The Morrison government is about to establish a royal commission into violence and abuse of people with a disability.
The aim is to have the terms of reference finalised before the
election. The disability area is a shared one, so the royal commission would be set up jointly with the states and territories.
As of late Wednesday, Queensland, Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Tasmania had agreed to the inquiry; Western Australia and the two territories are expected to do so soon.
Scott Morrison, campaigning in Tasmania, flagged a very extensive
scope for the commission.
“I think it will be a royal commission of a similar size and standing as what we saw with institutional child sexual abuse. Let’s remember that went for four years. It had five commissioners,” he said.
There is no cost for the royal commission as yet and the federal
government wants the other governments to contribute. The child sexual abuse commission cost about A$500 million; the banking inquiry was around $75 million; the aged care one is set to cost about $100 million.
The disability sector has been pressing for the inquiry. Greens
senator Jordon Steele-John, who has a disability, has been one of the loudest voices. The opposition has promised a royal commission, and earlier this month parliament passed a motion calling for one. The Coalition opposed that motion in the Senate but voted for it in the lower house.
In a letter to state and territory leaders Morrison said the scope of the inquiry being proposed by disabled people and advocates “is broad, including mainstream services that are regulated by state and territory governments such as health, mental health and education services provided prior to the establishment of the NDIS.
“The cooperation and support of state and territory governments is therefore essential”.
Morrison said he was seeking views from the states and territories on the “most appropriate consultation pathways to progress” the commission, including through the Council of Australian Governments. This process should also consider cost sharing. “I am also seeking views on options to undertake meaningful consultation with the disability sector, to ensure that the perspectives of people with disability are incorporated and they are provided with appropriate support”.
The opposition accused Morrison of haggling with the states over the funding of the royal commission, saying that “Labor committed to a separate, dedicated and fully federally funded royal commission in May 2017”.
Assistant Immigration Minister Alex Hawke recently intervened to allow a 16-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder, who had been ordered to leave Australia, to stay in the country.
Sumaya Bhuiyan had been living in Australia for eight years, but was rejected for permanent residency in 2013. Her mother, a practising doctor in Sydney, told newspapers the immigration department had found Sumaya’s “moderate developmental delay” would be a burden to taxpayers.
Hawke’s personal intervention followed media coverage of the situation and a change.org petition that received nearly 38,000 signatures.
This isn’t the first time a minister intervened to prevent deportation of a family who have a dependent with a disability. In 2015, a Bangladeshi couple – also two doctors – with an autistic son had their application to stay in Australia approved.
For two years the Banik family 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, Peter Dutton decided to let them stay.
Australia’s immigration laws require migrants to be screened for medical conditions. This is to prove they will not be a “burden” on the community, specifically its health services. Children are most affected by this policy, as costs are calculated over a lifetime.
For someone found to be “burdensome”, the outcome isn’t always as positive as for Sumaya and the Baniks. A dozen or so families or their disabled members are deported from Australia every year.
Democracies have a long history of excluding people deemed undesirable as migrants. Those considered to have mental or physical disabilities are targeted most forcefully.
Australia has done little to ameliorate restrictions on disability in immigration policy. This is despite a 2010 parliamentary inquiry into the issue that recommended several changes to loosen them.
Australia needs a modern migration health assessment, with scope to positively recognise individual or overall family contributions to Australia and that takes into consideration development of contemporary medicine and social attitudes.
This means immigration is effectively quarantined from these national and international human rights instruments. The result 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.
The public has little awareness of this issue, due in part to the secrecy surrounding the formulation of migration criteria and policy.
The truly tragic dimensions of the issue were exposed most forcefully in the case of Sharaz Kiane in 2001. Kiane set himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in protest of the government refusing him a visa. This seems to have been based on the fact his 10-year-old daughter had disabilities that required 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”.
A history of exclusion
My research has explored stories of families who gave up their disabled children in the period after the second world war. They often did this under duress to forge new lives in countries like Australia, the US and Canada.
They were known as Displaced Persons, mainly of eastern European origin. Most had survived Nazi concentration camps and forced labour schemes. Displaced Persons’ migration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of various migration schemes.
These were 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. Single, able-bodied men were therefore most desirable.
In family units, dependants were not allowed to outnumber breadwinners. Despite the proclaimed motives of rescue and humanitarianism towards Nazism’s victims, western migrant selection missions carefully checked each displaced person for traces of physical or mental damage. They excluded anyone who didn’t meet the strict requirements.
Many survivors of concentration camps and Nazi forced labour were rejected, as were the elderly and handicapped. A mass check of more than 100,000 displaced persons in 1948, for example, revealed 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 contributed to children being left behind in Europe by families who emigrated.
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 western governments furthered these separations through immigration policies that ignored postwar humanitarian ideals.
What now for Australia?
An irony is while Australia is actively excluding those classified as a burden because of their disability, it is disabling people by its policy of offshore detention.
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 – children who are refugees and 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.