Accusations of deliberate, cruel abuse of refugee children must prompt a more humane approach

Children’s access to education in Nauru has declined following the acknowledgement of their refugee status. ABC/Four Corners

Australia’s mandatory detention of young people offshore, as part of its asylum-seeker policies, has been frequently cited as evidence of a failure to ensure children’s rights.

However, two new reports, from the ABC’s Four Corners and human rights group Amnesty International, argue that it is more than a failure. Instead, Australia stands accused of deliberately inflicting grave physical and mental harm on children.

In 1989, acknowledging the special care, protection and safety owed to children, the international community adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As with conventions focused on the rights of women and people with disabilities, this convention draws on the fundamental rights owing to all people.

The convention is the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty, with 196 state parties. Australia signed and ratified it in 1990. Australia is obliged to ensure the rights the convention enshrines for all children within its jurisdiction.

Yet a significant implementation gap remains. Australia has not comprehensively amended its legislation to comply with the convention’s requirements. This means Australian courts cannot directly enforce children’s rights as protected in international law.

‘Island of Despair’

Amnesty International’s report, Island of Despair, investigates Australia’s refugee processing centre on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.

Amnesty accuses the Australian government of creating a deliberately punitive “open air prison” in Nauru, where refugees and asylum seekers are exposed to systematic human rights abuses.

Amnesty identifies several areas of particular concern regarding the rights of children detained on Nauru. Nauruan law and administrative capacities are criticised as woefully inadequate in relation to child protection. Children who have experienced abuse have been inappropriately dealt with by health care and investigative officers.

The report also notes that refugee children lack proper access to education in Nauruan schools. Those who have accessed education have reported bullying and violence from local students and teachers.

Amnesty cites the September 2016 findings of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which expressed grave concerns that Australia’s arrangement with Nauru:

  • fails the best interests test;

  • exposes children to severe mental health risks and increases the incidence of suicidal ideation and self-harm; and

  • inflicts further trauma on children who are already traumatised, including through sexual assault, abuse, intimidation and lack of proper health care.

‘The Forgotten Children’

Amnesty’s report follows Monday night’s Four Corners program, The Forgotten Children, which told the stories of some of the 128 refugee children currently living on Nauru.

The program featured former teachers at the Save the Children school, which operated while all asylum-seeker children were detained in the centre. These teachers risk prosecution under Australia’s anti-whistleblower law for discussing their experiences.

According to Gabby Sutherland, a former teacher on the island, immigration detention on Nauru is:

… death by slow torture … the place is set up to make people go mad or just make people, just make people die inside.

Sutherland and her colleagues told of children who were initially engaged, enthusiastic students before withdrawing into self-harm and mental anguish. Children interviewed emphasised the harm they suffered when cast as criminals and the hopelessness of indefinite detention on a remote and inhospitable island.

The program revealed how children’s access to education in Nauru has declined following the acknowledgement of their refugee status. The Save the Children school was shut down and Australian authorities informed refugee families that their children would need to access education in Nauruan schools.

The children’s testimony helps to explain Amnesty’s characterisation of Nauru as an open air prison for refugees. As was recently made clear in the release of logs of abuse on Nauru, those still detained there face unconscionably high rates of sexual assault, mental ill-health, squalid housing conditions and other abuses.

Yet refugee children released from detention into the Nauruan community have not found safety, liberty or the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Instead, they found local schools to be violent, and they have withdrawn from education due to discrimination, intimidation and insecurity. Several children report sexual assault and other abuses by Nauruan perpetrators.

Thirteen-year-old Misbah, from Burma, has been on Nauru for 1179 days. She told the program:

We ran away from Burma because of the raping, things in Burma that’s happening to the girls and burning houses, and stealing, and we came here, we came to Australia, we tried to get to Australia, and now we are here, the same thing happening, raping, stealing, killing.

I’ve seen people, now people died, some people burn themselves, some people take too much medicine and died and some people say that they get harm – they get the Nauruan tried to harm them, to hurt them and many other things like, stealing, stealing, raping.

Misbah asked her mother if they could go back to Burma, but her mother said no because they would be killed. Misbah responded:

Even we are dying in here every day so why not just, we just not die one day, let’s just go back.

Australia’s obligations

Australia does not have territorial jurisdiction over refugee children in Nauru. However, it retains effective jurisdiction over them. It funds and directs the centre’s operations at a cost of A$573,000 per person per year.

Australia has the legal and administrative capacity to bring all refugees in Nauru to Australia for resettlement, and to process any outstanding asylum claims onshore.

In its report, Amnesty recommended Australia end its policy of mandatory offshore detention for asylum seekers travelling by boat. It called on the government to bring all asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia immediately.

Further, it recommended Australia make reparations to those it has traumatised through its practices and ensure they receive adequate health care.

In the spirit of successive recommendations from human rights advocates, watchdogs and international organisations, Amnesty calls on Australia to take a more humane approach to the protection of refugees.

Senate oversight of government action

A Senate committee is currently investigating allegations of abuse in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The Australian Medical Association’s submission calls for the immediate release of all children in offshore detention. It notes the Australian government’s obligation to meet children’s health needs on Nauru and Manus Island.

Amnesty asserts Australia knowingly inflicts abuse and harm on refugees and asylum seekers in pursuit of its policy to “stop the boats”. Faced with ever-mounting evidence and international condemnation, the Senate inquiry is charged with responding to the accusation that Australia is deliberately engaged in the abuse of children.