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Australia's moral compass: child refugees

By Paul McDonald - posted Thursday, 18 August 2011

Under both Commonwealth and State law, a fundamental task of Government is to ensure the protection and care of all children and act in their 'best interests'. This is not a discretionary function but an important demonstration of a mature and moral society.

However, with the arrival of at least 14 unaccompanied minors since the signing of the Malaysian option, the Federal Government seem to be on the brink of forfeiting these responsibilities by sending children, now under their guardianship, to the perils and unknowns of a Malaysian refugee camp.

It's a contentious decision and one that has been taken to the High Court of Australia to decide if it falls within the laws of this country.


Regardless of the results of the upcoming hearing, the Federal Government now faces a real test of moral fibre. It is a potentially sour note after a rare showing of strength only a few short months ago.

Recently, Minister Bowen announced that the Government had met its promise to release many of the unaccompanied minors and families currently in detention in Australia as part of its 'community detention' program.

It heralded that on all measures the approach had been an outstanding success. The release of unaccompanied minors to 'community detention' has shown what a remarkable transformation is possible for these young people and has concurrently proved this option to be a financial 'no brainer' against the fiscal blackhole of the detention system.

Most importantly, it showed that a humane and sensible policy can co exist in the hothouse of border control policy.

Yet from such highs, the Government is in danger now of quickly descending to new policy lows if it does not show more poise on who goes to Malaysia and who doesn't.

The Prime Minister has indicated that neither the young, sick or old are exempt from the Malaysian option.


The Government defends its position by stating that the inclusion of unaccompanied minors will send a message of deterrence to people smugglers. If we don't do this, Bowen argues, they will 'fill the boats up' with such children. Yet unaccompanied minors make up only 5 per cent of total boat arrivals; hardly a critical mass on which to base a deterrence strategy this extreme.

Further, the Government argue they don't want to see more unaccompanied children putting themselves in danger by getting into leaky boats. Yet the Government, in its role as guardian to these children, is seemingly prepared to put them into comparable danger by sending them off to the unknowns of Malaysian refugee camps.

One would struggle to find another example of Federal Policy that sanctions the endangerment of children to deter adults from doing something. Under any state law, a similar type of behaviour from a guardian would have the child protection authorities rushing around and knocking on the door.

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About the Author

Paul McDonald is CEO of Anglicare Victoria.

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