‘Protecting the children’: from the Intervention to detention

If you compare federal government responses to the issue of child sexual assault in immigration detention centres with responses in Aboriginal communities (the NT Intervention and the closures of WA communities), you will notice some major inconsistencies. Despite the superficial concern for child safety, government policies have in fact escalated the risk of sexual violence against refugee and Aboriginal children.

It is worth remembering that in 2007, when former Prime Minister John Howard suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, overturned the Native Title Act and gave the order for over 600 federal army troops to march into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, it was done so in the name of protecting Aboriginal children from sexual assault. At the time, Howard said:

we’ve been too timid about intervening. We have been too reluctant to do so because we will be accused of paternalism and all sorts of other things. Well, frankly, the care and protection of children is more important to me than slavishly following some philosophy or doctrine.

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd agreed: ‘When it comes to the sexual abuse of children, we have a responsibility as a community and as a nation to act and to act decisively.’

The arrival of the army and tanks terrorised many Aboriginal communities who reportedly fled into bushland fearing that their children were about to be removed. This was especially traumatic for survivors of the Stolen Generations. Howard responded to these reports by stating ‘there’s no reason to flee, it’s quite the reverse, (the army) are going there to help, going there to save and protect’.

This ‘save and protect the children’ rhetoric was used to silence public outrage at what was by technical definition, the creation of an apartheid in the Northern Territory. ‘Acting decisively’ was used to justify the government’s decision to deliberately ignore almost all of the 97 recommendations outlined in the Little Children Are Sacred (2007) report, including the main recommendation which emphasised the ‘critical importance of governments being committed to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities’. Instead, the Howard government unleashed a raft of policies on Aboriginal communities including: the seizure of land and community assets, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, Income Management and the closure of the Community Development Employment Projects scheme. None of these so-called special measures were explicitly concerned with improving the safety of Aboriginal women and children. Nor were these policies geared to address the underlying causes of child sexual assault in communities; poverty, colonisation, inter-generational trauma, the denial of Aboriginal Worldviews, or systemic and institutionalised racism.

Sadly, it is no surprise that after almost a decade since the implementation of the NT Intervention, Aboriginal children are experiencing greater violence, trauma and despair. The Northern Territory now has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in Australia and the rate of child sexual assault notifications in the NT has increased by almost 30 per cent (from the previous year). Aboriginal children are over represented in all of these statistics. The self-harm and suicide rates for Aboriginal children, including those as young as 10 years of age, is among the highest in the world.

In contrast to the send-in-the-troops approach taken in the Northern Territory, Australian governments have continually downplayed the issue of child sexual assault in immigration detention centres. This casual acceptance of child sexual assault in detention centres is perhaps best summed up in this statement made by the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott: ‘occasionally, I dare say, things happen … Because in any institution you get things that, occasionally, aren’t perfect.’ Similarly, immigration minister Peter Dutton has made it clear that the safety of children seeking asylum is secondary to the political trump card of stopping the boats.

Malcolm Turnbull promised that ‘the whole government is very committed to ensuring that … women and children are absolutely safe in that environment’ – but the Moss Review and the Senate Select Committee Report have revealed that children are routinely abused in detention centres. Last year the story broke of an extremely traumatised eight-year-old boy, who let his mother know he had been sexually assaulted, by drawing a picture of a Nauruan detention centre guard naked with an erect penis. Despite this, the government awarded Transfield Services (responsible for detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island) a contract of $1.2 billion following the company’s own admission that detention centre staff members were involved in at least 33 reported child sexual assault incidents in the last year.

Dutton responded:

if allegations (of child sexual assault) have been made we want those allegations to be thoroughly investigated, because like any Australian, I won’t tolerate … children being abused.

However, the government has road-blocked attempts made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to investigate these offshore sites. It also appears that the hearing of onshore detention centres has been halted. The Royal Commission states that ‘institutions without external scrutiny pose risks to children’. Without institutional safeguards, such as a child protection framework and open investigations, it is likely that sexual assault will only continue in detention centres.

Last year, the spectre of child sexual assault was again raised by Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, this time to announce a plan to forcibly close up to 150 Aboriginal communities. Barnett promised that ‘there will be evidence to come about the appalling mistreatment of little (Aboriginal) kids,’ and continued ‘I, as premier, cannot sit by and let that happen’. Barnett later admitted that he was not aware of any local or official reports that could support this claim. The closure of small communities of course opens up investment opportunities for Western Australia’s big industries: mining, fracking, prisons and hotel resorts, all set to profit from the political concern about child sexual assault.

