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Government-sponsored child abuse at the Nauru detention centres

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Thursday, 7 August 2003

Walking into the Topside Camp, established by the Australian government on Nauru to detain those asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters, I was unsure what to expect.

I have visited every migration detention facility in Australia, including the current temporary facility on Christmas Island. They are all unnatural places, but this incongruous Australian-funded imprisonment of hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans on a small island, sitting almost exactly on the equator, has a special sense of the surreal.

Walking up to the gate, it seemed all of the camp's 300-plus residents had gathered to welcome me. It is very difficult for Australians wanting to visit the camp to get permission to enter Nauru, so they get very few non-official visitors. A big sign, reading "welcome to our detention centre", was stretched across the gate, but my attention was immediately grabbed by the children.


So many children, young children, three, four, five years old, gathered at the gate. All of them kept in camps since 2001. The inescapable question arises again. How can this be that the Australian taxpayer funds the deliberate imprisonment of children? I think of my own daughter, 21 months old, in the crucial stages of development. How would it be for her growing up in this sort of place, perhaps separated from her father, without her or her parents having any idea what her future is? Our government likes to call itself family friendly, yet it keeps families with children locked up in these conditions.

The camp is a collection of demountables, air-conditioned against the year-round heat. The facilities, sporting, recreational and health, are below that of centres in Australia. The showers and toilets are also in demountables. These use brackish water that only runs for about six hours, spread over various parts of the day. The water difficulties are similar to what is experienced by all the local residents of the island.

I am told the facilities at the other Nauru-based camp, called State House, are worse but I am advised not to visit there for safety reasons. I am allowed to meet with people who are in that camp, who are brought to see me at Topside.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is contracted by the Australian government to run the facilities and assist in the relocation of people once the Government has determined their refugee status. They have a difficult task, as they have no say over what happens to the detainees but must deal with the deep ocean of despair and depression that exists on the island camps. As was said to me, you could put these people into Club Med and their condition would still be almost the same, because it is the lack of freedom and hope, the empty future for their children, that is the source of their pain and suffering. Mental health issues comprise the vast bulk of the work of the medical staff but there is nothing they can do to alleviate the cause.

Of course, the conditions on Nauru are not Club Med. They are very basic and would be unpleasant to live in. Nauru is an impoverished island. The local population of about 12 000 people, on an island one-fifth the area of Christmas Island, are facing an economic crisis and the presence of the camps is currently the main economic input for the nation. I spoke with some government members and officials, as well as some youth workers at a local high school. Written on the blackboard was a message urging teachers to please keep coming to work, despite not having been paid for months. Virtually the only people on the island being paid regularly are those working at the camps.

The biggest disgrace of our "pro-family" government is the women and children in the camps who are deliberately being kept apart from husbands and fathers in Australia. Our Prime Minister, who recently lamented the lack of male role models for children growing up, is telling these women they must return alone with their children to Iraq or Afghanistan, to circumstances where their husbands were subject to severe persecutions. Their husbands cannot leave Australia without losing their protection. The Immigration Minister says their circumstances are considered separate from their husband's because they arrived on different boats. This is as logical as saying they are kept separate because their name starts with the wrong letter, and these women know it.


But again, worst of all is the children. Four and five-year-old girls who have no memory of their father and no understanding of why they cannot go to him, when they know where he is. And the fathers in Australia, some of whom I have also met, being driven to the brink by this enforced separation.

In the face of the government-generated harming of children, it seems almost a minor fact that it is being done at the cost of hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars - funds that could go to address major needs in Australia, or indeed in Nauru and other Pacific neighbours. Even those who manage to stagger out the other side of the hoops and hurdles, such as the 40 people who are finally being allowed to apply to enter Australia, nearly two years after they first sought our help, are left traumatised - unsupported and uncertain of their future while Australia provides temporary "protection". The government deliberately creates dysfunctional members of our community - at our expense.

The government has created a twisting labyrinth of cruelty and faceless bureaucratic dispassion that is so heartless and so lacking in any reason that Franz Kafka would not have dared to have conjured it up. Despite the lives destroyed, the vast resources squandered and the children's futures that have been stolen, our government has the audacity to call their "strategy" a success.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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