Child asylum seekers sacrificed on the altar of efficiency

I am a child under 18

On Monday, June 20, Sir Stephen Silber, Justice of the England and Wales High Court, decided that a child who applies for asylum deserves a modicum of justice. The story is fairly straightforward. The fact that there is a story at all is a national, and global, disgrace. An unaccompanied boy-child, called AA in the court proceedings, made it, alone, from Sudan to Italy. From Italy, he made it, alone, to the United Kingdom, where he applied, more like begged, for asylum. He said, rightly, that he was 16 or 17. The border official looked at him and decided he was well over 18. There was no other proceeding. That was it. A guy looks at another guy and decides he’s older. AA was sent to adult immigration detention, where he spent two weeks, first at Brook House and then Tinsley. Officially children can only be detained for 24 hours. The Refugee Council and a team of lawyers from Bhatia Best Solicitors worked for two weeks, and finally secured his release. He was then interviewed by a team of social workers and deemed to be a child. On Monday, Justice Silber ruled, first, that the Secretary of State for the Home Department had illegally detained AA and, second, must pay damages to AA for the two weeks of detention.

According to Stuart Luke, the head of public law and community care at Bhatia Best Solicitors, “Since 2013 when the Home Office introduced these rules about age assessment I have seen an increase in these cases. Today’s landmark judgment is very important because it protects the rights of unaccompanied asylum seeker children who come to the UK.” Refugee Council Policy Manager Judith Dennis added: “This judgment is extremely significant and sends a clear message to the Home Office that its current policy is both unlawful and indefensible. For too long the Government has been jeopardising the safety of children who it should be protecting. It’s clear that the stakes are far, far too high for children to be arbitrarily thrown behind bars with adults on the basis of guesswork. Instead of wasting public money fighting this ruling, the Government should instead ensure that everyone who claims to be a child receives a sensitive, timely, lawful and expert led age assessment.”

Home Office lawyers described the decision as “absurd.” The Home Office lawyers’ entire case was based on “absurdity.” They argued that taking childhood as an objective matter, meaning developing actual processes to determine an applicant’s age, would “lead to an absurd and anomalous outcome.” What is the basis of this absurdity and anomaly? Efficiency. In his decision, Justice Silber responded to this line of reasoning: “I have not overlooked any of the submissions of Mr McKendrick, and, in particular, his contention that the Claimant’s case is `profoundly troubling for the efficient running of a fair immigration system’. My task is not to ascertain what would lead to the most efficient running of a fair immigration system but to apply the established principles of construction.”

For the past three years, the Department of Home Affairs sacrificed children on the altar of efficiency. In so doing, they inverted and abused the story of the binding of Isaac: “God tested Abraham and said to him, `Abraham! And he said, `Here I am.’ He said, `Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’”

Today’s parable goes like this: “And the State said to a nameless functionary, `Take their son, whom you despise, and go to the prison and offer him there as a burnt offering.’” Where efficiency subsumes justice and compassion, God is dead, and no one weeps.

(Photo Credit: Refugee Council)

#LetThemStay: Australia tells asylum seekers detention is freedom

What does freedom mean? Don’t ask the Australian government, who this weekend hit a new low by proudly announcing it had released all refugee and asylum seeking children in Australia, when, apparently, it had merely changed their designation from “held detention” to “community detention”, without actually moving them. When torturing children just isn’t enough, try torturing the language as well. Freedom’s just another word …

Years ago, Australia’s government looked out upon the waters, saw small boats filled with desperate people, declared them a crisis and installed a state of emergency. The State has tried everything, from detention and torture to offshore detention and torture to way offshore detention and torture, from places like Villawood Immigration Detention Centre to Nauru Regional Processing Centre to who knows what or where in Cambodia. The landscape is littered with rising piles of bodies, commission reports, and expressions of shock at the routine torture of women, children, and men. Lately increasing numbers of Australians have protested in favor of a more open policy, under the banner #LetThemStay. And so, over the weekend, the State tried a new sleight of hand, and declared the war is over, even though the fighting actually continues.

When challenged on the terms of “release”, Australia’s Immigration Minister explained, “We’ve been able to make a modification to the arrangement so the children aren’t detained, they can have friends over, they can go out into the community.” Pushed by reporters, he further explained, “The same definitions apply today as they did before. There are certain characteristics that need to be met in relation to all these definitions, but that’s all beltway stuff. They’re outside of ‘held detention’, so that’s the answer that I’ve provided to you before.” Still unsatisfied with the release that is not a release, reporters continued to seek clarification, and a spokesperson for the Minister complied, “There are arrangements that have been put in place. Those arrangements now sit with the fact that it’s community detention.” That kind of obfuscation is “stuff” that beltways are made of.

Here’s the situation in plain words: “Families with children in `held detention’ in the `family compound’ of Villawood detention centre were told by letter on Friday that their detention was now classified as `community detention’. They have been `released’ from detention without moving.”

