Monday, October 10, 2011

There's a Whiff of Hypocrisy When It Comes to the Bali Teen

The incident of the Australian teenager locked up in Bali has shown how must be consistent in how we view the rights of children and young people,

That Indonesian authorities detain in a prison cell a 14-year-old Australian boy is appalling. He is a victim of the futile war on drugs that treats possession and use of drugs as a criminal justice issue, rather than a health and lifestyle issue which it clearly is.

But equally odious is Australia's detention of young Indonesian boys, who find themselves charged with people smuggling offences, particularly given that these boys are crew on ships and have no role in the organisation of the movement of people. It would be easier for the Gillard government and Australian diplomatic staff to take the moral and legal high ground if the latter were not the case.

Figures released recently by the Department of Immigration in response to a parliamentary question on notice show that in June 2010 there were 24 Indonesian minors held in detention, and as at July 31 2011 that figure was 35. It peaked earlier this year at 49. Unlike the young man in Bali who fortunately has his family and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd's frenetic, and the cynic might observe, politically-motivated lobbying efforts to support him, these young Indonesian boys have no one to help them cope with the horror that is being detained anywhere, let alone in a foreign country.

These young Indonesians are generally crew members of vessels carrying asylum seekers and who are intercepted by Australian Navy or Customs officials. They come from backgrounds of grinding poverty, speak little or no English, and have had none of the exposure to the world that the average Australian boy and girl will have had by the time they are in their teens.

The situation for these Indonesian detainees is dire. They suffer intense psychological harm, and possibly even physical harm, from being detained in a foreign country thousands of miles from their families and communities and facing a very uncertain future.

Scandalously some of those Indonesian boys have been housed in adult prisons in Australia. Queensland barrister Mark Plunkett revealed earlier this year that this was the case in Brisbane where Indonesian minors were being housed with offenders who had long criminal histories. One of the reasons that this has been occurring is because investigative authorities in Australia have been using an antiquated technique, measuring wrist bones, to determine a person's age.

On June 17 this year, after media exposure and advocacy from lawyers, three young Indonesian boys, two aged 16 and the other 15, were released from a Brisbane adult prison where they had been detained for 14 months.

The Australian government did not bother to tell the boy's parents that their son was being detained in Australia. Lindsay Murdoch reported in The Age on June 14 this year that no "Australian official has informed family members that the boys are being held in an Australian jail." Murdoch's story quoted Albert Lani, the father of one of the boys, as saying everyone thought the "three boys went fishing one day and never returned ... we thought they had been lost at sea." One can only begin to imagine the anguish and suffering this blithe indifference on the part of the Australian government caused these parents.

Australia then is on thin moral and legal ice when it comes to 'rescuing' its own youth from Indonesian detention given that the Federal Police appear to routinely lock up Indonesian youths who simply happened to be on a boat carrying people fleeing persecution. Both Indonesia and Australia are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the former has signed with reservations. The Convention clearly says that detention of a child is a last resort, should be for the shortest possible time and that the best interests of the child must govern and underpin any decision to detain.

Neither country is complying with the Convention and that should concern any person who believes that children and young people are inherently vulnerable and in need of protection, not severe forms of punishment which scar for life. It is arguable that Australia as a rich developed world country should be even more conscious of the need to comply with the Convention.

Is it too much to hope that Australians, saturated as we have been by media attention on the plight of a 14-year-old boy on holidays with his parents in Bali, will demand that the Gillard government and the opposition pledge to remove young Indonesians, and any other person under the age of 17, from detention immediately. We must be consistent in how we view the rights of children and young people.
By Greg Barns barrister and National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance The Sydney Morning Herald Opinion

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