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Desperately seeking asylum
  1. I D Wacogne
  1. Dr Wacogne was on secondment at the Royal Children's Hospital, Brisbane for two years and is now a locum consultant in general paediatrics at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK

Statistics from

Opening the newspaper you read about a nation holding 2700 people in detention without trial. Of these, 600 are children, and of these, 50 are children not accompanied by a member of their family. Amnesty International alleges that staff refer to inmates by number instead of name, that solitary confinement is used as punishment even for children, and that tear gas is used without discrimination to quell disturbances.

The year is 2002, the month January and the country, not some pariah state where these sorts of statistics provoke a sigh and the thought “Oh no, not again”, but Australia. The people are the illegal immigrants.

The camps are private facilities, run by a company called Australian Correctional Management, itself a division of the American company Wackenhut Correctional Corp. Enclosed by razor wire, the camps are in some of Australia's most inhospitable spots. The other side of the wire is desert with daytime temperature far in excess of body temperature, prompting children to ask a visiting child psychiatrist “Doesn't Australia have flowers?”.

The Australian Government is proud of its record on accepting immigrants—and certainly for a relatively small population it accepts a fairly large number of refugees. But it is with the illegal immigrants—and the government view that this is an issue of internal politics—where the controversy lies. The electorate, for the most part, are behind the government on this issue. In the November 2001 Australian general election, Prime Minister John Howard, who until an immigration crisis involving the MV Tampa had been very low in the opinion polls, was returned to power with a reasonable majority. Most commentators agree that this election was won and lost on the issue of immigration. Interestingly, this was not because the opposition disagreed with government policy, since it did not. Time and again the opposition was nearly indecently eager to endorse the government view, and in doing so seeming to take its political lead from them.

There is one Australian view which holds that Australia is a country isolated in the middle of Asia, and that any weakness in immigration policy will open the floodgates. There is another view, most frequently expressed by the founder of the One Nation political party, Pauline Hanson, which holds that this has already begun. One Nation polled well in the 1998 General Election—the Australian electoral system giving small but significant clout to the lesser parties. It did much less well in 2001, and there is yet another view which suggests that this is because the views of One Nation were, by this time, being adequately expressed by the mainstream political parties.

Words are powerful things—a fact too easily undermined by the over frequent use of that old cliché about the pen and the sword. Politicians are extremely familiar with this power. They use phrases like “illegal immigrant” or “queue jumper”—referring to the government insistence that for each “illegal” given refugee status, they will accept one less via legal channels. The media—some of it, at least—takes up these phrases, and they are heard repeated in tea rooms and taxis. These, instead of the differently evocative “desperate refugees”, “fleeing families”, or even “children”. As a letter writer in a newspaper cleverly asked with respect to the queue jumpers: “Where is the queue to escape a burning building?”. This writer, along with newspaper columnist Phillip Adams were, for me, an bedrock of sanity in the confusion I felt trying to reconcile this cold hearted attitude with the genuine warmth of character and generosity I found to be an essential feature of nearly every Australian I met. The Australian view that they live in the Lucky Country, and that everyone deserves a Fair Go are parts of the national mantra, but something was amiss here.

The Australian Government says that 80% of the detainees get a primary decision on their status within 15 weeks of incarceration. Amnesty International reckons the average detention time to be eight months. In any case, some 80% of those detained are eventually found to be genuine refugees. In the meantime, it is hard to decide which is more distressing: children on hunger strikes, self mutilating, and threatening suicide; or the radio shock-jock saying that he didn't mind the hunger strikes because this was saving him, a tax payer, the cost of paying for their food.

The physical isolation of Australia from much of the developed world means that they don't have a very clear appreciation of how the rest of the world perceives them—either positively or negatively. This helps to reinforce their opinion that the rest of the world doesn't understand their special circumstances. The question that the rest of the world needs to ask, and to keep on asking, is: “What special circumstances make it reasonable to imprison a child?”.

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