A child is not a child if she is a refugee

How exactly should we define a ‘child’? Most of us think we know a child when we come across one but in reality the zone between childhood and adulthood is quite nebulous. Russell Marks, in his excellent Overland article ‘More than Taboo,’ shows how sexuality is just one area where notions of the child have proved difficult to pin down, both over time and between different cultures.

It might, then, seem expedient to leave such matters to the law. In that way, a juvenile becomes a fully-fledged grown-up at precisely 12 am on the morning of their eighteenth birthday – a hopelessly random but ultimately necessary deceit. Except that does not always work so well either, certainly not in Queensland.

In that state a youth may vote, drink alcohol or serve on a jury only upon attaining the age of eighteen. Yet by then, due to a history of political dysfunction, that same young person might already have spent up to a year incarcerated in an adult prison. Much to the dismay of welfare advocates – and contrary to all credible research – a succession of governments have resisted falling into line with international expectations on this issue, instead pandering to a populist law-and-order agenda. Seventeen-year-olds must be (harshly) punished as adults because, as the unlamented previous LNP government’s Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie was wont to claim, that is what Queenslanders demand.

Having been involved for over fifteen years in the field of child protection, until recently I would have felt more confident of being able to narrow down a definition of child abuse. For many of those years I worked as a detective investigating complaints of child assault and neglect, and police typically tend to see things in black and white. An infant intentionally burned multiple times with a soldering iron. An eight-year-old molested by her school friend’s father during a sleepover. A newborn starved to death in his cot after being left untended by the parents. No debate could be entered into for those or dozens of other such examples I experienced. Of course, there are many cases which qualify as borderline maltreatment, but to be implicit in the death or torture or sexual assault of victims so young must surely be a crime, pure and simple.

Yet in Australia, that reasoning too is becoming less sound in recent times, and not only because of objectionable juvenile justice policies in Queensland. Recently, the federal government has been fighting to vindicate having detained a five-year-old Iranian girl in horrendous conditions on the island of Nauru. Worse still, these same politicians are contemplating returning this child who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness – who right now is in detention in Darwin while her father is receiving medical care – to the very location where this illness developed, and where it will inevitably deteriorate.

Her treatment so far has already contravened numerous of the 50-plus articles listed under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Australia’s abject contemporary human rights record concerning the treatment of refugees has been so consistent as to require no further evidence here. Nevertheless, it is sobering to realise that this nation has never in its modern history journeyed to quite such a dark place, nor sailed upon a current of such political malevolence. It is a strange feeling to see undeniable child maltreatment in front of your face yet know that you appear to be in the minority in identifying it. I think back to the many traumatised primary and pre-school aged victims I have interviewed and try to imagine telling them that they are going to be sent to live behind razor wire in a jail or at a remote detention centre – but the idea is too outrageous, too cruel even to conceive of. Then again, for some people it is difficult to conceive of the existence of immigration detention centres in the first place.

This is how, as a nation, we have meekly devolved to our current position. The young Iranian girl’s case is not being widely debated in terms of ‘why is a child of five being held in detention as an adult?’, but rather comes down to ‘should this person be held in detention?’

Ergo, a child is not a child if she is a refugee. And we can collectively avoid any shame on this count because the supposed illegality of her very being here supersedes all other ethical and humanitarian obligations.

With the federal Labor opposition capable only of intermittent squeaks over this and other issues of ‘national security’, the necessary roars of indignation are coming mostly from the margins. Indeed, those who express disgust at the case are almost entirely marginal: typically shuffled aside as left-wing provocateurs by the mainstream media and safely isolated as unpatriotic ideologues by a conservative majority that sleeps at night only because it has talked itself into believing the myth that such policies are ‘saving lives at sea’. (Evidently, those drowning or starving to death on boats that we can successfully divert from our territorial waters are in an in-between place – neither dead nor at sea.)

When a baseless fear of asylum seekers comes to override all anxiety about being complicit in acts of child maltreatment, it may be that the very foundations of our society have rotted beyond repair. It can only be hoped that the politicians responsible for this and other associated human rights outrages will, along with the commentators egging them on, one day come to be judged harshly by history. Some may even be judged as criminals.

