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During wars and civil conflict it is children who suffer most. They are at the greatest risk of abuse, displacement, injury and death. For survivors the ill-effects can be lifelong and passed on to later generations. One of the worst outcomes long-term is the interruption of generation-to-generation transmission of the social behaviour that is normal and life-sustaining in peaceful families and communities.

In New Zealand the effects of the clashes between Maori and European settlers, and the displacement and impoverishment of many Maori has had such an effect. Among other things, Maori children are more likely to be in care and to be ill-treated. These are features of loss of the cultural blueprint that informs family relationships and keeps family members safe.

Preservation of this cultural blueprint which, in its essence varies little between peoples, is of the utmost importance. Its loss is a tragedy. Maori families and communities are not alone in their loss. Other New Zealanders have had the continuity of their own social inheritance of how to conduct family and community life disrupted by the dispersal of family members and the separation of generations for one reason and another.

Restoration of a cultural blueprint for civil family and community life is the key to mental health and family violence prevention. It is not easy because its natural transmission is an imperceptibly gradual process of modelling, observation and positive feedback among family and community members based on an accepted code of behaviour. Separation from the culture and having only remnants of its model of values, attitudes and day-to-day transactions makes it harder.

Knitting together positive patterns of interaction among family and community members is a painstaking task in which many community organisations and individuals are engaged. So it is with dismay we hear of the deliberate imposition, in the Australian Government’s detention centres on Nauru and elsewhere, of processes that are bound to have the opposite effect. On top of the trauma and separation from cultural roots the people in the camps have suffered, they are in limbo. It has been made clear by the government that the term of their detention is ‘indefinite’. The extinction of a hope of resolution is inhumane and a recipe for rage and despair.

It is a vicious irony that at the same time as child abuse is being institutionalised in the detention centres its institutionalisation elsewhere in Australia is being demolished through the policies that will flow from their Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse at present drafting its final report on redress and civil litigation. If we are to have countries where humanity flourishes not only must the constructive processes be nurtured and protected, but the destructive processes identified and ended.

BLOG: An open letter to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, Australia regarding children in Australian Commonwealth Government detention centres

War, Colonisation and Detention Centres

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