ChilOut's Unfinished Business


As I listened to our beautiful 18-year-old ChilOut Ambassador, Nahid Karimi, speaking at the Sydney launch of New Matilda’s Human Rights Act Campaign about the suicide attempts she witnessed during her eight months detention at Port Hedland, I yet again felt a surge of anger that we as a society could ever have accepted the arbitrary, indefinite detention of children.

ChilOut’s thousands of members have railed for almost four years at the inhumane practices of the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), ACM (the privatised Australasian Correctional Management) and latterly GSL (Global Solutions Limited, which has now taken over from ACM). Children and families have, thankfully, been released from behind the razor wire, but there are still many questions to be answered, and further changes to be brought about.

You will find within the ranks of refugee advocacy groups many who will welcome the advent of New Matilda’s Human Rights Act Campaign. For years we have been calling for Australia to pay more than lip service to the various human rights instruments we have willingly signed. We particularly want the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights ratified into our domestic law. If a Human Rights Act can help achieve this, it is a welcome development.

It may now be widely accepted in the community that children should neither be detained nor removed from their parents (possibly two of the more abhorrent legalised human rights abuses we allowed to be perpetrated against children in recent generations), but this has not come without a campaign.

What change has been affected is the culmination of enormous effort on the part of many groups, community and church leaders, health professionals, journalists, conscientious MPs, and thousands upon thousands of caring people, whose sense of justice compelled them to keep going in the face of apathy, prejudice and deliberate misinformation from the government.

Slowly, slowly we all ground away. We had to galvanise ordinary people to communicate to their parliamentarians that this practice was unacceptable, or convince their local councils to become ‘Refugee Friendly’.

The change, when it did come, came the only way it could in today’s political arena: through the good offices of a handful of Liberal backbenchers. They were prepared to stand up for their principles and threatened to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to dismantle the unconscionable practice of mandatory detention of innocent children and their families.

However, we are far from winning the fight on refugees. The law has not been changed to prevent this happening again. Our legislation is still in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children are still being detained, albeit in the community, and there are no safeguards to prevent the razor wire or electric fencing being raised around children again.

The recent Palmer and Comrie Reports highlight the lack of accountability in DIMIA and should raise widespread concerns about the power of the Executive to detain – anybody. Not only should a series of checks and balances be introduced as a matter of urgency, a framework should be put in place to ensure no maverick piece of legislation can ever so routinely contravene basic human rights again.

The need for vigilance concerning Human Rights is now stronger than ever. A climate of widespread fear is being cultivated. While people are generally aware that the proposed anti-terror legislation will erode human rights, it is a price many are prepared to pay for greater (perceived) security. However, once lost, the likelihood of ever getting those rights back is negligible.

It will be a long and rocky road but we welcome the initiative of New Matilda’s Human Rights Act for Australia and wish the campaign team all the commitment, sticking power and influence necessary to effect a change so desperately needed.

To echo the sentiments of Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski, when he launched his May 2004 report into children in detention, and again in his press release when children moved into community detention at the end of July 2005: ‘Let no child who arrives in Australia ever suffer under this system again.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.