An opinion piece by David Shoebridge, originally published in the Newcastle Herald.
TEN billion dollars is a lot of money.
As it turns out, some corporations will do almost anything to access that kind of wealth, including the long-term mandatory detention of children seeking our country’s protection. Detention that we know will cause children irreparable psychological, and too often physical, injury. These are children, some of them infants, who have committed no crime and who have engaged in no illegal activity.
Ten billion dollars is the amount handed to contractors to implement the federal government’s mandatory detention policies since 2007. This is public money handed out by successive Labor and Liberal governments.
It includes more than $3billion to Serco Australia for running Australia’s immigration detention camps. Serco sanitises this arrangement by calling it payment for “facilities management and maintenance”.
Transfield Services has also had its hand out, taking more than $2.4billion for “Facilities Management and Welfare Services” at the Nauru and Manus Island detention camps.
There are plenty of other corporations profiteering from the plight of refugees, all funded by Commonwealth tax dollars.
We could ignore this as business as usual. We could assume that governments are doing what it takes to protect these children. The problem is that, despite repeated attempts by the Commonwealth to maintain secrecy, decent people who are caught up in this inhumane system keep speaking the truth.
We hear of children who are so damaged from their long-term detention that they will no longer speak. We know that children in these detention camps have been sexually abused. There are children who have deliberately harmed themselves and attempted to take their own lives. This damage will continue until they are released.
The ‘‘facilities’’ are tent cities and demountables behind security gates, with metal detectors and razor-wire. With indefinite detention there is no release date in sight.
In short, these facilities are worse than jails. These children aren’t being detained because they have committed a crime. It is not a crime to come, with or without your parents, and seek refuge in our country. It is not a crime for a child to come without travel papers. Yet these are the reasons children are being detained, and a very profitable business it is too.
Some might ask what’s wrong with making a profit from implementing a government policy. Why should contracting corporations to jail children raise alarm bells? The answer to this can be found in recent history.
For decades, people in positions of authority as well as members of the public were aware that faith-based, charitable and state-run institutions who had the responsibility to care for children were failing them. Many knew the truth of child abuse in various institutions. The damage being caused to these children is entirely comparable to the damage we know is now happening to children in detention camps. The children were vulnerable, often isolated and the power disparity meant any complaint was ignored, downplayed or disbelieved.
What distinguishes the past from the present? Well, we now know from the intimate and courageous testimony of thousands of adult survivors of child abuse that what we allow to happen to children can, and too often does, scar them for life.
The child abuse of today is the royal commission of tomorrow.
We also now know that even the institutions that (at times hypocritically) claimed to be motivated by a charitable purpose could not be trusted with the care of children. At least in the past the public had a veneer of faith that the charitable and social purposes of the organisations caring for vulnerable children would help protect them. The mission of the churches, charities and state-run institutions was not to profit from the care of the children but, at least on the surface, to provide for their spiritual and physical well-being.
We now know that this naive faith in the essential goodness of these institutions was misplaced.
But we do not even have a naive basis for faith in a soulless corporation.
If we can’t rely on the decency of not-for-profit organisations to look after the best interests of the children in their care, what on Earth are we doing handing over a fresh generation of children into the secretive, offshore care of for-profit corporations? There is a dreadful inevitability in this arrangement and the consequences are being played out before our eyes – shielded though they may be by government secrecy laws.
Politics is a hard business. Sometimes a sacrifice needs to be made for a long-term good. The government says these children need to be jailed to prevent other children being put at risk at sea. No one should accept this reasoning.
Children don’t have a voice and no public good, real or imagined, should ever be founded on the debasement of children. No one should be silent when our government is corporatising the institutional abuse of children.
It won’t end unless we make it end by acting together, regardless of our politics. Because protecting children is everyone’s business and no one should ever profit from a child’s abuse.