Terror Australis: Children in Australian Immigration Detention

Words and Cover Photo-illustration by Ant Gray


I’ve never written anything political in my life, but the Human Rights Commission’s report on children in detention and the Government’s response to it made me feel so outraged, I felt it was time I did.

There’s a theory that once the universe stops expanding, it’ll contract. When that happens, time will flow backwards and everything that ever existed will exist again, but this time their movement through history will be in reverse. That means, you—having died a long, long time ago—will spring back into being as an old person and age backwards until you’re a baby again. After this, you’ll separate into both your parents and disappear—an unsettling thought, I know. But as they both age—well, as they ‘youth’—they’ll disappear into their parents and so on and so forth.

And just like this, everything that ever happened and ever was will be undone until all matter, all time and space are bundled up tightly together and the universe itself blips out of existence, making a great sucking sound—the mirror opposite of the big bang.

And after this past week in Australian politics, I cannot f*cking wait for that to happen.

A few weeks ago on 12 February 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission released its The Forgotten Children:Report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. The Liberal Government immediately went on the defensive, attacking the integrity of the Commission’s president, Gillian Triggs, and calling the report biased and unfair.

The introduction to the report—which takes all of 15 minutes to read and which, astoundingly, Senate Estimates chair Ian MacDonald said was ‘too partisan’ to be worth looking at—is anything but partisan. It outlines the shameful failure on both sides of our political system to protect those most vulnerable in our care.

The report explains that in 2013, during what was then a Labor government, there were 1,992 children living in indefinite immigration detention—the highest number ever in this country’s recent history. Currently there are 800 children living in detention (which is better in the sense that having one arm cut off without anesthetic is better than having two arms cut off without anesthetic). 28 of these children have a disability of some kind, and 36 a recognised mental health disorder. As of March last year, most of the children in detention were held for an average of just over eight months.

The report also states that during the period from January 2013 to March 2014 there were “233 assaults involving children” and “33 incidents of reported sexual assault,” the majority of which involved children.



I left that space blank intentionally. I wanted there to be a pause—a pause that our 24-hour news and views reporting doesn’t seem to have time for before jumping into leadership speculation and blow by blow accounts of who said what when.

Children! Living in detention facilities we pay for. 800 of them. Imprisoned for an average of 8 months. 233 physical assaults involving children and 33 sexual assaults in just over one year.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that when the Prime Minister Tony Abbott was asked if he felt any concern or guilt over the report, he said,

“None whatsoever.”

233 physical assaults involving children in just over a year—33 of them sexual.

The Prime Minister also remarked that, “the Human Rights Commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison,” the Minister responsible for these children’s well-being—a note of congratulations “saying ‘Well done mate because your actions have been very good for the human rights and the human flourishing of thousands of people’.”

And later, during question time when it was suggested that a royal commission be set up to investigate this matter further:

“I am going to do the Leader of the Opposition this favour—I’m going to do him this favour—there won’t be a royal commission into children in detention, because if there were ... it would condemn [Labor].”

That great sucking sound you hear and feel in the pit of your stomach is not the coming reverse-big-bang; it’s the sensation of a sudden vacuum of human ethics and empathy that happens all too often when the Prime Minister opens his mouth.

Part of the reason why I find this particular response so sickening is that after the ‘Stolen Generation’ Bringing Them Home report, after Julia Gillard’s national apology for forced adoptions, after the continuing revelations arising from The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in this country, we’ve watched our federal leaders shake their heads, wring their hands and say, ‘What a tragedy! How could this happen?’ and we’ve all wondered the same.

‘When they saw this abuse unfolding, why did no one speak up?’ We think. ‘Why didn’t anyone in charge do anything to stop it?’

I feel sick when Prime Minster Abbott says to the leader of the opposition, ‘You don’t want us to look into this because it will be bad for you too’, because I can see precisely how catastrophes like the ‘Stolen Generation’, like the forced adoptions, like the criminally and morally negligent responses to child sexual abuse happen.

