WORDS by Alicia Scott
A damning report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has exposed alarming human rights abuses against children in detention, including accounts of sexual assault, self-harm and voluntary starvation.
‘The Forgotten Children’ Report, released on February 11 this year, reveals the horrific living conditions children (and adults) are forced to endure in mainland and offshore immigration detention centres. Additionally, the report discloses first-hand evidence into the profoundly negative impact mandatory detention has on children’s mental and emotional health.
The findings of the immigration inquiry are formidable. Between January 2013 and March 2014, there were 233 counts of assault, 33 incidents of sexual assault, 27 incidents of voluntary starvation, and 168 cases of self-harm, with 105 children on suicide watch. More than one third of children in detention were diagnosed with serious mental health disorders, compared to a mere two per cent of Australian children.
Dr. Kristine Aquino of Macquarie University’s Sociology Department has conducted extensive research in the fields of multiculturalism and migration.
“Working with refugees and asylum seekers in the community, I have seen first hand the vulnerability of this group and enduring forced detention no doubt exacerbates this vulnerability,” Dr Aquino said.
Aquino believed the findings of the inquiry to be both shocking and sad. “The report highlights Australia’s failure to protect the human rights of these children and their parents. Even sadder is witnessing the government response, which has turned human suffering into a political debate,” she explained.
Rather than recognising the physical and mental harm suffered by detained children, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and several other Liberal ministers, have criticised the Human Rights Commission for their “blatantly partisan” report.
Labeling it a “transparent stitch-up”, Tony Abbott attacked the timing and motivation of the report, but could not point to any factual errors in the 315-page inquiry.
Attorney-General George Brandis also made a secretive offer of a senior government role to Gillian Triggs – in return for her resignation from her role of AHRC president.
The Government’s impulse to attack the messenger sparked a notable response from more than fifty academics, who wrote a joint letter in support of Triggs and the inquiry into children in detention. Among the academics was Carolyn Adams, senior lecturer at Macquarie Law School.
The public also showed their support with the hashtag #IStandWithGillianTriggs, including notable social commentators such as Macquarie alumni Jane Caro as well as Anne Summers and Triple J’s Lindsay Mcdougall also known as ‘the doctor’.
While opposition to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees seems to be growing domestically, more needs to be done to meet our obligations under international law. On an international scale, it is irrelevant which government introduced or maintained a policy – it is merely ‘Australia’.
Aquino concludes, “A recent report by the Human Rights Watch ranked Australia quite low against other countries because of its failure to meet our international obligations … we collectively demand better from our leaders, our government and other social institutions in regards to more humane treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children.”