By June Factor
The Age, 17/2/2015
Once upon a time, in 1834 to be exact, British civilisation introduced, on the shores of Van Diemen’s Land, the first children’s prison in the British empire. Not far from Port Arthur, Point Puer’s Boys’ Prison housed youthful criminals with the goal of reformation. According to the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, “it is utterly impossible to imagine a more corrupt fraternity of little depraved felons”. As young as nine years old, some 3000 robbers of knives, eggs, brooches and the contents of gentlemen’s pockets were incarcerated at Point Puer in the 15 years of the prison’s existence. Reports of the time suggest its isolation and harsh regime proved a largely unsuccessful foundation for reformation.
Since then, we have continued to imprison children for crimes, although none so young or so relatively harmless as many of those confined at Point Puer. But it is only since 1992 that Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal, have detained children against whom there is no suggestion of criminality of any kind. Nor does the policy of detaining children who, alone or with a family, seek asylum in this country, harbour any pretence of improvement of their character. Detention (including on yet another barren shore, Nauru), is instituted in order to deter others – adults or children – from trying to seek refuge here. This latest version of child incarceration lacks even the muddled good intentions of the early British colonists.
Australians largely view the convict era as a time of humiliation and cruelty – a product of the limited approach to human dignity and rights that was a feature of those long ago times, especially of those in power. So how to explain this contemporary return to indiscriminate child detention, from new-born infants to adolescents? There are doubtless many reasons, but a combination of ignorance and fear – two characteristics also prominent in the convict period – are certainly implicated. Think how long it took the traditional media – newspapers, radio and television – to begin to question the careful, determined efforts of governments to keep asylum seekers nameless, faceless and voiceless. We glimpsed them only from a distance – strangers. And that made it so much easier to propagate the myth of stranger-danger: foreigners who may do us harm, take our jobs, our houses, our democratic freedoms… Once we are afraid, it’s hard to feel empathy. Thus even babies must be exiled from our community, for they belong with parents – asylum seekers, whom we are encouraged to fear.
Australia was an early signatory to both the international Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The first declares that people seeking asylum must not be discriminated against, not penalised for the way in which they’ve managed to reach a country for refuge, and not returned to a place where they fear threats to their lives or freedom. The second affirms that “Children who come into a country as refugees should have the same rights as children who are born in that country”. It also insists that “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”.
These are principles and precepts unthinkable in the convict era. They are a product of the second half of the 20th century, lessons painfully learned after World War II about the necessity for compassion and assistance for those in need of refuge and protection. Australia signed the Refugee Convention in 1951 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, but incrementally since 1992 our governments have chosen to contravene a number of the solemn commitments we promised to uphold. In their place, the current Prime Minister favours a 3-word slogan: Stop the Boats. A late acquisition on the part of both major political parties – a belated concern for the well-being of asylum seekers at sea – is used as the “deterrence” justification for the isolation and degradation of the vast majority who have not drowned. We are back to the bleak morality of the 18th century English penal code, where cruelty and deportation were justified as a necessary deterrence to crime.
There is one crack in this grim facade of asylum-seeker political correctness: the unease in government because of the growing public objection to keeping children behind razor wire, their physical and mental well-being crumbling with every passing month of imprisonment. As the Human Rights Commission Report notes approvingly, the number of children in detention has been gradually declining – from almost 2000 in 2013 to 330 in 2015. Despite the current manufactured fury at the Human Rights Commissioner for daring to document the unconscionable circumstances in which these children are kept, it is possible that before the next election, political pragmatism may empty the detention centres of the last of these unfortunate children. But why must they wait so long?
June Factor is a writer and an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
By June Factor