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.
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.