Forgotten Children: the Faces Behind the Wire

Image credit: Sydney Morning Herald

This essay is a response to the following statement with reference to the issue of children in detention: “To govern is not to crush the persons or processes governed, or to dominate them, but to mobilise them toward some ends” (Rose, 2005, p.151).

“I don’t have any hope. I feel I will die in detention.” For all with a sense of humanity it is harrowing and heart-breaking to read the words of this unaccompanied 17 year old living in the Phosphate Hill Detention Centre on Christmas Island (March 4 2014).

They are “crying all day long… tortured by sadness,”said a parent of three at the Construction Camp Detention Centre on Christmas Island (March 2 2014).

The Australian Government is accountable for imprisoning around 800 children in immigration detention, including 186 children held on Nauru according to The Forgotten Children report (November 2014). Detention is mandatory for all asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores. Although currently, boats carrying refugees and asylum seekers rarely make it to Australian waters in the wake of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and the Abbott Government’s despicable ‘turn back the boats’ policy.

Australia is unique as the only country in the world where detention is mandatory for asylum seekers and refugees. However this ‘unique’ policy, resulting in innocent children being detained for one year and two months on average, is damaging Australia’s reputation. Paediatrician David Isaacs was told extreme right-wing groups recommended Denmark learn from Australia how to treat asylum seekers cruelly (Sydney Morning Herald 2015).

Immigration detention is dangerous for children. The Forgotten Children report states “almost all of the children on Christmas Island are sick.” Numbers of children with mental or physical ill health and development issues are dramatically increased in detention. Reports of sexual assault and self-harm prove the environment to be perilous. Australia’s current policy violates international law, the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Migration Act (1958) which states that “a minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort.”

The issue of children in detention is political as it involves antagonism, conflict and negotiation between different actors. Mitchell Dean reminds us politics is still alive: “an increasing cascade of events… force the political back into focus if we understand the political as the antagonistic relations between groups” (Dean p.4). The existence of children in detention has been forced into the ‘public sphere’ as a political issue due to active opposition and hostility between the Australian Federal Government and human rights activists including Gillian Triggs (President of the Australian Human Rights Commission), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations (UN) and groups such as Amnesty International.

Communication and media are integral to political life. Reports on children in detention dominated the media proceeding Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s shocking and contemptible response to the Forgotten Children report, naming it a “blatantly partisan politicised exercise” in February 2015. The United Nations Report which stated Australia’s ‘border protection’ policies breach the international convention against torture elicited a similarly pathetic response from Mr Abbott, “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”

Various actors in arguments on children in detention work towards different objectives. The Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations work towards a moral objective based on human rights. The Federal Government focus on using mandatory detention as a deterrent for ‘boat people.’ Paul Hirst (1990) said “a world in which politics was eliminated would be one in which there was only one possible way of doing things.” Hence, politics exists because there is “argument and disagreement about how things should be done” (Hirst).

Despite Hirst’s definition of politics as conflicting objectives, an understanding of the term politics as purely ‘party’ or Government oriented exists.“This is not about politics,” Nick Talley wrote in an opinion article (ABC News Online). “It is about saving vulnerable children from the severe harm done to them in detention.” Talley appears to understand the political as ‘party politics’, rather than struggle and resistance in all social relations.

The debate on children in detention evokes strong emotional responses across the community, perhaps because children appear powerless under policies of indefinite mandatory detention. Focault defines power as a property of social relations rather than a possession. Gauntlett recognises access to power depends on an individuals position within a relationship, therefore not everyone has equal access to power (2008). On Palm Sunday (2015) during the Walk for Refugees Tim Winton defined power as “safety.” “We’re here to speak for the powerless,” he said (Sydney Morning Herald).

Focault states “where there is power, there is resistance.” Resistance to the Australian Government’s powerful position evolves in the form of public protests, petitions, opinion pieces in the media, public speeches and protests by asylum seekers themselves. Despite a popular view of asylum seekers as powerless, protests conducted by asylum seekers including children as a form of resistance are demonstrative of a collective power. Children in detention on Nauru ran a campaign to save their school from closure by writing letters to the Australian Government pleading for the school to stay open (The Guardian).

Rose (2005, p.151) argues “to govern is not to crush the persons or processes governed, or to dominate them, but to mobilise them towards some ends.” The Government attempts to dissuade asylum seekers from travelling in boats to Australian shores by implementing mandatory and indefinite detention on arrival. Rose also states to govern requires knowledge of target populations. The Government utilises the knowledge asylum seekers travel with hope of a better life in an attempt to mobilise by dissuading them from getting on boats. However, governing today based solely on this knowledge is flawed as escaping by boat is often the only option for desperate and vulnerable people to flee dangerous communities.

Winton recognises the Australian public have been “governed to think a certain way” about asylum seekers. “Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution… on themselves,” he said on Palm Sunday. Asylum seekers are rendered faceless by preventing media coverage as a tactic of persuasion. Isaacs states journalists must pay $8000 for a visa to Nauru and doctors working in detention are forbidden to report to the media (Sydney Morning Herald), resulting in little to no coverage of detention facilities. The media’s ability to hold Parliament accountable is restricted and politicians are able to govern the Australian public by limiting knowledge of assault, self-harm, mental illness and dangers to children in detention.

However, the Australian Parliament is itself governed by the Human Rights Commission, the UN and the UNHCR. The Forgotten Children report attempts to mobilise the Abbott Government to release children in detention into the community, to not send children offshore for processing and assess their health regularly. Furthermore, campaigns including End Child Detention and Kids Out attempt to persuade the Australian public and the Australian Federal Government children must be released from detention.

It is evident mobilisation, hence governing, takes many different forms and occurs in all locations as Dean and Rose state. Governing is “to influence, to control, to guide, to regulate” (Rose pp.151).

As an individual, I have the capacity to engage actively in politics through argument and govern through methods of persuasion and mobilisation. I call for all children to be released from detention immediately. I call for compassion, humanity and respect for the rights of the child. The children of the world are the future.

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