How much are you paying for child abuse?
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I don’t remember being asked to pay for child abuse

If you know me well, you know that the human rights issue of the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia is something I care deeply about. It’s one thing to read daily about the ongoing crisis, with more and more reports of child abuse, mental illness and self-harm. But it’s quite another to realise that it’s being funded by our tax dollars.

I’ve written letters to politicians before about offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, and how it’s — well — pretty bad on any level. And I also know it’s pretty much useless writing letters. So my cynicism is at an all-time high.

But something different happened just now: I just received a tax bill I have to pay (fair enough), along with a notional breakdown of where my personal tax was spent, over the last 2 financial years. And oh look, there’s an amount there for Immigration: $1,261.00. It’s probably much the same for you too. Yes I know this is generalised and notional, but it’s significant enough that they’ve put a dollar cost to it. That’s $1,261.00 funding a state-sponsored campaign of child abuse, secrecy, and (given we pay $1.1 billion/year for those detention centres) financial irresponsibility.

Did I pay my tax bill? Nearly all of it. I want to pay all the tax I owe, believe me. But in showing me where my dollars are being spent, the government is inviting a conversation on this. I don’t know about you, but it’s unconscionable for me to contribute to these disgusting and illegal acts of child abuse and assault with my tax dollars, and I cannot pay that $1,261.00.

So here’s my latest letter:

JUST ADDED: It’s just been announced today that Nauru will process all asylum seekers in its detention centre ‘within the next week’. This is indeed good news, but this announcement pops out of the blue just days before a legal challenge examining the lawfulness of our government’s role in offshore detention on Nauru starts.

Dear Minister,

TAX CONTRIBUTION SPENT ON IMMIGRATION

I am writing to explain why I can’t pay all of the tax I am currently owing, and to ask you to please stop the current treatment of asylum seekers under your governance through Wilson Security and Transfield Services.

I have just received notification of tax I owe (via my accountant), and I have made a corresponding EFT (BPAY) payment. For reference: Biller code 75556, ref. #########, paid ######.

I have also received two letters (via my accountant), with Australian Government letterhead and a breakdown of how my tax was spent in 2013-14 and 2014-15 (attachments A & B). These letters detail that for both years together, $1,261.00 of my tax was spent on Immigration.

I am a law-abiding citizen, I believe in the parliamentary, taxation and legal systems we have, and I firmly state that I want to pay all tax that I owe to contribute to the responsible running of Australia. But I cannot in good conscience contribute my tax to what the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has spent in these past 2 financial years.

Minister: In this time, your government has outsourced the detention of asylum seekers to Wilson Security and Transfield Services (Transfield), on Nauru and Manus Island. Employees amongst this company and its subcontractors have enacted intolerable acts of cruelty on people being detained. Amongst recent reports and figures:

Even putting aside these heinous acts, it is financially irresponsible as well:

In addition, you have been fiddling with legislation to try to maintain this regime of cruelty:

What makes this even worse is that not only have you known about the extent of crimes against those detained, but you haven’t done anything about it. Indeed, you have tried to silence those who seek to raise awareness:

You (and the previous Minister for your department) have not been seen by the Australian community to work with local authorities to properly investigate these crimes, no-one has been charged, and you have shown no reasonable leadership in rectifying this situation. As it stands, your contract with Transfield Services is still in effect. Communities under your governance have been taking notice and taking a stand as a result. Again, amongst the mounting number of communities of all kinds protesting:

HESTA sold its 3.5% stake in Transfield Services over its treatment of asylum seekers

Back in February 2014, The Australian Lawyers Alliance said: “Following reports of beatings, escapes, and serious injury, including attacks with machetes, the Australian Lawyers Alliance highlighted that Australia has a duty to asylum seekers which appears to be in gross breach.” They also go on to state:

No matter what misery and denial of their humanity that asylum seekers are exposed to in detention centres flung around the Pacific, the fact is that there is nowhere Australia can run from its international obligations. Australia will be held accountable in a court of law.

Minister: it is unconscionable for me to contribute to these disgusting and illegal acts of child abuse and assault with my tax dollars, and I cannot pay this portion. I know that the figures are generalised and largely notional, but the point and principle remains: Australian tax payers are funding the state-sponsored abuse of adults and children. And I cannot be a part of that.

Would you please respond to the following questions:

  1. When will you cease the contract with Transfield Services and its associated partners?
  2. If not immediately, what is actually more important than the lives of men, women and children, the appropriate and legal spending of tax revenue, even Australia’s international reputation, that you would still be delaying?
  3. It is now abundantly clear to both the domestic and international communities that Australian offshore processing of asylum seekers does not work and is unsustainable. What action will you take to cease this practice?

