We were all horrified to see children ripped from their parents’ arms at the US-Mexico border last month. Sadly, this kind of thing happens in Australia, too, under their mandatory detention policies. Thalia Kehoe Rowden talked to a human rights lawyer about one family that has been separated for the last three years.
Content note: distressing circumstances, including forced family separation and child sexual abuse.
You don’t have to be a parent yourself to understand how terrifying it must be for a family to be separated by force. How much worse if it comes after you have faced persecution in your home country, escaped, and survived a treacherous journey to a country you thought would be safe.
The United States government’s policy of separating parents and children who arrive at the US-Mexico border shocked the world. New Zealanders were so horrified at reports of children being taken from their parents for no sensible reason that they turned up by the hundreds at protests outside the US Embassy and Consulate and elsewhere.
It might be time to head to the Australian High Commission next.
Australian law firm Human Rights For All reminded the world last week that family separation is part of our closest neighbour’s immigration policy, too.
According to Alison Battisson, principal lawyer at Human Rights For All, ‘Ali’ (as we’re calling him) fled his home with his two young sons, six years ago. They came to Australia to seek refuge from persecution. Instead, they found abuse and family separation.
Under the United Nations Refugee Convention, everyone in the world has the right to do flee danger and seek asylum in another country. It’s legal to arrive in a country ‘without permission’, in order to ask for protection. There’s an internationally-agreed process that countries like Australia used to follow.
Now, they do things differently.
Under new Australian mandatory indefinite detention laws, in effect since 1992, Ali and his family were immediately detained while their claim for refugee status was investigated. This isn’t necessary, and has been condemned by the United Nations and human rights agencies. Governments of all parties have maintained these laws, with popular support from Australian citizens.
Two years later, while still in immigration detention and under the care of Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, both boys were sexually abused on multiple occasions. There are no allegations of abuse against their father or detention centre staff.
In response to the abuse, the Department of Home Affairs moved the family to another state, and separated the boys from their father, for no good reason. Everyone agreed the children should no longer be detained, but the government refused to release their father, so the children had to go into care. They’re in a group home, with shift workers as carers.
The boys are now 10 and 11, and they haven’t lived with their dad for three years.
Last week Ali was told the Department of Home Affairs is no longer going to provide funding for the boys’ care, and may make the children homeless. Alternatively the boys face being placed in foster care – yet another traumatic and unnecessary transition – unless an immediate decision is made to release Ali.
The family’s lawyer, Alison Battisson says, ‘the pain and suffering this family has suffered is immeasurable. First, the children were detained. They were then abused under the care of the Department. And now, the very Department that separated the children from Ali is abandoning them. It is unclear how the Department could act any worse.’
The UNHCR has recognised Ali and his sons as refugees. Australia has also recognised the family as being owed protection obligations. They are currently in Australia, so how hard can it be to release Ali and let the family heal and rebuild their lives?
Alison Battisson is very clear about what needs to happen next. Her message to the Australian government: ‘Release Ali and start correcting these wrongs.’
Here are some things you can do, whether you’re in Australia or not, to try and move the Australian government towards compassion and justice.
Encourage your Australian friends and family to phone government ministers and their members of parliament
Australian politicians think that their hardline policies are acceptable to Australian citizens, even when it means families are separated.
Tell them otherwise.
Here are contact details for all Australian representatives, and here are some ideas for what to say.
To urge for the release of ‘Ali’, whose name is not public, you can refer to the Human Rights for All client, a man who has been separated from his two sons.
Support organisations that are fighting the Australian government
Human Rights for All and the National Justice Project bring legal cases to try and enforce the human rights of detainees, especially to medical care in Australia. You can donate to Human Rights for All here and the National Justice Project here.
Mums 4 Refugees is also an advocacy organisation, working to change government policy and support asylum seekers in Australia and beyond. There is an Aotearoa branch whose members organised last week’s protests outside the US Embassy and Consulate – you can join here.
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