12:43am Monday 14 October 2019

Needs of a child ignored in Malaysian asylum seeker deal: CSU Expert

Mr Neil Barber, a lecturer with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at CSU in Wagga Wagga, has come out against the proposal and warned of the child welfare risks its poses. 
CSU Media’s Emily Malone spoke with Mr Barber:
What do you think about the Australian government’s proposal to send asylum seekers who are unaccompanied children to Malaysia?
Careless is the word that comes to mind. It really seems that the Australian government is saying that it ‘cares less’ about these children and their situation and needs, than Australia’s need to achieve a domestic political fix, and ‘cares less’ about what might be the consequences for the children of sending them on to yet another country, which appears to have some ambivalence and far less material concern for the interest and status of these people generally, and then these children specifically. There is no sense in anything that has been released to date that Malaysia has been asked nor agreed to offer any greater security or support to these vulnerable young people.
What issues does the proposal raise?
It raises another significant question about the underlying moral judgement of Australian governments over time about their understanding and interest in the wellbeing of children both at home and overseas. There are parallels that can be drawn with the political rhetoric supporting the forced removal of Indigenous children, the shameful and abusive child migration schemes of the past. Critically, it challenges Australia’s commitment to being a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Clearly this arrangement appears to breach Article 22 of the Convention which requires party States to specifically provide or allow the provision of appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance to uphold their other rights under the Convention and other human rights charters. Importantly, while Malaysia is also a signatory to the Convention, it has not agreed to adopt all the main articles that Article 22 says must be supported.  
What are the potential impacts on these children?
The main issue facing children and young people in these situations is the lack of security and certainty about their safety, their material needs for food, clothing and shelter, the levels of which provided in refugee detention in Malaysia have been criticised by a number of human rights organisations concerned for refugees. Fundamentally, these concerns generate a perpetual level of anxiety that can provoke severe emotional and mental health problems. It is known this is the experience of living in detention centres in Australia. This means that the emotional atmospheres in these places are quite despairing, prone to volatility and therefore pose real threats to the safety and wellbeing of these children. Perversely at the same time as the Australian government is saying it will send these children into these environments in Malaysia it is trying to get children out of our own detention centres. 
What does the Australian government need to consider in making this decision?
There are more certain moral answers here than political ones. Children are not put into these situations easily. Invariably they have come from homelands that face great humanitarian challenges: war, famine, disaster, sheer overcrowding. You would generally only pay a person who profiteers in human traffic to get to another country out of a desperate hope that someone or some place will say “we will look after them/you”. There are other children in this world, who are sold into slavery and into other unimaginably cruel existences, and many of them are also refugees. The least helpful and the least moral thing the government can do is to either prolong or perpetuate the continuation of that risk. .
What are the implications when it comes to Australia’s international obligations in relation to protecting the rights of children?
It will obviously attract censure from the international Human Rights community. It perhaps reveals the thin veneer of Australia’s commitment to advancing the rights of children more broadly, in that if it is politically expedient or even politically controversial, then perhaps Australian governments will lack the fortitude to pursue a better world for children on any number of policy fronts. 
The Immigration Minister says he will review on a case by case basis. Is that enough assurance for you?
These children may well lack the language, information or bureaucratic detail that would enable the many advocates willing to argue their case to the Minister and the Department to make sufficient argument, compounded by the lack of transparency on what basis or criteria the Minister will apply to these determinations, especially if Article 22 of UNCRC is already in the trash bin. This is a fundamental problem with the issue of ministerial discretion – especially when it’s a fall back political position in the face of criticism. There is a lack of transparency and the process of review is likely to be protracted and further contribute to children uncertainty and insecurity.
What do you think would be a better solution?
The primary justification given by the Minister and Prime Minister and by the Opposition both now and when in office, (the political disagreement is over where to send them) is that the necessity of refusing asylum to refugees travelling by boat is to remove the incentive to pay “people smugglers”. If this is the primary concern, to eliminate people profiteering from refugees, then the better policy and service structure would be to invest in expediting the refugee assessment processes on and off shore. There is also substantial investment by the international community in gathering intelligence on people who traffic slaves and sex workers and refugees alike. What is less easily obtained is cooperation on interdicting these operations and prosecuting the people and organisations that draw the big profits from it (rarely the crews of the boats). However that is, of course, a highly political and economic challenge.  The basic premise of seeking asylum is to get to a safe place and ask for help. If these children make it here and ask for our help, let’s show we mean what our grand promises in these charters and conventions imply, and say yes.
Any other points you’d like to make?
The modern child protection and children’s rights movement grew out of concerned citizens in New York in 1874 acting to protect a girl from parental abuse using laws that prohibited cruelty to animals.  There has been great concern this week about the inhumane treatment of cattle sent from Australia to Indonesia for slaughter, and the comparison with the planned sending of refugees to Malaysia. There is a moral case here, and the government should heed it well.



Media Officer : Emily Malone
Telephone : 02 69332207

Media Note:

Mr Neil Barber lectures in child protection and welfare with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at CSU in Wagga Wagga. He is available for interview. Contact CSU Media.

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