Comment: Do we care more about convicted criminals than vulnerable children?

Why does our government care more for the plight of convicted drug smugglers than they do for defenceless and highly vulnerable children?

Last week, Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek pleaded for clemency in a bipartisan motion against the imminent execution of Australian heroin smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

It was an impassioned and moving occasion that was widely publicised. But why is no one in government doing the same for the children in mandatory immigration detention centres whose human rights are being ignored, as outlined in the Human Rights Commission (HRC)’s recent damning report?

Why does our government care more for the plight of convicted drug smugglers than they do for defenceless and highly vulnerable children?

The HRC’s “Forgotten Children” report made public last week showed conclusive evidence of human rights abuses for asylum seeker children in closed immigration detention centres in Australia and Nauru.

The report outlined 233 assault reports, 33 incidents of sexual assault, and 168 cases of self-harm, with 105 children on suicide watch. A disturbing 34 per cent of detained children were diagnosed with mental health disorders requiring hospitalised psychiatric treatment (compared to an average 2 per cent of Australian children).

It stated that in Nauru children suffer “shortages of even the most basic needs” including access to fresh water, showers and soap, and toilets and bathrooms are often “very dirty and unhygienic”. There is a limited supply of personal items such as underwear, sheets and footwear.

As well there are “insufficient toys, books and play equipment” with some children reported playing with “rocks and stones”.  

It’s enough to make you weep for the sadness, desperation and wasted years endured by these children in indefinite detention.

The very next day there were public tears but not for the forgotten children. Bishop and Plibersek passed a motion in Parliament in support of Chan and Sukumaran, currently awaiting execution in Indonesia.

They have already spent ten years in Bali’s ‘notorious’ Kerobokan Prison, years that no doubt have also felt sad, desperate and wasted.

The Abbott government has been very eager to support the high-profile media circus to stay the execution of the Bali Nine pair under the rationale of defending the rights of Australian citizens abroad. Abbott has said that Australia will “find ways to make our displeasure felt” including possibly recalling the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. He has even asked Indonesia to repay our generosity for Australian aid given after the 2004 tsunami.

Yet this generosity is sadly lacking when it comes to Australia’s own human rights record. Rather, the hypocrisy is blinding. Is the Abbott government’s dogmatic policy on asylum seekers so different to Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s hard line on Indonesia’s “drug emergency”? Both claim to be acting to protect their citizens from external threats.

The difference is that Australia’s forgotten asylum seeker children are innocent of any crime. And yet they are the victims of serious human rights abuses, of neglect, indefinite detainment, and in many awful cases, assault.

These children continue to languish in their prisons without an end date in sight or even understanding why they must remain there. They may not be Australian citizens but our country has a duty of care to them under international law. They are in great need of that protection and representation.

It is time for the Australian government to throw its bipartisan support behind an inclusive human rights policy where we practise the mercy and second chances that we preach to other countries.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra. 

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