In the heated debates about asylum seekers, including the tragic death of Reza Berati on Manus Island, there is one group that is always forgotten: children. Ten years ago we lamented the fact that there were about 100 children held in Australia’s immigration detention prisons, arguing that those children were subject to ”organised” and ”ritualised” abuse by the Australian government.
We used the term ”ritualised abuse” to explain that the children were subject to formal and repeated acts of abuse, carried out under a belief system that the government adopted to justify such cruelty. We used the term ”organised abuse” to illustrate that children were being abused by many perpetrators who acted together in ways they knew could be extremely harmful.
Ten years later, there are 10 times as many children subject to this organised, ritualised practice on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island and Nauru. Children without parents, dismissively referred to as ”unaccompanied minors”, are now joining transported families with children on Nauru.
As the abuse has markedly increased, we have further refined our definition to incorporate ‘commercialised trafficking” in children. Australia is now trafficking more children across national borders, defying UN protocols of trafficking in persons. As the tragic events on Manus Island unfolded, there was barely a murmur about what was occurring in the second offshore imprisonment site of Nauru, with 10 unaccompanied children forcibly sent there from Christmas Island; more have now followed. Through deliberately misleading and confusing terminology, these trafficked children are described in various ways; ”transferees” and ”illegals” are being sent to ”secure” detention sites, rather than to imprisonment. According to a definition found through the UNICEF website, based on engagements with international agencies, ”A child has been trafficked if he or she has been moved within a country, or across borders, whether by force or not, with the purpose of exploiting the child”. Among the factors that render a trafficked child vulnerable, according to this definition, are that they ”cannot speak the language, are disadvantaged by their legal status, suffer a lack of access to basic services (such as education and healthcare), or do not know the environment”. All these apply to children we have trafficked to Nauru. There is more. All those who contribute to this movement of children, and know what they do is likely to lead to child exploitation, are themselves traffickers. They include ”recruiters, intermediaries, document providers, transporters, corrupt officials, employers and exploiters”.
”Duty of care” and ”risk management” are terms familiar to Australians. Sending children to Nauru is a serious abrogation of duty of care and poses untold risks to unaccompanied children. Riots and fires on Nauru last year, and recent events on Manus Island, starkly reveal the impact of locking up innocent people and taking away all hopes and rights. For children to witness such events, sometimes without the protection of a parent, increases the well-documented harm that results from being locked up for indeterminate periods.
Imprisoned children’s voices are haunting. In Human Rights Overboard we recounted narratives about so many childhoods lost. One boy who was 11 when detained on Nauru told us: ”I felt my childhood was being washed away by detention. It’s like watching an R-rated movie you are not supposed to watch. It included sexual content, very coarse language, violence, suicide and every horrible experience that you can imagine. Children experienced the grown up world when they are not ready for it.”