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)

Pregnant women refugees Maryam and Tahere refuse Australia’s prisons

Maryam and Tahere, two Iranian women, each heavily into the eight month of pregnancy, are spending a third night on a bus outside the Wickham Point Detention Centre, in the blistering heat of Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, Australia’s refugee detention capital. They refuse to get off the bus and subject themselves to the indignities of the Australian prison system. Their story is the latest chapter in Australia’s shameful trade in refugees and asylum seekers.

Maryam and Tahere are Iranians who, with their families, have spent the last fifteen months in detention on Nauru. The Australian government found them to be `credible’ refugees, and so were “resettled” within Nauruan communities earlier this year. When their pregnancies turned out to be too complex for the hospital on Nauru, they were flown to Australia … where they were put on a bus headed for the detention center. Their families offered to pay for a motel in the area, and the authorities refused. Apparently, the women are more valuable as `guests of the State’ than on their own. And so the women said, “Enough. No more. No!” They refused to leave the bus and enter, or better re-enter, confinement.

No good news comes from inside the walls of Wickham Point. At the beginning of the year, it was the focus of a campaign protesting the humiliating treatment of women asylum seekers and refugees. The treatment of asylum seekers in Wickham Point is often called dehumanizing, inhumane and shameful, and each report highlights the particular indignities that women are forced to undergo. Suicides, such as that of Haidar Ali Ikhtiyar last year, and self harm, such as that of the 17-year-old woman asylum seeker who jumped from a second story window three months ago, are regular features at Wickham.

Maryam and Tahere may or may not know the details of what’s been transpiring at Wickham Point, but they know. They know it’s a bad place. They know they deserve better. And so they have said, “Either take me to a hospital here or ship me back to Nauru. Better a hellhole than this.” They know. They know that the desperate one here is the State, desperate to incarcerate and cage by any and all means. And they say, loudly and clearly, No!

No good news comes from inside the walls of Wickham Point Detention Centre, but perhaps something like good news will come from outside the walls, the news of women’s refusal and of women’s insistence on their dignity.

 

(Photo Credit: Refugee Action Coalition)

War against the refugees, madness, madness, war

The news today presents the two faces of a spinning coin. On one side, the direct war against asylum seekers. On the other side, the structural war against asylum seekers. Spin the coin, and the two become one.

On a morning talk show today, Australia’s Prime Minister was asked about the varieties of silence and secrecy that mark the State’s campaign against boat people reaching Australia. Boats have been secretly towed to Indonesia, according to some reports. Reporters are routinely denied access to immigration prisons. The Prime Minister’s response is telling: “The public want the boats stopped and that’s really what they want – that’s really my determination. If stopping the boats means being criticised because I’m not giving information that would be of use to people smugglers, so be it. We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

When it comes to the immigration centers, the Prime Minister continued his line of reasoning: “I am confident that we are running these centres competently and humanely … Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong. We don’t apologise for the fact that they are not five star or even three star hotels. Nevertheless, we are confident that we are well and truly discharging our humanitarian obligations. People are housed, they’re clothed, they’re fed, they’re given medical attention, they’re kept as safe as we can make it for them, but we want them to go back to the country from which they came. That’s what we want.”

The public wants, we want, war. Under the new campaign, Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia militarized its refugee practices, policies and policing agencies. In permanent of border protection, all’s fair, and no need to discuss justice. It’s about winning the fierce contest. The Prime Minister bristles with military `confidence’.

On the other side of the world, the British government today received a report from its National Audit Office. The report, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, suggests, in detail, that the `confidence’ placed in private corporations that house asylum seekers was, at best, misplaced.

COMPASS stands for Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support. As always, this outsourcing was meant to save the government money. In March 2012, the government contracted three companies: G4S, Serco and Clearel. From the beginning, Clearel seemed to meet its contractual obligations, and complaints from residents were far and few between. G4S and Serco, on the other hand, started poorly and continued in that vein. This is not surprising, given that neither Serco nor G4S had any experience in housing asylum seekers. They knew how to detain them, how to put them in cages and throw away the keys, as the Yarl’s Wood experiences have shown. But they had never actually housed asylum seekers in communities. So … how did they get the contracts?

Confidence.

The two largest outsourcing and private security corporations in the world exuded confidence. The State felt confident as well. And now, two years later, they’re failing, and the government wants to recover £7m, and that’s just for starters.

Sometimes the housing was substandard, other times the processes were inhumane. With little to no prior warning and absolutely no consultation, women and children, in particular, found themselves shunted from one side of the country to another. Women asylum seekers also reported that staff would carry out unannounced property visits. Sometimes staff would enter into the house or apartment without even knocking. Some women asylum seekers reported these intrusions “made them feel unsafe.” The majority of women asylum seekers in England, as everywhere, are fleeing sexual violence, more often than not from partners or community members, and are single. None of that mattered to the staff; they had their jobs to do.

