The Gillard government’s deal with Malaysia on asylum seekers has taken yet another turn. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has now conceded that he will decide whether or not to send unaccompanied children to that country’s refugee camps on a “case by case” basis. In coming to this decision he has dramatically shifted from his original position that all unaccompanied children who arrive here by boat will be sent on to Malaysia.
This backflip raises many questions, of which two are particularly pressing. The first is, what criteria will the Gillard government use to determine which unaccompanied children to export to Malaysia, and which to allow access to refugee processing in Australia?
In the Malaysian camps unaccompanied children are at risk of physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse leading to long-term psychological and physical ill health. They are at risk of exploitation of all kinds, as well as inadequate nutrition, and inadequate education. In short, they are at risk of a complete loss of childhood, to which the UNHCR Convention on the Rights of the Child (yes, we signed that too) states all children are entitled.
We have failed to protect children in Australian detention centres from extensive and long-term harm. How then do we propose to exert any influence over their treatment in another sovereign state?
We need to know as a matter of urgency just what guidelines the Gillard government intends to use to enable it to judge which unaccompanied child is suitable for exposure to these risks in Malaysia, and which child is not.
Will there be a checklist test of a child’s resilience? How has this minor withstood the traumas he or she has thus far endured? Reasonably well? OK, off to Malaysia.
Is the assessment to be left to officials in the Department of Immigration? Or does the government intent to employ experts in child psychology and psychiatry who will present informed opinion on which child has a better chance of survival in Malaysia, and which child does not? I use “survival” in a broad sense, not necessarily referring to their death, though that possibility cannot be discounted.
Protocols such as the Gillard government needs now, will create a groundbreaking global benchmark for the establishment of innovatory assessment processes for child asylum seekers who arrive unaccompanied in Western countries. The processes will necessarily be designed to determine the type of personality unaccompanied minors must have, in order to be judged capable of surviving the dangers of camps in countries that are not signatories to any human rights conventions. As far as I am aware, no such assessment process of lone children seeking asylum exists anywhere else in the world.
The second pressing matter we need to consider is that Chris Bowen is the legal guardian of all unaccompanied minors who arrive here seeking asylum. The welfare of children in his care must be his first priority if he is to fulfill the legal, ethical and moral requirements of guardianship.
How would we deal with any other legal guardian who subjected his or her charges to risks of this magnitude? We would find it entirely unacceptable that a guardian would consider putting any child in his or her care on a continuum of risk that includes rape, exploitation, hunger and death. We would likely incarcerate such a guardian. We certainly would not allow them to continue to be responsible for children who have no one else to take care of their wellbeing.
Does Bowen therefore have a conflict of interest in these circumstances? If his duty is first towards the vulnerable children in his care, might this not conflict with Gillard’s demands that he send any of these children to Malaysia?
Bowen has been quick to point out that the numbers involved are few. We aren’t looking at sending very many unaccompanied children to fend for themselves in Malaysia. This situation may change with the government’s recent decision. Denied income from adult cargo, smugglers may well resort to moving boatloads of minors, with the selling point that they do have a chance to stay in this country and it’s well worth the risk.
When Scott Morrison complained about the burial of drowned asylum seekers and their babies it looked as if we had reached an ethical and moral nadir in Australian politics. Now the Gillard government has again shifted the goalposts in the game to see who can stop the boats. Nauru is looking like the lesser of two evils.
What does it say about the character, competence and complete moral turpitude of our politicians, that the best choice they can come up in this situation has to be between two evils?
- Labor MP questions Malaysia deal (news.theage.com.au)
- Australia to send child asylum seekers to Malaysia (guardian.co.uk)
- Australia to deport lone children in refugee plan (msnbc.msn.com)