Suffer the children

From the gallery of press there were audible laughs. Not because it was fun but because what was being said was so appalling, because language and decency were being so defiled in the hearing room of the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention. If it were not laughter, it would have been tears.

Martin Bowles, the immigration department secretary, was being asked about the 157 Tamils held for weeks in a customs hulk before their reluctant transfer to Curtin detention centre. It could not be said how many were children, or how many were babies. The department was, he said, still addressing “biodata”.

Already, the commission had heard that the department had suppressed figures relating to the poor mental health of children in detention – figures that showed 15 per cent of these children had symptoms of emotional distress deemed beyond “clinically significant”.

Already the commission had heard that children were stripped of their medication and of such things as glasses and hearing aids when they were detained, of a three-year-old child whose epilepsy drugs had been taken away.

It was put to Bowles that these conditions were deliberate, that it was the intention on Christmas Island to “break” the people detained there. “I am actually offended by these statements,” he said. “It attacks the professionalism of our staff.” 

Meanwhile, some 15 child asylum seekers are on the run – hiding out in the community for fear they might be forced into these centres of ill health and depression. They fled community detention in Adelaide when Scott Morrison, the minister for immigration and their legal guardian, arbitrarily revoked the freedoms of two of their friends, shipping them to detention in Darwin. They have since broken out, too.

The commission’s president, Professor Gillian Triggs, has reported that most of the children in detention are sick. She reported that children had regressed to bedwetting. In the past 15 reporting months, 128 incidents of self-harm had been recorded among child detainees, although that figure does not include self-harm on Nauru.

Elizabeth Elliott, a professor of paediatrics and child health, joined Triggs on her visit to the Christmas Island facility. She reported children suffering nightmares and flashbacks. Their speech had degenerated. Some were refusing to eat. Some were refusing to talk.

And still Morrison was unmoved. Particularly by Professor Triggs’s observations. “These are difficult environments and appropriate care is provided by our people,” he said. “I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been made. She herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there who provide that care on a daily basis.”

He will wait for the biodata. For the deaths.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "Suffer the children". Subscribe here.