In your response, please do not mention:

  • That is a complex issue, and so on. I know it is, and I and my fellow tax payers are trusting you and your department to have all the facts — much more so than what you let on publicly, hopefully — and are trusting you to do better.
  • That it’s about border protection, security, stopping boats, all that distracting palaver. I have had several correspondences with Hon. Philip Ruddock on this matter. I wish I had a reply from an earlier letter to your previous incumbent Hon. Scott Morrison, but I never received a reply. My point is this: this has nothing to do with stopping boats and border protection. This has everything to do with people who are already here, and under your care. Please do not conflate a human rights issue with a border policy issue.
  • That it’s the previous government’s fault. In these matters, I don’t actually care what party is or has been in power. I know that it was the Gillard government that enacted offshore processing in the first place. I would like to park any political rhetoric, and make it about current policy and action.

Once I receive your reply, and if it eases my conscience, I will happily pay the remainder of my tax owing.

Yours faithfully,

Ben Crothers

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A disappointing response from Philip Ruddock, plus my response

Last week I wrote to several politicians asking them to basically stop locking up asylum seeker kids. The good news is I got a response from my local member, Philip Ruddock. The bad news is that it could not have been more disappointing.

Here’s a PDF of his response. The cynics among you will of course roll your eyes, tsk tsk and think “Well, what did you expect?” Don’t get me wrong, I certainly didn’t expect that the government would repent, compensate the detention centre inmates, and make other amends. I did expect my questions to at least be addressed.

I was even prepared for a bit of a templated letter. But what has really incensed me is that he stated the complete opposite of what I asked: to please help separate the issue of the treatment of people already in our national care (especially children) from the issues of turning back boats. In short, the ‘fight against people smugglers’ should not be taken out on children.

Just like the last post, here’s the text of my response, in case anyone finds it useful:

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RE: APPALLING CRIMINAL TREATMENT OF CHILDREN IN DETENTION

Dear Mr Ruddock,

Thank you for your recent letter, I appreciated the prompt response. Although I don’t agree with your own position nor that of the Coalition Government, I still respect the work you’ve done for years in this area.

But you didn’t address my questions. I’ll restate them in a more pointed way: what will and your office do to work more urgently with the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection and his department to:

  • Separate the issues of the treatment of people – especially children – in our national care from the legal issues surrounding asylum seeker treatment?
  • Change the agenda and public conversation (through the media and other means) from one of legalese, fear and poverty of spirit to be more of compassion, creative thinking and leadership, and opportunity?

If anything, you expressed the opposite of what I asked: you’ve conflated the issue of fighting people smugglers with the issue of maltreatment of children in detention. They should not be related like that.

They are not illegal, and referring to them as a three-letter acronym is inhumane

Firstly, I and many others, including organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and Refugee Council of Australia dispute the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s terminology of ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’. It is not a crime to enter Australia without authorisation for the purpose of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation.

As I’m sure you’re very aware, Article 31 of the Refugee Convention clearly states that refugees should not be penalised for arriving without valid travel documents. What may be considered an illegal action under normal circumstances (e.g. entering a country without a visa) should not, according to the Convention, be considered illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

And your Coalition Government is certainly not in a position to label people ‘illegal’, considering the recent event of (as Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Spokesperson Graeme McGregor put it) handing over Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy. This “would be in serious breach of the principle of non-refoulement, risking returning potential refugees to torture and death at the hands of their persecutors.“*

Also, framing asylum seekers as ‘IMAs’ is dehumanising, creates barriers to the community understanding the issues affecting asylum seekers, and confusion that can fuel conflict, resentment and disharmony.

To your point about health, security and checks to be undertaken: the Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary Report published by DIBP states “The average period of time for people held in detention facilities is steadily increasing to 305 days as at 30 April 2014.” 18% are held for over a year.

Over a year, Mr Ruddock.

In the US (the top receiving country of asylum seekers per capita in the past five years), cases must take no longer than 180 days of an application being filed. Sixty days is normal. Other countries like UK and Denmark don’t even detain asylum seekers; they can live normal lives while their claims are processed.

To your point about it being in the best interests for the children to remain with their parents: that statement is completely empty of reason when child self-harm is “shockingly high” and parents are prepared to sacrifice themselves to give their children a better life.

To your point about not taking a backward step in the fight against people smugglers: that has simply nothing to do with locking up children for over a year. And taking such a ‘fight’ out on children is amoral and unconscionable.

Furthermore, I simply do not believe that “all efforts are made to ensure detention of children is a last resort and for the shortest possible period”. The number of detainees and the duration of their detention has only increased in the last 10 years (according to AHRC reports), and this chart from the aforementioned DIBP report shows the steepest climb has been since your government has been in power:

chart-daysindetention

 

 

 

 

 

So, my questions to you remain: what will and your office do to work more urgently with the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection and his department to:

  • Separate the issues of the treatment of people – especially children – in our national care from the legal issues surrounding asylum seeker treatment?
  • Change the agenda and public conversation (through the media and other means) from one of legalese, fear and poverty of spirit to be more of compassion, creative thinking and leadership, and opportunity?

