Croakey is compiling submissions to the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the impact of immigration detention on the health, well-being and development of children.

In the article below, psychiatrist Professor Alan Rosen argues that the immigration detention of children amounts to systematic child abuse, and notes the irony of this occurring while inquiries are underway into institutional abuse of previous generations of children.

Instead of allowing ourselves to be lulled into complicity, he calls for a broad social movement of ordinary Australians to insist that this child abuse be stopped and its impact monitored.


Alan Rosen writes:

There is often an unfortunate lag-phase in building the groundswell of public opinion against even the most blatant of human rights abuses, even against defenseless infants and children stuck for the longhaul in immigration detention.

It is now abhorrent to the majority of the Australian public that any form of slavery (eg sexual, domestic or workplace) should be possible in Australia, or that our governments stole generations of Aboriginal children in our name, and that similarly our governments and our most prominent religious and secular institutions allowed, turned a blind eye to, and in some cases virtually aided and abetted on-going devastating child abuse.

With most of these abuses, we only get around to abhorring them as a nation, and to doing anything coherent to stop them, or to then prevent them re-occurring, when they have been festering for generations.

At that stage we collectively cannot understand how we, or the preceding generations of us, could not have been fully aware of them, how we could have turned a blind eye and tolerated these abuses.

Some of these abuses have been perpetrated in secret, though the secret is usually not that well kept that the relevant administrations did not really know about it.

The governments and administrations at the time also knew what was being done was wrong – so much so that they often felt the need to systematically suppress and gloss over the extent of that truth.

Our national community often had more than a glimmering of this suppression or glossing over of this “secret”, and we could have objected if we really wanted to, but we were lulled into thinking that, whatever these administrations were doing, was occurring in the national interest, and into allowing it all to happen.

Similarly, this is the case with the yet-to-fully-emerge scandal of children in immigration detention, now exacerbated by marooning them on islands concentrated together with a mob of frustrated and angry strangers for an uncertain but seemingly interminable period of their short lives.

We know it is wrong and destructive. We have strong evidence of the terrible trauma damage and mental illness consequences of allowing our governments to perpetrate this on kids, as the studies by Zachary Steel and others had proven during the last round of child detention under the Howard government.

There is now no excuse of government ignorance about the damage, and this makes the present treatment of children even more immoral than previously.

However, manufactured fear of the descending hordes has a long tradition in Australia. It began with the fear of the “yellow peril” which persuaded us that we needed the “White Australia” policy. It was a gravitational theory, which implied that the only definitive way to stem and correct this inevitable downward flow, was to tip the world up the other way so they would all flow back again.

But here we go again. The same abusive elements are all there.

On the recycled pretext of xenophobic fear of the gravitationally descending hordes, we the public are being lulled into determining our national interest on the basis of so-called “security priorities”, which are the result of the artificial and magnified manufacture of this fear.

We are being groomed again by our government to participate and to be complicit in this abuse of children in immigration detention, ironically even while we are running national and state judicial commissions on the systematic abuse of children.

Such lulling and grooming leads us to collective denial, or to becoming psychically numbed to the pain experienced by the abused kids, and dire consequences of such abuses as they grow up, if they do, which would otherwise evoke our pity, indignation, and our strong condemnation.

Our national government is being secretive about its actions and about the extent and consequences of these abuses, both on the high seas and on the ground. It is determined to suppress all information about the fate of these children. It will not allow any oversight or monitoring by independent experts eg independent psychiatric professionals, either on Nauru (where there are 20 unaccompanied minors and some families with kids) or Manus Island (where there are no kids so far) or elsewhere to report on how these kids and other young people are faring.

The Australian Government’s offshore detention system is already generating deaths. Who knows? Before long, some of these already traumatised kids may be witnessing or getting caught up in terrifying riots and allegedly brutal attacks by police militia and locals on detention centre inmates in Nauru, like young adult escapees are presently experiencing on Manus Island.

So how can we wake ourselves from this recurrent bad dream, seeing it for what it is, systematic child abuse, carried out in our name, in broad daylight, insisting to our government that it should be in our line of sight, independently and accurately monitored and stopped?

We need to remind ourselves that:

1. It is possible to recognize human rights abuses while they are growing or at their height, and insisting that they be stopped, rather than always being on the back foot, tolerating them or being lulled into complicity, realizing belatedly that they are abhorrent, and then investigating and apologizing for them in retrospect, or a generation or two later.

2. If there was a collective and government will to do so, independent professional expert monitoring of the conditions in which these kids are being detained could be initiated within days and reported upon promptly, and then could be monitored continuously.

3. Empty the detention centres of unaccompanied kids and families with kids and process their applications from the community.  Inevitably it will be have to be done anyway, as when the pressure built up on John Howard’s government, partially because it was splitting over this issue. So why arouse even more hostility in, further traumatise and alienate kids, the majority of whom will have to be absorbed into Australian society in the long run?

4. The dominant rhetoric is that the majority of the electorate has been buying into has been fear generated by governments, which have been confounding and merging the security agenda with the law and order agenda, the xenophobia, overpopulation and the ‘taking our jobs” agendas… all done to cynically buy them a few more votes which can really count in swinging seats.

This paints a dismal view of the Australian public and its attitudes and is dismaying and even silencing many weary formerly vocal advocates for asylum seekers and their children, who are wondering if they should just give up on the national spirit in disgust and despair.

However, there is another strong strand of the Australian national character and psyche. This is the equally traditional, fine Australian character which believes strongly on giving all people a fair go, in social justice for all, in warmly welcoming newcomers to our communities, and in protecting vulnerable kids and families from needless suffering and wanton exploitation.

This parallel Australian tradition is far from dominant in this debate, however. Though somewhat ragged, suppressed, dormant and almost half-buried at present, nonetheless, it is still really there, available and capable of revival by a coherent broad social movement of ordinary Australian citizens.

• Professor Alan Rosen is Professorial Fellow, School of Public Health, Faculty of Health & Behavioural Sciences, University of Wollongong, Clinical Associate Professor,Brain & Mind Research Institute, Sydney Medical School / Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Deputy Commissioner, Mental Health Commission of New South Wales, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, Far West Local Health Network, New South Wales.

To lodge a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry:

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