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Australia's asylum-seeker policy in the dock

Lawsuit by 6-year-old girl, locked up for a year, reignites debate over indefinite detention of 'boat people'.

Last updated: 02 Sep 2014 07:01
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There are 876 children in detention centres, including 148 on Australia's controversial Christmas Island [EPA]

Melbourne, Australia - Australia's controversial policy of locking up asylum seekers is back in the spotlight with a six-year-old girl suing the government for negligence after being detained for more than a year at a remote detention centre.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in the Victorian Supreme Court on behalf of the girl known only as "AS", who can't be named for legal reasons.

Maurice Blackburn, the legal firm representing the child, alleged the government failed to provide an adequate standard of medical and general care to AS and other detainees at the centre on Christmas Island - an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean about 2,500km from the continent. It is seeking compensation as well as a court directive ordering the government to give proper care.

Lawyer Katie Robertson told Al Jazeera that AS is suffering both psychological and physical injuries from her time in detention.

"She is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, bed-wetting, stammering - which is believed to have stemmed from separation anxiety caused when her mother, who was pregnant, was taken to Darwin shortly after they arrived by boat.

She is a child who has already spent over a year of her childhood in a remote detention centre, over two-and-half thousand kilometres from the Australian mainland. It's extremely damaging.

- Katie Robertson, attorney

"She also had a dental infection that went on for about three months and we believe was not adequately addressed."

As a class-action lawsuit, the case is open to any asylum seeker who claims to have suffered injury or had an injury exacerbated by the authorities' failure to provide adequate care at the Christmas Island detention centre over the last three years, potentially opening up the government to thousands of compensation claims.

"You're dealing with a population that are in most cases arriving in Australia with fairly significant psychological problems from the persecution they fled, and then to be placing them in this further vulnerable situation is inexcusable," Robertson said. 

"Obviously monetary compensation can never adequately address what these people have gone through. If you think about AS, she is a child who has already spent over a year of her childhood in a remote detention centre, over two-and-half thousand kilometres from the Australian mainland. It's extremely damaging."

Desperate people

Thousands of asylum seekers who mostly come from Asia, the Middle East and East Africa have attempted to reach Australia in recent years looking for a better life. Many make the often-deadly journey on rickety human-trafficker boats from Indonesia.

Despite often being labelled "economic migrants", figures from the Immigration Department show 88 percent of asylum seekers who arrived by boat between 2012-13 were found to be genuine refugees. 

According to figures released this month by the Immigration Department, there are 876 children in detention with 148 at Christmas Island, and a further 1,547 in community detention.

Along with the federal government, one of the defendants named in the lawsuit includes Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison. A spokesperson for the minister told Al Jazeera, "As this matter is before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment further."

The lawsuit comes at a time of increasing attention and criticism of the government's treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia and offshore in neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Nauru

The Australian Human Rights Commission recently concluded a National Inquiry into Children in Detention with witness testimonies highlighting the lack of medical and psychiatric care.

A public hearing in July was told by health professionals there was a basic lack of medical supplies such as antibiotics and scalpels on Christmas Island. A child-protection worker on Nauru reported sanitation issues with the centre at times running out of soap, and a case of sexual assault against a 16-year-old boy by detention centre staff.

'Tipping point'

Lucy Morgan from the Refugee Council of Australia told Al Jazeera that information coming out of the inquiry built on a growing body of evidence about the harm of long-term detention, and "highlighted the urgency of removing children from those situations".

"The tipping point for mental health for an adult in detention can be from around three to six months, after that we see signs detention is having a significant impact on their mental health, such as depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and high stress levels.

"For children, they can begin to go downhill in a matter of weeks, so you can imagine the state of some of those children who have now been detained for over a year." 

Dr Peter Young was, for three years, the director of mental health for International Health and Medical Services - a private contractor that provided care at detention centres - until he recently quit.

He has said the immigration detention system used "suffering" as a method to apply "strong coercive pressure" on asylum seekers to abandon plans to live in Australia - a process he argued fulfilled the definition of torture.

This boat carrying about 150 suspected asylum seekers later capsized near Australia's Christmas Island in 2012 [Reuters]

Young also told the Human Rights Commission inquiry that the immigration department asked him to remove statistics on children self-harming from his reports.

Morrison denied claims that detention facilities were substandard, and objected to the commission's likening them to a prison. The minister also denied the allegation made by Young of a cover-up, saying there are "two-sets of versions" about what occurred.  

Stopping the boats

When Morrison fronted the inquiry, he said while having children in detention was harmful, offshore processing was "effective"in deterring others from boarding boats, and was one of an array of policies that had stopped the boats and saved lives at sea, including those of children.  

Tougher measures to stop the arrival of "boat people" or "illegal maritime arrivals", the terms commonly given to those who seek asylum after arriving by sea, was a key policy the conservative Liberal Party took to the federal election it won last year.

Since coming to office, the Liberals have introduced a policy of using the Australian Navy to forcibly turn back boats or place people in lifeboats that are sent back to Indonesia, where most sea journeys originate. 

This is coupled with the policy announced by the previous centre-left Labor government in July last year that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will not be settled in Australia after processing, and instead be settled by a third country, such as Papua New Guinea.

There should be a time limit for the length that anyone is kept in immigration detention, and particularly children. We know that the longer they are there, the more harm that is done.

- Sarah Hanson Young, Greens senator

The measures have effectively stopped the boats, however, many questioned the ongoing need to hold people in detention indefinitely, particularly children. Since the Liberals came to office in September, the time a person spends in detention has risen dramatically from an average of 115 days to 350 days as of June this year.

Morrison told the inquiry the government was committed to getting children out of detention as soon as possible. Last month, Morrison announced that children under 10, who arrived before the July cut off, would be released into community detention, however, those who arrived after July would face detention centres. 

'More harm done'

Senator Sarah Hanson Young from the Greens party told Al Jazeera the government must release all children from detention centres immediately.

"One of the first things the government needs to do is accept that detaining children is not an acceptable policy for the rest of its border-protection efforts. There is no evidence that suggests detaining children and their families is necessary.

"Beyond that, there should be a time limit for the length that anyone is kept in immigration detention, and particularly children. We know that the longer they are there, the more harm that is done."

Morgan, from the Australian Refugee Council, said the government has the mechanism currently in place to move children into community detention.

"At the end of the day, even if the [detention] services and the centres were state-of-the-art, you're providing services to people in the environment that's making them sick. What we have to be doing is getting people out of detention as soon as possible."

Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @jarniblakkarly

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Al Jazeera
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