If the government is genuinely concerned about responding to violence against children in Aboriginal communities then dispossessing Aboriginal communities from their land and stripping Aboriginal people of their human rights is not the way to do it. Responding to violence is complex, but it must begin by resourcing community-led solutions, valuing Aboriginal Worldviews and by eliminating poverty. Similarly, if the Australian government is at all sincere about its concerns for the safety of refugee children (and all asylum seekers for that matter), then it should move immediately to shut down the detention centres, to resettle all asylum seekers on Australian shores and to prosecute the detention centre managers and staff who have committed crimes against child and adult detainees. It is also imperative that the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Assault hears victims from both onshore and offshore detention centres. If the government does not concretely act to end its policies which excuse violence against Aboriginal and refugee children, then the government needs to be held to account this and for lying about caring.


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Leticia Funston

Leticia Funston is an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist social researcher and social worker. Leticia is in her final year of a PhD degree at Sydney University. Leticia’s thesis explores the emergence of Trauma Informed Care in women’s refuges and crisis accommodation services in the context of neoliberal, colonial settler societies, Sydney and Vancouver.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more with this article.

    But, it should be noted that the picture used above is of Australian troops in Afghanistan, not the Northern Territory, Western Australia, or on any of our pacific gulags. And judging by their gear/weapons, they look to be special forces (Commandos or SAS) preparing for some kind of combat role. I know this is nitpicking, but i doubt the Australian troops in the intervention included the commandos or SAS (there’d be no need), nor would they have been gearing up for combat (do correct me of i’m wrong there. If they were preparing for combat—to carry weapons like that—it would be an even more serious breach of human rights).

    It seems just a little misleading to use that picture, that’s all.

    1. Well that was an image freely available to use. Still, I don’t think the distinction matters when it comes to the Australian military and the safety of children the world over.

      1. Just because it’s freely available doesn’t mean it’s the right one to use. I think it does matter. The one you’ve chosen (an inaccurate one, as pointed out by the above commenter) is a touch sensationalising. Smacks a little of Today Tonight, etc. Haven’t I read somewhere in Overland about the power of images blah blah blah. Well …

        1. It’s not inaccurate – unless you’re suggesting this is not how the Australian military enters other countries (affecting the welfare of millions of children). I’m sorry you disagree Peter, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s quite a reasonable connection to make. That’s the power of images right there.

  2. As the author of this article, I would like to say that I very much support the editorial decision to use this image. I also disagree with the comment that the use of this image is ‘sensational’.

    The reason I was motivated to write this piece is because I have been and continue to be disgusted by the surface political rhetorical (the lies) about ‘saving women and children’ while our governments (Labor and Liberal) have implemented policies that have infact endangered the very lives of people our politicians profess to care so much about. The ‘save and protect women and children’ narrative effectively silences and stifles public outcry against state violence, racism and blatant imperialism.

    To echo Jacinda’s comment, I could have easily drawn from Australia’s participation in the war in Afghanistan to illustrate this argument – perhaps I should have! The discourse used in 2003 by US and Australian governments to justify invasion and war was the same old ‘liberate and save’ Afghan women from the Taliban. Not surprisingly, just as the militarized, neocolonial Northern Territory Intervention increased poverty, violence and despair experienced by First Nations people so to, invasion and war has escalated violence against Afghan women and children: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/afghanistan-feminismnatooccupation.html

    1. This analysis is spot on.

      The critique of moralist specialisation of reservations about our carceral system(s)—both in relation to First Nations people and brown refugees—also apply to the network of NGOs, sympathetic political figures and others extracting value from limited condemnation of systems they never actually act to dismantle.

      This round table blog post has some related comment on the refugee rights movement:


  3. There has just been a new edition of essays and prose published about “The Intervention” called “The Intervention – An Anthology” Edited by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss. New South Books $29.99 It also describes the widespread traumatic response among communities in the NT due to the use of troops to carry out “The Intervention”, plus reams and reams of disturbing commentary about the negative and ongoing impact that the Intervention (now called Stronger Futures) continues to have. The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in order to carry out the Intervention and impose welfare quarantining has allowed other, more significant erosion and removal of rights to land ownership etc. It has also led to ridiculous scenarios where Aboriginal people who do not have their payments quarantined are now too wary to ask for help from agencies designed to assist them because they are scared they will have their payments quarantined. I also understand that in some instances government agencies are trying to manipulate remote community members in the NT into signing 40 year land leases before new houses will be built. Houses, actually which have been promised for a long time. Overcrowding and poor housing, of course, is one of the contributing factors to the quality of children’s health, particularly eye heath and trachoma. And so it goes on, making us all wonder about whether the government’s talk about closing the gap is at all genuine. Many thanks Letitia for writing your piece, and I don’t think the issue about the photo is that relevant. The terror caused by armed forces coming to my home if I thought they were going to take my children pales into insignificance compared to whether they have guns or not. In fact I wouldn’t even notice. I would be gone into hiding (as many actually did). Brutal. And completely unnecessary. After all, it was the people in those communities themselves who had been flagging the need for help with child sexual abuse and neglect issues in the first place. The freely available online film “Our Generation” about the Intervention (among other things) provides a good context for this ongoing issue also.

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