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.