Australia’s immigration minister has strongly defended his government’s policy of detaining asylum-seeker children in camps, saying it is “effective” in deterring others from boarding boats destined for its shores.
Scott Morrison, who was fronting an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in detention, said on Friday his country’s tough immigration policies were helping prevent asylum-seekers from dying during the perilous boat journey from Asia.
“I saw too many children die in the sea not to pursue the policies I am pursuing,” he said during a hearing that saw some heated exchanges over the camps’ conditions.
“The voiceless in this debate are the ones that are at the bottom of the ocean and who are in camps all around the world which I am now very pleased are getting places under our [immigration] programme.”
Earlier in the week, the minister said he expected to release some 150 children aged under 10 from mainland detention centres, as well as a “large number” of the 1,547 in community detention in Australia.
But children held on offshore facilities on Christmas Island and Nauru who arrived after July 19, 2013 are excluded under Australia’s tough immigration policy.
Under the policy, the asylum-seekers are prevented from being resettled in Australia regardless of whether they are judged to be genuine refugees.
They are instead kept at the offshore centres for processing or resettlement.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Naomi Sharp, said monthly data showed the average length of time children were detained in camps had tripled to 349 days since the current conservative government came to power in September.
Morrison blamed the opposition Labor Party and Greens for delays in processing refugee claims for the length of detention.
He also disputed remarks by the Commission’s president, Gillian Triggs, likening the camps to prisons.
When asked if he accepted that detention was “currently doing harm and damage to the children detained”, he said: “This is why I am keen to see as few children in detention as possible.”
Plagued by despair
The inquiry previously heard that children held on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, were plagued by despair and suffering symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a statement at the start of the hearing, Morrison said there was no decision he could take under his immigration portfolio that was “not free of moral burden”.
According to immigration figures ending July 2014, 588 children are in detention centres, including 148 on Christmas Island.
About 124 others are housed in residential or transit accommodation on the Australian mainland, while 183 are kept on Nauru.
Under the government’s hardline policy, only one boatload of asylum-seekers has reached the Australian mainland since December. Before this, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds of people dying en route.