Government agencies are particularly fastidious when it comes to approving guardians for children whose parents are unable to look after them.
You have to jump through more hoops than a circus pony.
For someone to be appointed the legal guardian for a child, there are some basic requirements:
You need to demonstrate that you have the child’s interest at heart.
You must also demonstrate that you are willing and able to provide for the child’s social, cultural, emotional and educational needs.
Under current Australian law, Minister Chris Bowen is the guardian for unaccompanied minors who apply for asylum in Australia. He has a duty of care to those children. But how well is he shaping up in that capacity? Is he protecting them and providing for these fundamental needs? The answer is manifestly ‘no’. Australia is the only country in the Western world where detention is mandatory for adults and children seeking asylum for the duration of their processing by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.
The Australian Medical Association recently reiterated the position developed under my Presidency, with the current President Dr Steve Hambleton making it abundantly clear how the medical profession here views the situation:
“These are damaged people desperately seeking a new life in this country. They are often fleeing diabolical situations in their home country. They are well acquainted with fear and danger and desperation. Some of them have been through torture, some have physical health problems, and many will have experienced mental health pressures. Children are particularly vulnerable and the detention environment places enormous stress on them. Children often witness behavioural and psychological distress in adults, including their parents. They see violence and self-harm and they experience separation from family members. Unaccompanied children should never be placed in detention centres.”
No ambiguity there!
My colleagues visiting the Darwin immigration detention centre report children under ten years of age attempting self-harm and children as young as four and five being part of hunger strikes. As I see it, the current system of protecting children in detention, with or without their parents, is inherently flawed. Actually, the concepts of ‘child protection’ and ‘children in detention’ are oxymoronic.
Here is where I see the problem. The Federal Government puts the Immigration Minister in charge of making it unappealing to get on a boat and head to Australia to seek asylum, and then makes him also responsible for ensuring the welfare of the children who arrive and are detained in conditions which will harm them.
Got that? The same person has to make conditions on arrival appear too horrible for asylum seekers to want to head this way; but then he is also responsible for ensuring the conditions for children are optimal for their social, cultural and educational development.
It is an unresolvable paradox.
So again I ask. Is the Minister protecting children who arrive as asylum seekers and providing for their fundamental needs?
You only need to look at the example of the now-scuttled plan to send unaccompanied children to an uncertain destiny in Malaysia. It was nothing short of culpable.
The actions of Minister Chris Bowen on behalf of the Australian Government, if applied to any other prospective legal guardian, would automatically disqualify him. But he is in an impossible situation. He cannot reasonably be expected to satisfy what his government and his portfolio demand of him.
The responsibility for the care and protection of these vulnerable children must be completely separated from the political manoeuvrings around the vexed issue of border protection.
Guardianship of children seeking asylum needs to be taken out of the hands of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and placed in the care of an independent but accountable agency capable of delivering fundamental human rights to this vulnerable group.
It should be an organisation able to demonstrate that they have the children’s interest at heart and are willing and able to provide for their social, cultural, emotional and educational needs.
And it should be done as a matter of urgency.
Is the Immigration Minister the right asylum seeker child guardian? If not, who should be?
Professor Kerryn Phelps is the former federal President of the Australian Medical Association and the current President of the Australian Integrative Medical Association and practising GP. Kerryn is also a social commentator and prominent LGBTI rights advocate. She’s a mum of three. You can follow her on Twitter here.