Australia: Plight of child refugees

Child refugees’ rights are trampled in Australian immigration detention.

Australian governments have denied child refugees humanitarian protection, writes Broom [AFP]

Ten years after Australia’s human rights commission found the country breached its international obligations towards children in immigration detention, a recently-announced new inquiry will find no change in the treatment of the most vulnerable of refugees.

Australian governments, with an international legal obligation as signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to act with the best interests of the child, including ensuring access to education and health services, and to only detain children when no other option is available, have denied child refugees humanitarian protection.

And the situation shows no sign of being turned around. On Sunday February 16, 10 unaccompanied children were sent to offshore detention on the remote Pacific island of Nauru by their legally-appointed guardian, the Australian immigration minister.

The human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs said she had to call the inquiry because the government will not co-operate in providing information about mental health and self-harm among the more than 1,600 children in detention.

Now the government has denied Professor Triggs access to the Nauru detention centre on the grounds it is out of her jurisdiction of Australia’s borders.

No justification

It is a blight on Australia’s humanitarian record that the inquiry needs to be held. You don’t need to be an expert in international conventions to see that Australia fails to treat child refugees humanely.

It is a blight on Australia’s humanitarian record that the inquiry needs to be held. You don’t need to be an expert in international conventions to see that Australia fails to treat child refugees humanely.

The practice of removing children from detention centres and placing them in residential community detention, a recommendation of the 2004 commission report, was begun by the Howard Government.

In October 2010 then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the residential programme would be expanded to balance Australia’s humanitarian obligations to refugees with its mandatory detention policy.

“This is especially important for children,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s office said, “for whom protracted detention can have negative impacts on their development and mental health.”

Despite the government’s own admission of the harm detention inflicts upon children, in August 2012, it announced offshore processing of asylum seekers, including children, would resume.

This decision, and the conditions children are living in, have drawn widespread criticism from international and domestic rights groups.

The 2004 review, which examined the conditions of children in detention from 1999-2002, found “Australian laws that require the mandatory immigration detention of children, and the way these laws were administered by the Commonwealth [government], have resulted in numerous and repeated breaches of the Convention”.

It found out that Australia’s detention system was “fundamentally inconsistent with the Convention”, not least because it is well-established that children held in long-term detention were at significant risk of serious mental harm. As at December 31, 83 per cent of asylum seekers had been detained for between three months and one year.

The new review will again examine whether Australia was meeting its obligations under the Convention, and whether there has been any progress since the previous inquiry.

As a result of the inquiry, the Howard Government made some alterations to the Migration Act, including the addition that ”a minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort.” But as the commissioner of that inquiry, Sev Ozdowski, noted in a 2008 lecture, this does nothing to prohibit the detention of children.

The first indicator, in which the commissioner will find that no progress has been made, is the increased number of children in detention. In 2002 there were about 700; as of December there were 1,144 in mainland and offshore detention and 462 in “alternative places of detention” – unofficial detention centres where children are still deprived of their liberty.

The review of the years 1999-2002 took in the period of the infamous Woomera Detention Centre. The centre, in the middle of the South Australian desert where daytime temperatures often reached 50C in summer, was the site of riots and hunger strikes where detainees sewed their mouths shut in protest at their treatment.

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A 2003 story on the ABC’s investigative Four Corners programme, aired a month after Woomera was closed, reported children standing witness as a man hanging from razor wire cut himself, while staff from the centre told stories of children being beaten and the alleged cover-up by centre management of the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old Iranian boy.

While it is almost unbelieveable that children were kept in such a place, it is similarly inconceivable that children would be sent to remote islands in the Pacific Ocean simply because they arrived, or attempted to arrive, in Australia by boat.

The horrors for children in detention have not disappeared simply because Woomera closed, they have merely moved location.

Australian detention centres are no place for children

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited Manus Island and Nauru late 2013 and found the harsh environments  – at both locations – were unsuitable for children. Of Nauru, the UN said no child, either unaccompanied or with their families, should be transferred there.

Amnesty International labels the practice of sending children to remote detention centres “despicable and undeniably illegal”. The organisation visited Nauru in late 2012 and found daytime temperatures exceeded 40C with 80 per cent humidity, making life in tents unbearable. It said the Australian government was ”failing spectacularly in its duty of care to asylum seekers”.

Meanwhile refugee advocate Pamela Curr has warned babies are at risk of death in such conditions, while it was reported three of six pregnant women transferred from Manus Island miscarried.

Currently no children are detained on Manus Island – a blessing as in recent days one man was killed, another was critically injured, a third was shot and 77 more men were injured, 13 seriously, in unclear circumstances during protests by detainees.

At last count there were 116 children on Nauru. And due to a lack of legislation prohibiting children being sent to Manus Island, it is only the whim of the government that keeps them free of that camp.

Children imprisoned on the mainland fare little better than those detained offshore – several of the mainland centres are managed by Serco, a company that also runs jails. According to one former Serco staff member, they are trained to prison standards.

Reports of children self-harming have come in from all corners of the detention network. An ombudsman’s report on suicide and self-harm found that immigration department and Serco statistics were inconsistent and poor quality, but what data they had showed child self-harm was at a ”concerning” level, making up almost 14 pe cent of all incidents.

An ABC news report revealed children at the Pontville detention centre (an “alternative place of detention”) have attempted suicide and self-harm.

“At 3am if you come here you will see people walking around like crazy because they can’t sleep,” one child said. “They are going crazy so people cut themselves.”

You don’t need to be a “bleeding-heart” to see that keeping children locked up indefinitely is a blatant contravention not just of international law, but of human decency. Jailing children in camps in the middle of phosphate mines on unbearably hot remote islands, with limited facilities to aid their development, is unnecessarily callous. It cannot be justified on grounds of conducting security checks or administering vaccinations.

These children Australia is holding prisoner come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – some of the most conflict-ravaged places in the world. More than any others, they deserve compassion and care, not cruelty.

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist. She previously reported on legal, political and multicultural issues for Australian newspapers.