Saturday, May 08, 2004

War war war words words words

I don't much like living in these times, though to be honest, I can't think of many times that would have been better. The Napoleonic Wars? Then they hadn't invented headache tablets, and people were just as savage. The 19th century? Then the evil empire was British, busy bringing civilisation to the savages and drug dealing opium in China. Have there been any days since the end of the War to end all Wars since some place on earth hasn't been enduring its own special brand of violent misery? Has there ever been a time when "our" safety and comfort hasn't depended on bunches of men going somewhere else and brutalising subject peoples? (Preferably but not exclusively of another skin colour, though that didn't hold in Ireland).

But still, and I am nowhere near any artillery, and hope fervently that I never will be, still I don't like it. It makes my mouth taste bad. I have violent dreams. But I can't stop reading about what is happening in this world, especially what is happening allegedly in my name, as a citizen of this great nation of ours, because if I can't stop it, I can at least be aware of what my personal freedom and safety (charged words, charged words) is presently costing other people. Right now close to home, not 10km from here is a "detention centre" in Maribyrnong, it means jailing children (although we prefer the word "detention") who are unfortunate enough to belong to asylum seeking families, despite a barrage of reports condemning the practice as detrimental to their physical and mental health, and which state this policy directly contravenes UN statutes on human rights and the rights of children, to which, whatever evidence to the contrary, we are a signatory. We even jail children who are alone and have no families with them.

Is this war? It seems like war to me. It mightn't have the drama and sexiness of coalition soldiers clocking them Airbs, but it exposes all the violence that racism is.

What happens to these people is horrific. Phil Ruddock, former Minister for Immigration, who oversaw the creation of the detention policy, and who is also a card carrying member of Amnesty International, easily contemplates such evidences at this (from a speech by Julian Burnside QC) as "necessary" for Australia's immigration policies.

It is hard to understand how Australia has got itself to this position. Part of the difficulty is, I think, that we lack the imagination to understand the realities of our policy of mandatory detention; and we fail to understand why it is the people seek asylum in the first place. The prevailing view in Australia seems to be that asylum seekers come here to improve their economic circumstances, and that we put them in holiday camps for a short time whilst their claims are processed. Let us consider the reality.

In late 2000 a family fled Iran. They were members of a small quasi-Christian sect which has traditionally been regarded as "unclean" by the religious majority. Their lives have traditionally been marked by persecution in every conceivable aspect. The recent history of Jews in Germany and Poland is a sufficient reminder of what happens to groups who are regarded by the majority as "unclean". The family's flight was triggered by a terrible event, the details of which are too terrible to relate at a luncheon like this. They arrived in Australia after a terrifying voyage across the sea and were locked up in Woomera. The family comprised mother and father in their thirties, and two daughters aged 7 and 10.

In Woomera, month after month, their condition deteriorated. In particular, the 10 year old girl who ceased eating, stopped engaging in self-care activities, had trouble sleeping and began scratching herself constantly. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service of South Australia learnt of the family's plight and went to examine them. They wrote a report which included the following passages:

"(She) does not eat her breakfast or other meals and throws her food in the bin. She was preoccupied constantly with death, saying 'don't bury me here in the camp, bury me back in Iran with grandfather and grandmother'.

(She) carried a cloth doll, the face of which she had coloured in blue pencil. When asked in the interview if she would like to draw a picture, she drew a picture of a bird in a cage with tears falling and a padlock on the door. She said she was the bird.

It is my professional opinion that to delay action on this matter will only result in further harm to (this child) and her family. The trauma and personal suffering already endured by them has been beyond the capacity of any human being and I foresee that this family will require intensive and ongoing therapy for some time to enable them to conciliate and recover."

Despite the urgent recommendations in that report, the family were left where they were. A further report was sent and, after weeks of delay, the family was finally sent to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre: Melbourne's own concentration camp. When the family was moved, the South Australian authorities urged that the 10 year old daughter needed daily clinical attention. Nevertheless, for another three weeks nothing happened: no-one saw the family, no-one paid attention to the obvious psychological and medical needs of the 10 year old. Not long afterwards, on a Sunday night whilst her parents and her sister were at dinner, she hanged herself.

She did not die. When she was taken down, she tried to swallow shampoo because she had seen adults kill themselves that way in Woomera.

The family remained in immigration detention for another year. At last, after they had appealed to the full Federal Court, they were finally granted protection visas. In the meantime, they had suffered under Australia's detention system for more than two years, the entire family has been traumatised to an extent which is inconceivable for ordinary members of the Australian community and a 10 year old girl very nearly succeeded in ending her own life.

That is the reality of mandatory indefinite detention in Australia in the 21st Century. It is passing strange that a government which prides itself in family values still implements policies so harsh that they drive children to attempt suicide. Suicide amongst pre-pubescent children is almost unheard of except in Australia's detention centres.

These stories have never made the kind of scandal here that the Abu Ghraib torture photos have, and I do not understand why. Is it because of the media blackout in detention centres? Is it because there are no pictures? Another point: Australian detention centres are run by a private company.

And these are the civilised values we are attempting to forcibly export? (Because we are doing our own little bit of colonising, just look at the argument we are having about maritime boundaries with East Timor, so we can claim 90 per cent of the oil that belongs to one of the poorest countries on this planet). But damn, I forgot: we no longer are "responsible" for what happens in Iraq, although we sent Australian soldiers for the first time ever to an aggressive, pre-emptive war. Alexander Downer says we are absolved, we do not bear any responsibility any more. Thank you, Alexander. I can now sleep easy.

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