 

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Why are over 1000 kids still in detention?

Recent moves by Scott Morrison (the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), as well as ongoing cruelty to children in detention have bugged me hugely for a long time. So I wrote a bunch of letters to politicians on the weekend. And I thought I’d put the letter in this post, because this is something you might have wanted to try but needed a nudge.

Scott Morrison has gone from publishing the much-slammed Big Brother go-back-to-where-you-came-from video, to spending our money playing legal word-games in several courts, to actively keeping us in the dark about what the government knows and doesn’t know about boats.

Only this week, the secretive action continues, with Sri Lankan refugees being turned back to face ‘enhanced imprisonment’, something that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has termed “piracy on the high seas”.

I’ve had enough

But what really gets me is the blind eye and inaction on the child abuse going on in these detention centres, and that we’re flouting international law and doing nothing about it. And I’ve really had a gut-full. And there’s loads of organisations who have had a gut-full too, and who are working in the community to agitate for change. Organisations such as Love Makes A Way,  Chilout and End Immigration Detention of Children.

So I wrote letters

If you’re wanting to go beyond clicktivism, and civil disobedience isn’t for you, I have it on good authority that writing letters to your local member and to the MP in charge of the portfolio does help agitate for change (I’m married to someone who used to work in a parliamentary office, so she should know ;).

Here’s what I wrote to The Hon Scott Morrison, if it helps you craft your own letter:

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APPALLING CRIMINAL TREATMENT OF CHILDREN IN DETENTION MUST STOP

I, like many of my friends, community members, church members and work colleagues, are feeling increasingly disturbed and dismayed at Federal Government policy – and the implementation of that policy – toward treatment of asylum seekers. I’m trying to keep this letter from being too broad and hyperbolic, so I’m focusing particularly on the facts and specifics about the treatment of children in detention.

Put simply: children are being detained for longer than ever in a completely inappropriate environment, being denied decent healthcare, and (in some cases) are suffering sexual abuse for so long, that they have suicidal thoughts, are suffering mental illness, and are harming themselves.

Last time I checked, there were 1,106 children kept in detention. Chilout (the child asylum seeker support organisation) quotes 1,023. Current data shows that the average length of time a child spent in detention in Australia was 231 days, with 38 children having spent more than a year in detention as of January this year.

Professor Gillian Triggs (President of the Australian Human Rights Commission) at a recent public hearing day of the national inquiry into children in immigration detention, said “One of our greatest concerns is that children are being held for significantly greater periods of time than has been the case in the past, and that leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance.”

Australia is currently in contravention of three separate international conventions (United Nations treaties) of which it is a signatory:

  • Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37 – “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily.”
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 – “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”
  • Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 31 – “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization.”

From the associated UNHCR Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers (PDF): “Minors who are asylum-seekers should not be detained”.

There were 128 reported self-harm incidents amongst children in detention between January 2013 and March this year. Children account for the “greatest percentage” of self-harm incidents and suicidal behaviour by asylum seekers in detention.

I echo the statement by Sophie Peer (of Chilout), that Australia’s immigration detention system is child abuse, and nothing short of that.

Minister, children are suffering and harming themselves because of the impact of your government’s policies, and the reckless implementation of those policies.

This is toxic. This is cruel. This is morally, politically, and legally wrong. And it has gone on long enough.

My questions to you and your department:

  • What are you doing to hasten the process and effect of the current inquiries into the treatment of people in detention? What actions do you expect to be taken after these inquiries? And what actions can be done now to alleviate these conditions? Children should not have to wait so long under these conditions for better treatment.
  • What are you doing to ensure that the implementation of policy, care and due diligence toward detainees is done properly, and not handed out to completely inappropriate third parties? This is a symptom of what Prof. Triggs has called the “element of bureaucratic cruelty” that erodes the otherwise good and compassionate work that your department is trying to do.

And on a more positive note:

  • How can we help? Whether you realise it or not, many of us see this whole situation as a great opportunity for Australia, one where we as a nation can lead with different thinking and different solutions. I for one want to be a part of that. You have taken the national conversation into a purely legal word-smithing territory, whereas we the nation need the conversation to be about opportunities and ideas. Even your own team mate Malcolm Turnbull said “I don’t think any of us are entirely comfortable with any policies relating to border protection.”

In your response, please provide specific answers to my questions. Please don’t write things like “It’s a complex matter”; I know it is complex. But I also know that stopping children from being locked up and providing decent care is certainly not complex.

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I also wrote letters to my own local member (you can find yours here), Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Prime Minister, and the Labor candidate for my electorate. Hope this letter is useful as a template to someone else out there.