On Saturday night, a nineteen-year-old woman attempted suicide. Others will follow. Today Australia’s Immigration Minister vowed to ship the families to Nauruand beyond. The bodies pile up, the lies grow more intricate and more brazen, the shame deepens, and people and words are made to disappear. Soon, if all goes according to plan, no one will care about words like democracy, freedom, decency, or humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Pacific Press / REX / Shutterstock)

Perception matters. Ask Australia’s women asylum seekers.

Recently, Geena Davis noted, “We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

Perceptions matter, and perceptions of those in control are typically sexist and racist, especially when the `tipping point’ is involved, when those in power feel the threat of a `new majority’. That’s why perception can’t be the motor for public policy and, even less, for the pursuit of justice, Take Australia … please.

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy has been deterrence. This has resulted in brutality, torture, horror, despair … and big profits for the private security corporations, most infamously Serco, who run the immigrant `detention’ and `transfer’ installations. With the shift in government over the past week, some wonder if anything will change in terms of Australia’s racist and sexist asylum policies.

If anything, it looks like they will get worse. Within hours of the new government’s installation, the new “de facto Immigration Minister” declared that most refugee applicants are “economic refugees”. There’s no evidence for that statement, but who needs evidence when `perception’ is on your side?

And what is the perception? The boats. The boats keep coming, and sinking. The refugees keep `swarming’. It’s a human tsunami bearing down on Australia. These images are merely part of the `ferocity’ of the anti-refugee anti-asylum-seeker discourse. Meanwhile, the women and children pile up in the `detention centers’. They’re prisons. Detention is too fine a word. Ask the children who go on hunger strike. Ask the 16-year-old Afghan boy who ended a five-day hunger strike yesterday. Why was he barreling towards his own death? He’s an unaccompanied child, in prison, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by every form of hostility, with no visible end in sight to his torment. Perhaps that’s the reason.

The treatment of asylum seekers, and in particular of women and children asylum seekers, has been a mounting succession of cruel jokes. Each step of the way, the asylum seeker’s vulnerability and precariousness are intensified.

But here’s the thing: Australia is not drowning in asylum-seekers. Pesky numbers keep denying the `perception’. Yes, the numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers are rising. Yes, the numbers coming by boat are, for the first time, exceeding those coming by plane. BUT Australia takes a very small percentage of the world’s refugees, around 3 percent. Officially, there are 30,083 refugees currently living in Australia. That means, if you consider the size of the country, Australia has one of the lowest rates in the industrialized world. Australia has 1.4 refugees per 1,000 people. Germany has 7.3; Canada has 4.7; the United Kingdom has 2.4. (The United States has .8.)

There is no flood. Australia can stop building sea walls, prison colonies, and worse. It can. But it won’t. Rather, the new government will opt to continue, and probably fortify, the “`hard bastard’ approach.” Perception matters, as does patriarchy.

 

(Photo Credit: AAP / Julian Smith)

We don’t burn children anymore. We send them to prison.

 

Monday, November 21, 2011, must have been Juvenile (In)Justice Day. Juvenile (In)Justice appeared everywhere, in the news.

In Kashmir, there’s juvenile (in)justice. Children charged with throwing stones are treated, formally, as terrorists. They can be jailed, caged, for up to two years without a trial. Children are placed in adult prisons, while awaiting trial and when convicted. And they will be convicted. Yes, there are laws that protect juveniles. But those laws don’t matter in a state of emergency. Children don’t matter in a state of emergency. They aren’t `juveniles’, and they aren’t `youth’. They’re children.

The state of emergency, the so-called public safety crisis, is always an alibi. States abuse children. In Kashmir, there’s juvenile (in)Justice, and the excuse is crisis. In Malawi, where there is no state of emergency, juvenile (in)justice is simply business as usual, the price of maintaining order. The law says children under 18 deserve special treatment and protection. In fact, children are tried in adult courts and then sent to overcrowded adult prisons. That is the rule of law… everywhere. Take children and maximize their vulnerability.

And then lie about it.

That’s what the United Kingdom has been doing, systematically lying about the abuse of children of asylum seekers and, worse, of asylum seeker children. Sexual abuse. Other forms of physical abuse. Psychological abuse. Spiritual abuse. Of course, there are no laws that address the crimes of breaking the spirit of a child. What’s going on in the United Kingdom is not `merely’ officials lying. It’s Official Lying. The State defines democracy by lying and then chants, “This is what democracy looks like.”

The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies, the priests lie. . . .
These lies mean that the country wants to die.”

And then finally, in the name of security, stability, sovereignty, and, of course, peace, the State, in this instance the United States, proposes a budget that would gorge on prisons and gouge youth of resources, of hope, of life itself. Again, the youth, the juveniles, they’re children.

