Since 1992, more than 5,000 children and young people have been deprived of their freedom, and the foundational experiences of childhood and adolescence, by successive Australian governments.
These children have been incarcerated in what are prison environments, in all but name.
The vast majority of them have been held in detention for longer than six months, many of them for years.
Amongst their number are at least two five year old children who were released after being recognised as refugees, having spent their entire lives within the confined, locked down spaces of Australian immigration detention. No holidays for these kids, no play-dates, no friends, no kinder. For the child held at Maribyrnong Detention Centre, less than 10 km’s from us today, there wasn’t even access to the outdoors, just limited access to an internal courtyard measuring 3 metres by 3 metres, with no views at all to the outside world.
These 5,000 children and teenagers, and their families, have suffered as the collateral damage for the delusions of the Immigration Department and Australian governments, who believe in locking up children and young people as a deterrent to what they believe will be otherwise unstoppable waves of boat people.
This delusion has brought us to the point where this year, Labor government, has had 6,000 people, 900 of them children, locked up in secure detention facilities around the country.
Recently, I was looking through some files from earlier this decade, when many of us were engaged, as we continue to be, in fighting to end immigration detention in this country.
I found two documents, which I thought I’d share with you today.
The first is a transcript of statements made by Amanda Vanstone, then Minister for Immigration, on Andrew Denton’s show Enough Rope in 2004. Responding to Denton’s queries about whether detaining asylum seeker children was really necessary, Vanstone stated, and I quote:
“I believe that people smugglers would go around and snatch kids to put on boats. People will masquerade as the parents of children. I believe that. I might be wrong, but I believe that’s what’ll happen if you send a green light – ‘you’ve got kids, you’re okay’ “.
And then there’s this media release, from December 2002, by Nicola Roxon, then Shadow Minister for Children and Youth, now Minister for Health and Ageing. And I quote again:
“Larry Anthony might be proud to be the first federal Minister for Children and Youth, but he had nothing to be proud about last night.
The Minister for Children voted last night with the rest of his Government to keep children in high security detention centres ….
Roxon went on to say….
“Quite apart from common sense and decency, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that high-security detention can add significantly to the level of trauma suffered by young children.
If the Government persists with its policy it risks severely harming children long term.
Labor has conducted a year long campaign to get children out of detention. I know that church groups, early childhood associations, welfare organisations have also all been pleading with the Government to get children out of detention, but the Government has not budged.
We simply have to keep pushing, for the sake of these children.” End of media release.
It’s a shame that part of our pushing for an end to the detention of children is now against Roxon, rather than with her.
And, it seems incredible, but currently, under a Labor government, a government which had vowed to end the detention of children and unaccompanied minors, we have the highest number of children ever held in immigration detention in Australia, far overshadowing the Howard government’s previous record of 842 children (on 1st September 2001).
Let’s put aside Labor’s bizarre double standards and its Orwellian references to alternative detention.
Let’s ignore, like Prime Minister Gillard, Minister Bowen, Mr Abbott and like Vanstone, Ruddock and Howard before them, the fact that, instead of rushing to Australia, many millions of refugees each year flee to the countries of incredibly brutal and unwelcoming regimes like Syria, Iran or to the chaos of Pakistan, the Congo, or Sudan.
Let’s ignore the fact that immigration detention is a complete breach of the human rights of the most vulnerable.
And let’s ignore the fact that large numbers of detainees arrive in Australia to reunite with family members, and that these people would qualify under the family reunion scheme, if it were operating correctly.
Putting all these problems aside – surely, after nearly two decades of this detention regime, the current record numbers alone are evidence that detention is failing as a deterrent.
Many in the refugee movement breathed a sigh of relief when Labor was elected, believing the worst was over, if not the whole battle against immigration detention.
It’s time to pick up our struggle anew. Next year is the twenty year anniversary of the immigration detention regime. This would make a fitting time for its demise, and for a return to policy based on Australia’s bottom line commitments as a signatory nation to the UN Convention on Refugees and the Rights of the Child.
In the meantime, there are these hundreds of boys and young men, detained here in Broadmeadows, and others in Maribyrnong, who require our support and our help.
Some of them are shyer than others, some speak less English, some speak more. But they are all under 20 years of age, and they are all alone, in detention in Australia, without families or relatives to support them.
On visiting the Broadmeadows Barracks last year, I was amazed to see a couple of computers in the recreation rooms, and many of these kids are on Facebook.
It’s much easier than previously to maintain contact and to provide practical assistance to these boys, and I fully expect that the people of Melbourne’s north will live up to our reputations as open-minded, political progressives and help these kids in the coming months.
These boys may be without their families, and without a nation or state to call their own, but there is one status which no one can deprive them of, the fact that they are citizens of the World, who share with billions of people around the world a commitment to human rights and freedom.
I hope that we all join them in fulfilling their dreams and destinies as world citizens, and their own individual destinies, as teenagers and young people on the brink of adulthood, with a right to a safe future.