Mr. Abbott’s comment on national television—in a way that makes me feel that the Prime Minister thinks no one is watching, that no one cares or will do anything about it—is exactly what massive, systemic institutional failure to attend to children’s most basic needs looks like. In that one moment the leader of this country suggested to his counterpart that there should be no investigation into the violation of children and their rights because it would be mutually disadvantageous to do so—as if that was the worst thing that could happen.

I could temper the absolute outrage I feel about this by telling myself that the Prime Minster’s comments are just heat of the moment, knee-jerk responses said in the chaos and confusion that ensued after the report’s release.

But the Government has had a copy of this report since November 2014. Four months ago!

Why I’m as anxious now about budgie-smugglers as I am about people smugglers

Tony Abbott, the greatest Prime Minister we ever had… Oops. Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself… Ahead of myself? Behind? Anyway, quite a few years ago now...

An ocean liner named the MS St. Louis sails from Hamburg to Cuba. Once the ship arrives, it’s turned away before anyone can disembark. It then sails on to the US and then Canada, and at each port the passengers are not allowed to leave. In Florida the authorities are so anxious that the ship not dock that they fire a warning shot over the ship’s bow to deter it from entering the harbor.

The year is 1939, May—on board the St. Louis are 915 German-Jewish refugees.

The ship eventually goes back to Europe and reluctantly four countries give the passengers sanctuary: 288 go to the UK, and the remaining to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

A little over half who settle in continental Europe are still alive after 1945.

I often relive this story when I hear people arguing about asylum seekers in this country—even though, of course, I didn’t directly experience what happened aboard the St. Louis myself. I think of that ship sailing around the world, its passengers desperately running from brutality, persecution and death.

The absolute catastrophe of the Holocaust is not simply the policies and actions of the National Socialists in Germany at that time; the catastrophe was that antisemitism was so common throughout the world that the idea of accepting Jewish refugees was so unpopular in many countries, and many Jewish people perished as a result.

Two conferences were held during that period when it was clear to everyone in the international community that Jews were being persecuted in Germany and in territories it controlled. The first conference was in Évian, France in 1938, and the second was in Bermuda in 1943—and in both cases, delegates the world over including France, England, the USA and Australia proclaimed their sympathy for those persecuted, but did nothing to increase the intake of Jewish refugees.

Once the war ended in Europe, the world woke from one nightmare to find itself in another—namely, the death camps and a far greater tally of human suffering than we’ll ever be able to comprehend: six million Jews and another 11 million ‘undesirables’ dead as well—the disabled and mentally ill, Romani, persons of colour, homosexuals, Poles, Slavic peoples, and more.

One and a half million of those who died were children.

And after this the world said and meant it like it had never said and meant it before:

Never again.

And so, the UN was born. Three years later, 48 member countries gave their assent to an International Declaration of Human Rights so that people in boats like the MS St. Louis would never have to sail from port to port to port, pleading for their lives.

Article 14 of the Declaration says that, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In Australia, this right has somehow been eroded and forgotten—transformed into a debate about ‘boat people,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers.’

But those seeking asylum are not doing anything illegal. There is no f*cking queue. That’s the whole point of Article 14.

And further to this, the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child—a treaty to which this country is bound—states in Article 19:

“Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them.”

And Article 22:

“Children who come into a country as refugees should have the same rights as children who are born in that country.”

Sadly, these rights that protect us and children the world over have been painted over and mystified. In Australia, we live in a political culture that dehumanises and criminalises people in genuine need, all for one reason—the issue, if left unchallenged and un-interrogated, is a means to power. Push just the right combination of ‘hot buttons,’ blow the dog whistle just the right way, and you can ride the wave of influence and high office.

While at the same time according to the Human Rights Commission’s report, “Over 167 babies have been born in detention within the last 24 months.”