For now, though, being a child seems to stand for a lot less than it used to in this country.


Dean Biron

Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thanks Dean,
    Your erudite writing on this subject is unfortunately lost to most people. I’m sure you’re aware that 75% of people with a psychotic illness have been abused. I am ashamed what our government is doing in our names.

    1. Thanks for that Kevin. Unfortunately, these issues drop quickly from the news cycle – if they are included at all – which makes it much easier for governments to get away with such shameful acts on our behalf.

  2. Thanks for your beautifully written and insightful article Dean. I was so moved by it that I referenced it in my recent Overland article about the Border Force Act. Now the same government has legislated to protect disclosure of the horrific acts you mentioned. When and where will it end?

    1. Thanks you Melanie. I did read your excellent article yesterday and was moved and impressed.

      My concern, I guess, is that the converted are in dialogue with each other on this and related matters, in a sort of “ethical loop” which most politicians and policy makers will continue to comfortably operate outside of.

      Other than writing about it, it is hard to say who or what is going to change things, but physicians at the coalface may be our best hope …

  3. Its important to update this article with recent developments at the ALP conference, since the claim is that both parties have the same policy towards children. The policy of boat turn backs staying with Labor got all the press, but like much in this field, the truth is more complex.
    According to the Labor Platform, they say that Australia should not harm people (208), they won’t punish anyone just because of their mode of arrival (219), they will provide asylum seekers with as much certainty as possible about applications for permanent protection (210), migration assistance and appropriate social services while their applications are being assessed (228), and will restore Government-funded legal assistance for them. Labor’s proposed Border Protection system will be based on not harming people (208), international cooperation, not unilateral action (209), assisting in the rescue at sea of vessels in distress (220), strong regional and international arrangements to increase the orderly flow of refugees (213), and improvements in living standards and protection outcomes both in countries of first asylum and transit countries (213) aims to keep boat turnbacks hypothetical. However, Labor has maintained boat turn backs. The belief clearly is that if turnbacks can be safely accomplished, the people-smugglers will lose their customers to the alternative – the orderly flow of refugees organized by UNHCR, thanks to its $450m funding to South East Asia operations from Australia and the progressive doubling of our humanitarian intake (216). The budget increase of $450mill is the largest contribution to the UNHCR in its history. 27,000 a year intake, thru humanitarian visas, working with UNHCR makes this near the top, per capita, of OECD countries. In the longer term, ALP ambitions are for a bilateral agreement with Indonesia to jointly police trafficking between Java and Christmas Island, and a multi-lateral agreement in the region to share the costs of resettling refugees would remove the need for a boat turnback policy for any political party. There is a clear difference in parties now and clearly turns around detention of children if they are elected. Its not accurate to say both have the same policies. [Note, this information was drawn from various sources.]

  4. John, I am not sure where you have read here the claim that “both parties have the same policies”? If there is any inaccuracy I am afraid that it begins and ends with your reading of the piece.

    My reference is to a federal Labor opposition “capable only of intermittent squeaks”. I would not only stand by that phrase two months later: I am also not tempted to alter my view based on what seems to be a series of excerpts from a party press release, particularly one that resorts to dubious mantras such as “people smugglers [and their] customers”.

    Meanwhile, children do remain in detention, 17-yr-olds do remain in adult prisons in QLD, and no amount of rhetoric has yet managed to subvert the shameful reality in either case.

  5. I have no argument with your main points re child treatment. I agree; the public record speaks. I added what have been recent developments re labor policy since the article poses points about the future. There is a strong prospect of change and stating that you don’t see any reason to acknowledge that point seems odd. A major point of differentiation by the opposition, one that acknowledges the wrongfulness of child detention and offers an alternative policy, and that’s not relevant? I have no party interests; I am a volunteer working with refugees in Greece and worked 40 years in youth not-for-profit field. You play the man in your reply, it’s intemperate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *