“Support for taking children out of detention is back in the headlines and no longer a fringe position. The conditions which children face, long known to refugee advocates but successfully shielded from the Australian public, have now become a matter of mainstream debate.”
When the government introduced Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, one of the key planks of the policy was secrecy.
To ensure the success of the new bipartisan policy of inhumanity, it was seen as important that no-one could put faces and stories to those on the receiving end — and thereby realise the horror and illegality behind what was being perpetrated, or feel empathy for the victims.
As Tony Abbott said, ‘we stop the boats by hook or by crook. I just don’t want to go into the details of how it’s done because like a lot of things that law enforcement agencies have to do, it’s necessary, it’s difficult and at times I suppose it’s dangerous work.’
The ‘danger’ in the form of the moral toll enacted on the enforcers was eloquently demonstrated by a documentary, in December 2014, on the ABC’s 7:30.
Now, we have seen the wall of silence begin to crack open. Health care professionals at the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital have begun to do what could not be achieved by reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Australia’s Human Rights Commission.
The doctors and staff are refusing to release children they treat back to the detention which caused their problems in the first place.
This is, in itself, a heroic act, given that the government and opposition had recently united in passing legislation which would potentially see the doctors jailed for two years for even reporting abuse — let alone taking public steps to prevent it.
Even more astonishing is that the newspaper which broke the story was Melbourne’s Herald Sun, hardly a bastion of left-wing activism.
Then the wall cracked further. Victorian Minister for Health Jill Hennessy has come out in support of the hospital’s stance — notwithstanding the implicit attack on her own party’s support for mandatory detention and refoulement, and its participation in passing the Border Force Act 2015 in the first place.
Support for taking children out of detention is back in the headlines and no longer a fringe position. The conditions which children face, long known to refugee advocates but successfully shielded from the Australian public, have now become a matter of mainstream debate.
The lack of safety and family contact, the medical issues that the doctors are seeing, including ‘mental illness, behavioural problems, bed wetting and trauma’, and the conditions in which the children were detained, have become known in the broader Australian community.
What the doctors have done by their bravery is to begin the slow task of pouring daylight (always the best antiseptic) into this gaping wound in Australian society.
It is an indication of how badly their intervention wrongfooted the government that the initial response of the Immigration Minister was to claim that while he appreciated the doctors’ concerns, ‘the Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to restart’ — as if the traumatisation of children by military and quasi military personnel was the means by which these military personnel were prevented from having to witness deaths at sea.
(The ‘deaths at sea’ argument itself has long been shown to be a furphy: people desperate enough to risk death at sea are generally fleeing something much worse on land.)
This morning the crack in the wall of omerta has become a full-blown gap. Liberal Party MP Russell Broadbent has demanded an end to keeping children in detention and Richard Marles, the Labor shadow immigration minister who helped pass the Border Force Act, is introducing a bill to allow greater transparency in the detention system.
While it is too early to say whether the changes will bite, it seems unlikely that the doctors themselves will be prosecuted — the public movement which they have begun will probably not permit that. The climate of fear and silence around asylum seekers and refugees has begun to lift and, paradoxically, the focus on asylum seekers as patients has allowed them to be seen, first and foremost, as human beings.
The doctors at the Royal Melbourne Children’s hospital may just have begun to heal their country.
Justin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law. First published in Eureka Street.