I write from Australia, where the “refugee issue” has become an explosive and divisive factor in political debate. It is also one that is rarely informed by facts. When facts do appear in today’s information media, they are either ignored or quickly dismissed by the political elite, who need refugees to remain as invisible and unsympathetic as possible, while touting the fairness and humaneness of the nation’s immigration policy. Occasionally, there are stories that challenge this assumption. Recently, the Australian Four Corners program exposed the harmful impact on children’s health and education of Australia’s “Offshore detention” policy on the Pacific island of Nauru.
A less high-profile, but related, concern is the deportation or separation of refugee families because they have a disabled child. Australia’s immigration laws require all migrants to be screened for medical conditions, and to prove they will not be a “burden” on the community, specifically its health services. This affects children most of all, as costs are calculated over a lifetime.
Democracies have long excluded a long list of undesirables, with those considered to have mental or physical disabilities at the top. This didn’t change after World War Two, despite the sense of horror felt upon wider discovery of Nazism’s brutal policies of eugenics. But in the seven decades since, Australia has done little to change or ameliorate the restrictions directed towards disability in immigration policy. In 1957, when the Migration Act was amended to remove restrictions based on race, the health clause excluding people with disabilities remained. Today, despite the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Australian government has ensured that the Migration Act remain exempt from the Australian Disability Discrimination Act, making immigration one area of government policy quarantined from these instruments of tolerance.
The result of this is often that all able-bodied family members will receive permission to migrate to Australia, or gain permission to stay if they are already here, while a disabled child is refused. Families are either broken up or forced to leave. Public awareness of this issue is minimal, due in part of the secrecy that surrounds the formulation of migration criteria and policy, as well as the invisibility of refugees and asylum seekers often living on the margins of Australian society or out of sight in immigration detention centres, offshore processing centres and temporary community based arrangements.
The truly tragic dimensions of this issue were exposed most forcefully in the case of Sharaz Kiane (originally spelt Kayani). Kiane set himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in 2001 in protest against the Australian government’s refusal to allow his family to join him from Pakistan. He sought asylum in Australia in 1996, was granted a protection visa, and became a permanent resident. He took out Australian citizenship in 1999. The refusal seems to have been based on the fact his 10-year-old daughter, Annum, has disabilities and would require expensive medical treatment. Kiane died of his injuries. An Ombudsman’s report described the history of Kiane’s case as “one of administrative ineptitude and of broken promises”.
Lately, when the Australian media protest this policy, it is usually framed in terms of the economic contributions of the rest of the family. “Enamul Kabir is a doctor of mathematics and wife Siuly is a doctor of biomedical engineering”, notes one recent news report. “They both qualified in Australia, have lived and worked here for more than five years and paid taxes.” Their son, Srijon, was diagnosed with autism, which has meant the Kabirs now face deportation back to Bangladesh. The report emphasised the mildness of Srijor’s condition, the net value the parents bring as professionals and as taxpayers to the Australian community. Siuly’s qualification as a biomedical engineer “is also on the Australian government’s skills shortage list.”
Is it possible to imagine a world in which the contributions a child with autism might make could outweigh the costs that are calculated against them? Tyrone Sevilla’s friend, ten-year-old Ethan Egart, can. He voiced his protest on national television against the deportation of Tyrone and his mother, a nurse, back to the Philippines because of Tyrone’s diagnosis of autism. “On 27 April our government is going to deport a 10-year-old boy who is perfectly normal in every way,” Ethan said by video link on the ABC television program Q&A. “He can read and ride a bike, but he has autism. I went to after-school care with this boy and he can’t speak, but he can use sign language to communicate with us. If he can get along with us and we can get along with him, why does he have to leave?” His simple question demonstrated that, in fact, it was Ethan who benefitted as much from having Tyrone as a friend, as Tyrone did from being in Australia. Australia is enriched by having young people like these in our community.
The story of children left behind is not new. My article for History Workshop Journal is about families who gave up their disabled children, often under duress, in order to forge new lives overseas to countries like Australia, the United States and Canada in the period following World War Two. These families were the Displaced Persons, or DPs as they became known, mainly of eastern European origin, most of whom had survived Nazi concentration camps and forced labour schemes. The DP camps were a temporary measure established by the Allies in Germany, Austria and Italy. Their closure at the end of the 1940s was imminent. But emigration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of the various migration schemes, largely created to satisfy the labour demands of postwar economies. Physical fitness for manual work was the most important factor in assessing potential migrants for countries like Australia and Canada, making single, able-bodied men most desirable. In family units, dependents were not allowed to outnumber the breadwinners. Despite the proclaimed motives of rescue and humanitarianism towards Nazism’s victims, western migrant selection missions carefully checked each DP for any traces of physical or mental damage and excluded any who did not meet the strict health requirements of immigration.
Clearly this meant that many of the survivors of the concentration camps and Nazi forced labour were rejected, as well as the elderly and the handicapped. A mass check of more than 100,000 DPs in 1948, for example, revealed that half of them were still suffering from the effects of malnutrition and hardship. Children who were disabled were also categorically rejected, often forcing parents with other children to make drastic decisions. Moral pressure by Allied welfare workers to institutionalise disabled children also contributed to children being left behind in Europe by families who emigrated. While the break-up of families is a relatively well known consequence of Nazi Germany’s policies of forced labour, population transfers and liquidations, there has been far less recognition of the ways in which western governments furthered these separations through immigration policies that remained closely linked to eugenic ideas.
As I write, another family, the Baniks from Bangladesh, also 2 doctors with an autistic son, have had their application to stay in Australia approved, according to news reports. For two years the Baniks exhausted all other avenues against the rejection of their autistic son for permanent residency. Their only recourse was to appeal directly to the Immigration Minister to intervene on compassionate grounds. After a widespread public appeal, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton decided to let them stay. For a dozen or so families each year, however, without the resources of the Baniks, the outcome is less positive, and families or their disabled members are deported.
An irony in all of this is that while Australia is actively excluding those classified as a burden because of their disability, it is also actively disabling people by its policy of offshore detention. As has been widely documented, children detained in Australia’s remote offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus islands in the Pacific suffer the most in terms of psychological trauma and abuse. In August of this year, The Guardian released the Nauru files, more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from the detention camp written by guards, caseworkers and teachers. These detail over 1,086 incidents, more than half, of abuse involving children, including sexual assaults, physical assaults, self–harm and threatened self–harm. Amnesty International has just released its own report on Australia’s treatment of refugees in offshore detention, in which it described children bed-wetting, suffering from nightmares, and engaging in disruptive and other troubling behaviour, as well as openly speaking of wanting to end their lives.
The protection of children is often hailed as the strongest evidence of a civilised society. This claim cannot, at present, be held by Australia if its most vulnerable members, those who are children, those who are refugees, and those who might require first-world care because they are disabled, are being actively discriminated against in the name of an impoverished calculus of burden, cost and contribution. As an Australian, I say not in my name.
Ruth Balint is a senior lecturer in History at the University of New South Wales. She teaches and writes on transnational histories of migration, displacement, refugees and family, with a current focus on the Displaced Persons of postwar Europe. Her article ‘Children left Behind: Family, Refugees and Immigration in Postwar Europe’. appears in History Workshop Journal. She is the author of Troubled Waters: Borders, Boundaries and Possession in the Timor Sea (2005). Her film and radio documentaries most recently include The Somerton Man: A Mystery in Four Acts, for Australian ABC radio.