View from The Hill

If you’re a kid in detention, a date is everything

Scott Morrison is trying to manage the politics of children in detention. AAP/Nikki Short

Scott Morrison’s release of more children from detention is selective, and the timing of his announcement has a distinctly political flavour to it.

The decision applies to about 150 children under ten years old, who will be out by Christmas, but not to the several hundred more who arrived from July 19 last year, when Kevin Rudd made his announcement that all asylum seekers would be sent offshore. To let those out would undermine the government’s deterrence policy, Morrison says.

There are currently 876 children in detention, including on Nauru. This is 516 fewer than at the election. At the end of July there were 148 on Christmas Island.

Morrison says the government has progressively released children, and blames Labor for the slowness, on the grounds fresh arrangements for bridging visas had to be made. “Labor’s arrangements for bridging visas were insufficient to protect and support young children.”

The timing is pointed, coming days before Morrison appears at the Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention, which reports to parliament in mid-September. Morrison says he’s been working on the plan for months. When he was asked whether this announcement was about “trying to improve your image before you front the Human Rights Commission” he replied: “That is a pretty cynical question”.

Cynical question or not, the minister no doubt wanted to have some positive news out, though one would imagine, given earlier evidence from doctors about the bad conditions to which children have been subjected and the fact there is no release for many, that he might be in for some stern interrogation when he appears on Friday.

Like most other stages of the asylum debate, the Abbott government is reliving Howard government experience in relation to children in detention.

But Howard’s hand on children was forced especially by the moderates on his backbench. These days, the Liberal moderate voices are silent. At least the Human Rights Commission inquiry has had some public impact.

While Morrison is trying to manage the politics of children in detention, he is also at work to finalise an agreement – of which Australia should be ashamed – that would send people from Nauru to Cambodia.

Alastair Nicholson, chair of Children’s Rights International and a former chief justice of the Family Court, who is very familiar with Cambodia, on Monday made the compelling case against this scheme.

“The concept of Australia sending people who are in need of refuge to a country like that is almost indescribably bad as policy,” he told the ABC’s Lateline.

It would be especially bad for unaccompanied minors, he said (although it is not known whether there would be any of these among the people sent).

“I don’t believe that asylum seekers or anyone else gets very much protection from the law in Cambodia … It’s one of the poorest countries you would find in southeast Asia … It’s just the worst sort of place from the point of view of sending asylum seekers, and particularly asylum seekers who don’t have any cultural or other ties to the country.”

We still know little about the Cambodian arrangement. Morrison’s claim on Tuesday that “we’ve made no secret of the fact that we’re in these discussions with Cambodia” is a stretch. The first information came from the Cambodians, as has most that followed. The Australian government reportedly pressed (not very successfully) on Cambodian officialdom a desire for confidentiality.

As Nicholson said: “We’re never told anything about what the minister’s doing – that’s part of the problem, really. And once it’s done, there’s very little that can be done about it.”

We have got used to the Morrison style of secrecy.

For example when he kept a boatload of asylum seekers on the ocean for weeks, refusing to say where they were. His declining to talk about “on water” matters became a matter for ridicule as well as concern.

The reality of what’s done behind the scenes in border protection policy can be much at odds with the gestures.

Guardian Australia is reporting emails obtained under freedom of information showing the immigration department’s efforts to repatriate (voluntarily) Syrians from Manus and Nauru earlier this year.

This week Morrison said 4400 places would be reserved in the (existing) refugee program for Syrians and Iraqis. The government wanted to be seen to be doing something in line with Tony Abbott’s strong rhetoric about the crisis in Iraq.

A disconnect? One would think so. As there will be between the fates of children, depending on whether they arrived before or after a particular date.

POSTCRIPT: It is reported from PNG that police have charged two men over the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, killed during the Manus Island riots in February. The men are said to have worked for G4S, the company that managed security at the time. One was arrested in July and the other this week.