When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, only confidence counts. The State has confidence in itself and in its contracted confreres. In the Australian and the British cases, this confidence is intensified by the racial/ethnic dynamic of White majority governments declaring war on individuals and populations, and in particular women and children, of color.

Where once the situation was “war amongs’ the rebels, madness, madness, war”, today the song sung with confidence is “war against the refugees, madness, madness, war.”

 

(Photo Credit: AAP/Scott Fisher)

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)

Migrants: We are all children of migrants

 

Saturday, 5th of March 2011.

Yarl’s Wood continues.

The women behind the fences are saying something about their children, but it is difficult to hear what exactly.  They seem to be shouting something about their right to stay with their children.  Perhaps they are referring to the effects of recent policy changes.

In October, a case was brought forth on behalf of two single mothers and their children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers after dawn raids on their homes earlier in the year. In December 2010, in response, the government `signaled’ its intention to bring to an end children’s detention. This included closure of the ‘family unit’ at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and the suspension of children’s detention in any immigration facility over the Christmas period.

In January 2011, a court decision established that the detention of some families, including children in Yarl’s Wood, was unlawful. This decision required the government to bring to an immediate end the detention of children in immigration removal centers. The immediate response from the Home Office was that the detention of families ‘would be kept to a minimum’, while officials drew up ‘alternative arrangements’ to ‘protect the welfare of children without undermining immigration law’.

We demonstrated outside Yarl’s Wood partly to denounce the government’s ‘skillful’ use of publicity about ‘ending the detention of children’ as a way of avoiding talking about the brutal and inhumane detention regime in general. But even among some of the civil society groups that have specifically supported the end of children detention, suspicions remain concerning the government’s version of  “alternatives” to child detention. While the plan does not include any concrete improvement in terms of early access to legal aid for refugee applicants, it does mention the establishment of ‘new family conferences’. These would ‘draw in lawyers, social workers and others’, with the aim of providing ‘realistic advice to people who had been refused refugee status on what their options were’. For those who would not accept voluntary repatriation “it would be necessary to detain them in ‘secure accommodation’ for periods of around 72 hours to ensure that their departure could be enforced’.

Migrant Rights Network argues that the ideas of ‘family conferences’ and a new ‘independent family review panel’ is dangerous.  It is quite easy to imagine that the large-scale detention of families with young children will be simply reproduced in a new form.  Furthermore, these family conferences risk turning exactly those social workers and other experts who should support migrants’ children and vulnerable adults’ welfare in their communities, into immigration control functions. Those who used to work for migrants in our communities will be absorbed into the machine of control and detention, ultimately ‘advocating’ ‘voluntary’ return and deportation.

The rhetoric of the UK government around the economic recession legitimizes increasingly restrictive policies against migrants. This then naturalizes chauvinistic and militaristic approaches towards the ‘management’ of immigration as part of the ‘big society’ discourse about having to ‘share’ the consequences of the economic downturn. Of course, `they’ must pay more than `us’. The politics of racism and gender discrimination are fully at play in this era of mobility restrictions and economic austerity.

Walking back from the fences we discuss the contradiction of today’s migration politics and how grassroots groups should respond to it in practice. Yes, we will probably have to support migrant’s individual demands for regularization but cannot afford to support the whole policy/ing logic based on the continuous differentiation of migrants, the production of multiple divisions, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the more and the ‘less vulnerable’, those who ‘deserve’ integration and those who do not, or simply the right to access that which seems to become an ever increasingly ‘precious good’, conceded by national governments in Europe,  that is, the status of ‘legality’.

Many women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood have worked and toiled in this county already for many years. They are fluent in English. They have kids here. Here they have built their lives. This makes us particularly angry and astonished in front of the injustice of their detention, but it does not change the unconditionality of our claim: freedom of movement for all. Everyone, independent off period of stay and status, whether escaping poverty or war, environmental disaster or political persecution, gender or racial oppression, has the right to freedom of movement, and freedom to stay and search for a new life. After all, as we would remind the small group of police engaged in their performance of ‘protecting’ the prison from us, we are all the children of migrants.

 

(Photo Credit: womenagainstrape.net)

The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt Australia

Seena weeps at the funeral of an eight-month-old baby, drowned on the rocks of Christmas Island

On Wednesday, December 15, 2010, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror. Some of the dead were fished out of the rough seas. Others were never found. Estimates suggest that 50 people perished that day.

The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island. Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’.

Yesterday, Tuesday, February 15, 2011, two months to the day, eight of the dead were buried in two separate funerals in Sydney. Twenty-one survivors were flown in from Christmas Island and Perth, where they have been detained for the last two months.

Among those survivors was a nine-year old boy named Seena.

