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What if it was our kids? Four Corners and asylum seekers

Cameras were secretly taken in to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru by the ABC to film the living conditions there. ABCTV

The federal government does not say how it chooses those it sends for offshore processing. It does not explain how it chooses children to go to Manus Island.

Australian doctors have told the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) that children should not be there. Regardless, DIAC have sent an anaemic girl with a history of blood transfusions and a boy with anaphylaxis to be indefinitely detained on Manus. Doctors’ protests were not responded to – by either the medical service contracted to deliver health services or DIAC.

On Manus Island there is a 24 hour delay between calling for medical evacuation by air and a plane arriving. Doctors assess this as too long for children. Despite this, 30 children are currently in the Manus camp and most have been there for longer than four months.

ABC’s Four Corners has documented these and a series of mental and physical health conditions redolent of the earlier incarnation of the Pacific Solution. Failures of accountability, legal and media access, poor physical and mental health, suicides and self harm.

Doctors and workers from the Salvation Army all spoke out, moved by what they had witnessed on Nauru and Manus since last August. Their accounts were not those of bleeding hearts or of those politically opposed to offshore detention. These were ordinary people who went to do the jobs that offshore processing require. One recounted seeing a man after 50 days on a hunger strike that looked like he was in the end stages of cancer.

Legally, ethically and economically, there are serious questions for the government to answer. Even if unconvinced by the damning numbers – 16,000 arrivals since last August - the Houston Panel, once certain in their recommendations and shoulder-to-shoulder with the government, are perhaps less certain about their recommendations this morning.

Empirical evidence shows that deterrence policies often increase risks for asylum seekers crossing borders. This foreseeably results in increased deaths. Evidence from Australia, the US and Europe indicates that border control can increase conditions for increased harm and death. This does not mean that individuals or facilitators are not implicated in border deaths. Rather it points to the need to systematically take account of the ways punitive and deterrence based policies rarely sustain significant changes in irregular border crossing nor reduce deaths.

Evidence is also clear that border related deaths are not only a concern on the high seas. Deaths in detention, suicide and self harm, equally speak to the failures to effectively respond to asylum and irregular migration. Deterrence in the context of forced migration is not sustainable. Deterrence crafted in one context (Australian domestic policy) aimed at and experienced in another (those fleeing persecution) has not resulted in changes in behaviour over significant periods of time.

The images on Four Corners were, again, shocking. But will the response be one of fatigue and denial rather than transformative policy? Arguably a “nothing works” mentality has developed. Perhaps financial and human cost is now something we just seek to pay to make the problem go away. The game is too hard. The rules too complicated. The stakeholders too many and diverse. The voices too vitriolic. The people too far away. But it seems the problem is one that just won’t go away.

Concern for saving lives at sea, and the implemented recommendations of the Houston Panel - offshore processing and the legally meaningless “no advantage” test - have resulted in the diminution of human life as evidenced by Four Corners.

When announced, the Houston Panel held out a chance to be a game changer. It could have addressed the key issues missing from the asylum seeker debate, and in so doing re-ordered Australian priorities and our chances of successfully regulating irregular border crossing. It required big and complex thinking and future arrangements across the region. We need to recreate that chance. Rather than be lost to the inchoate and poorly implemented recommendations that have led to these current circumstances, we must transform our approach to border control.

Perhaps we can again imagine kids on Manus Island just like we imagine our own – a group the size of the average primary classroom - and maybe we can overcome the everyday disregard for human rights and its high financial price.

Like many who watched the Four Corners report, when I drop my kids off this morning I will pause to consider the group of children on Manus and the price they pay for the stories we tell each other about what it is we must and can do. I also wonder what my children and their classmates will make of this generation of failed efforts.

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