Meanwhile, cities, like New York, work on plans to increase the use of solitary confinement. It’s called “punitive segregation”, and it preys in particular on `juveniles’, those prisoners living with mental disabilities, and those awaiting trial. Maximize vulnerability. It’s a kind of efficiency that brings education, mental health care, and justice itself to a screaming, screeching halt.

None of this is new or news, of course. The abuse of children in prison is systemic. In the United States, for example, photographer Richard Ross has been exposing juvenile (in)justice for years, and it’s everywhere. It’s the fabric of national democracy. It’s today’s version of burning children, as Robert Bly wrote, some four decades ago:

“But if one of those children came near that we have set on fire,
came toward you like a gray barn, walking,
you would howl like a wind tunnel in a hurricane,
you would tear at your shirt with blue hands,
you would drive over your own child’s wagon trying to back up,
the pupils of your eyes would go wild—

If a child came by burning, you would dance on a lawn,
trying to leap into the air, digging into your cheeks,
you would ram your head against the wall of your bedroom
like a bull penned too long in his moody pen—
If one of those children came toward me with both hands
in the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go back to my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours, screaming,
my vocal chords would turn blue, so would yours,
it would be two days before I could play with my own children again.”

The news Monday was this. We don’t burn children anymore. We send them to prison.

 

(Image Credit: Open Democracy)

 

Queen Nzinga haunts the `scales’ of Angola’s autonomy

 

Queen Nzinga refuses to sit on the floor

A week ago, November 10, 2011, Angola marked its 36th Independence Day since the proclamation of independence, November 10, 1975. So, how better to acknowledge the day than to focus on … Angola asylum seekers? By and large, the Western media paid no attention to Angola today, but then again what else is new.

The great exception was Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which sported a piece entitled, “The `Mauros’ who could not stay.” `Mauro’ is Mauro Manuel, an 18 year-old Angolan lad who was recently informed he could stay in the Netherlands, where he’s lived, with a foster family, for the last eight years. Mauro wasn’t given asylum, but, on Tuesday of this week, he was allowed a reprieve. The Dutch Parliament gave him a student visa. What happens next is up in the air.

The “other `Mauros’” are women.

Amalia is 17, Tucha is 19. Their father was killed, for political activities, and the older sister was raped. That’s when they fled Angola. They lived in the Netherlands for five years. Then, they were denied asylum and, after five years, shipped back to Angola. No matter that Amalia was 16 at the time, a minor. No matter that no one knows where their relatives are or even if they are. A year on, they still don’t know if their mother is dead or alive.

“At the other end of the scale”, according to RNI, is Engracia. 33 years old. Completed her education in the Netherlands, where she lived for 14 years. No political violence. Supported by middle class kin in Angola and the Dutch Refugee Council, who paid for her ticket back and gave her 2000 euros.

So that’s the RNI Angola Scale: weeping, terrorized, impoverished failed asylum seeking girl, on one end; successful, entrepreneurial woman, on the other. On one end, desperately poor and with no apparent means of securing income; on the other, `gifted’ handsomely, as a `returning refugee’, by the largesse of Europe.

Really? That’s the scale?

What about all those other women in Angola? What about the ones who organize, struggle, and keep on keeping on? Women like Teresa Quarta, chairwoman of the Association of Angolan Women and Sports (AMUD), who argued this week that women athletes is all fine and well, but Angola needs to attend to developing and supporting women sports managers. What about women like primary school Maria Emelia and Rosa Florinda, women who don’t deny that things are tough, that classes are overcrowded, that the country lacks sufficient numbers of trained teachers, that too many children are too hungry. Women teachers, across the country, who keep teaching, keep pushing, keep pulling. Factory workers, farmers and farm workers, nurses and doctors, women. Ordinary women. Women not defined by their encounter with the European state. Women defined as simply Angolan.

When they look for a model, when they look for a Queen, for example, they need not look to Queen Beatrix, of the Netherlands, nor to her mother, Queen Juliana. Instead, they could look closer to home. They could look to Queen Nzinga, Nzinga the Warrior Queen of the Ndongo and Matamba, that woman who overcame local structures, who defied and often defeated the Portuguese, who almost single handedly created a new state. Nzinga was not a saint, was not some pure or ideal woman. She cut deals. She allied with the Dutch against the Portuguese. She provided safe haven for runaway slaves while at the same time engaging in the slave trade. That’s life. “It’s complicated.”

Nzinga was not a heroine nor is she an icon. She was a leader. Nzinga led in war, peace, commerce, politics, and life. Nzinga was an Angolan woman who led Angolans into action. Nzinga was an Angolan woman, who presaged not only Angola’s national independence but also its national autonomy. Nzinga haunts the `scales’ of Angola, and Amalia, Tucha, Engracia, Teresa Quarta, Maria Emelia, Rosa Florinda, and so many others, are her descendants. Tell that as the story of Angolan independence.

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form and under different title, here http://africasacountry.com/2011/11/16/angolan-independence/

 

(Image of Queen Nzinga: Amazing Women in History)