Seena lost both of his parents in the tragedy. Seena’s brother drowned that day as well. His father’s body was fished out of the waters. His mother was never found. Seena spends every day staring and waiting for new boats to arrive, for his mother to arrive. At the funeral, Seena said, “Leave me alone. I just want to go to my father. I just want to see him, I just want to see him.” According to one cousin, he wanted to be “buried with his father”.

Seena is nine years old. He has cousins, aunts and uncles, who live in Sydney. They have begged the State to let the child stay in Sydney, where he has an extended family network, where there are mental health providers ready to attend to him. “We are more than happy to take responsibility for him,” his cousin explains.

They are more than happy to take responsibility.

The State however is not happy to take responsibility for this nine year old child. The State initially planned to ship him back, with the others, back to Christmas Island, back to isolation, back to desolation, back to endless and daily waiting for his mother to arrive. If Seena is returned to Christmas Island, who will take care of him? His aunt, who is also a prisoner there. His aunt, who is in even worse psychological condition than he is.

Tonight, Seena is at Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre, outside of Sydney, … again. Seena spent the day before his father’s funeral in Villawood. When ten relatives came to see him, his spirits lifted. Seena is a nine-year old child. Of course, seeing his relatives cheered him up.

Seena is meant to be flown back to Christmas Island tomorrow, Thursday, morning. Perhaps he has been, perhaps not. The State now says it will consider the family’s request.

What does it take for the nation-State to be happy, more than happy, to take responsibility for the children in its midst?

Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, in part:

“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment….Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”

Australia ratified that ConventIon in December 1990, twenty years almost to the day of Seena losing his family and being sent to Christmas Island. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history. If there is anything like a global consensus, it is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And yet … protecting, securing and sustaining the rights of the child and the rights of children is viewed as a bureaucratic obligation. Which nation-State is more than happy to take responsibility for the child?

Seena is nine years old. Seenah haunts Australia. The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt the world.

 

(Photo Credit: Sydney Morning Herald / Getty Images)

 

The human faces of asylum seekers haunt Australia

Two months ago, it was reported that Australia was preparing for an uptick of children in detention mutilating themselves. At the time, there were around 700 children. These children `in detention’ are imprisoned asylum seekers and migrant children, and children of asylum seekers and migrants.

Two months later, almost to the day, on Wednesday, December 15, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror.

The dead were fished out of the rough seas. The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island.

Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’. The event is now commonly referred to, in the news media, as `the asylum-seeker boat tragedy.’ The Prime Minister said the full death toll may never be known. She was more right than she knew.

This is not the first time Australia has confronted an asylum-seeker boat tragedy. In 2001, there was the infamous Children Overboard affair.

On October 7, 2001, a fishing boat, the Olong, was filled with asylum seekers and headed for Christmas Island when it was caught by the HMAS Adelaide, north of Christmas Island. Under orders from the government, the warship fired warning shots, boarded several times, and finally forced the boat to turn back. The boat was old, battered, and overloaded, with over 200 people on board. The engines failed. The Adelaide took the boat in tow, and waited for instructions from the government. Then the boat literally began to fall apart and sink. Parents held their children in the air, to alert the navy of their presence on board. There were 53 children on board the Olong. The then Prime Minister John Howard claimed the parents were throwing their children overboard. They were not. The evidence from the Australian Navy showed, immediately, they were not throwing their children overboard. But the claim was out there, in the air. Refugees and asylum seekers were somehow less than human.

This most recent asylum-seeker boat tragedy is said to have put a human face on the `asylum issue’. Here’s how Nick Clegg, of the BBC, describes the situation: “Australia’s asylum seeker debate is often conducted as if the people heading for its shores were an abstraction, with the term “boat people” almost shorn of its human meaning. With such harrowing images from Christmas Island broadcast on early evening news shows – which only 24 hours earlier had dwelt more happily on the visit to Sydney of Oprah Winfrey – millions of Australians would have seen the anguished faces of those seeking to reach its shores, and witnessed the lengths to which they would go to get there. Put simply, it was shockingly real….Whatever its outcome, after the tragedy on Christmas Island the debate has a human face.”

Others had a similar response: “In Australia, perhaps for the first time, the disaster gave the asylum-seeker issue a human face. Not even those who dismiss boat people as “queue-jumpers” could have failed to be moved by footage of men, women and children screaming for help as their vessel was dashed to bits.”

The asylum-seeker debate, or situation, now has a human face. Prime Minister Gilliard says there will be no repeat of the children overboard affair in dealing with the situation. She says as well that the full death count will never be known. In a nation in a world in which human beings must sew their lips together, must mutilate themselves, must perish in the rough seas in order to be endowed with a human face, where does one begin to measure the full extent of the death count? The human faces of asylum seekers – not the asylum seeker debate nor the asylum seeker situation – haunt Australia and the world.

 

(Photo Credit: Australia Human Rights Commission)