children is that the state and parents should always act in the best interests of the child. During the inquiry the government admitted that it no longer considered the best interest of the child when considering placing them in detention on Nauru. Rather priority was given to the policy goals of the government in deterring people from making boat trips to Australia.
If any other government in the world took Australian children and locked them up in the way we are locking up children of asylum seekers the outrage it would generate amongst us would be almost impossible to contain. That outrage would be compounded when we realised that the children being locked up were those who had already experienced deep traumas. We must face the very ugly reality that our nation is engaged in the systematic and brutal violation of the rights of a very vulnerable group of children. There is no defence. Just shame.