Tony Abbot: The greatest Prime Minister who never will have lived

In Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Vonnegut writes about his experiences as a prisoner of war who also witnessed first-hand the firebombing of Dresden—an Allied attack over three nights which flattened the German city beyond recognition and left 25,000 people dead.

In Vonnegut’s novel, his main character’s wartime experiences cause him to be ‘unstuck in time’ and throughout the novel he lurches forwards and backwards through history. In one moment, his main protagonist is seeking refuge with his fellow POWs from the bombing in an abandoned abattoir—the slaughterhouse of the title—and the next moment he finds himself at his daughter’s wedding decades later.

These disjunctures in time are a key feature of the novel, and there’s this one moment in the book that I think about and marvel at on a regular basis. In it, Vonnegut’s main character Billy is watching a film on television when time starts flowing backwards:

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […]

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating day and night, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.”

I love this passage, and all this week I’ve replayed this fantasy of time running backwards over and over. Each time, the past week goes something like this:

Our Prime Minister—the greatest Prime Minister of all time—feels so ashamed of the things he’s said over the past couple of days that he sucks each word back into his mouth with such ferocity that it inspires admiration throughout the country. Attorney General George Brandis commends Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs on her integrity, and insists she stay on as the Commission’s president.

After Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government’s absolute insistence to do so, Triggs and her team set to work, carefully and methodically investigating the plight of children in immigration detention. Over the course of a year, the Commission works tirelessly, interviewing the children and their families and doing their utmost to carefully pick apart these children’s very complex and painful experiences.

The centres that house these slowly recovering children quickly become renowned the world over for being palaces of care and attention. Every physical ailment is quickly and expertly attended to, every mental trauma righted and soothed.

When the children and their families are fit enough to travel, the Australian Navy carefully helps them onto boats that at first don’t seem very safe, but become safer and safer as their voyage progresses. When the boats dock and the travelers disembark, their chaperones give them enormous sums of money. Though still cold, hungry and scared, these people are in much better shape and now have enough money to return to the homes they once loved.

Once home, they are surprised to find that they are joyously welcomed, and their physical and psychological wounds are tended to by the very people who inflicted them in the first place. And at every opportunity, every official, every policeman, every soldier, every person in authority they encounter tries to help, giving them money, giving them support—giving and giving and giving until they can give no more.

Before you can ask if this is a ‘go-back-to-where-you-came-from’ fantasy, after a while most of the people who live on this big island get into boats themselves and leave. They leave this country to the careful stewardship of its first inhabitants, who live and dream in the land for tens of thousands of years. Then they too get into boats, leaving the land to dream on its own until all the continents of the Earth join together, making the whole idea of countries, borders and conflicts superfluous and silly.

I like playing the week backwards in my head, because if you rewind any terrible series of events, it reveals beautiful and positive courses of action.

I have a psychoanalytic view of history—if such a thing exists. I don’t see history as if we’re all in a car, watching events recede in the rear-vision mirror. Historical events, especially traumatic ones, haunt us. They shadow us and envelop us. History lingers and is distilled through individuals, through families, through generations, societies and civilisations.

1.5 million children died in the Holocaust, and I don’t invoke that fact to say anyone is a Nazi or Nazi-like (although I will say the branding for the ‘Pacific Solution’ was incredibly and ironically ill-advised).

I invoke that number for the simple reason that we haven’t yet understood nor properly addressed the full horrors of that period of human history. By establishing the right to seek asylum from torture, from disenfranchisement and from the threat of extinction, we tried to make restitution for all that death and suffering.

And to uphold that right is only way to reconcile the history we carry as a burden, and to really stop the boats circling, waiting for a safe place to land.

If you feel the same about children in immigration detention, please consider signing the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s “Kids Out” online petition.

And for Australian readers, here’s how to find and get in contact with your local representative.


You might also like to read the second installment, Rabbit Hole #26 — “Terror Australis II: A nation of boat people dreaming”.