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Issue #1673      February 18, 2015

The Forgotten Children

“My hope finished now. I don’t have any hope. I feel I will die in detention.” The words of an unaccompanied 17-year-old in the Phosphate Hill Detention Centre, Christmas Island (March 4, 2014). Just one of many expressions of mental anguish of crushed and traumatised children held in arbitrary and indefinite detention quoted in the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014.

A drawing by a child in the Christmas Island detention centre in 2014. (Supplied: Australian Human Rights Commission)

“The overarching finding of the Inquiry is that the prolonged, mandatory detention of asylum seeker children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays, in breach of Australia’s international obligations,” HRC president Professor Gillian Triggs says in the Foreword to the Report.

The Report, released by the government on Wednesday February 11, calls for a Royal Commission into the detention of children under Labor and Coalition governments since 1992, when mandatory detention became policy.

When the HRC began its inquiry, there were 1,138 children in detention. Today there are still 330 children, with 119 of them being held indefinitely on Nauru.

According to departmental figures for children over a 15-month period from 2013-2014, there were:

  • 33 assaults involving children
  • 128 incidents of actual self-harm (12-17 years of age)
  • 171 incidents of threatened self-harm
  • 33 incidents of reported sexual assault (the majority involving children)
  • 27 incidents of voluntary starvation/hunger strikes.

(Suicide attempts are not recorded separately!)

In addition they have witnessed violence, self-harm and suicide by adults and bullying, abuse and other punitive actions by the private guards.

Unheard voices

“I left my country because there was a war and I wanted freedom. I left my country. I came to have a better future, not to sit in a prison. If I remain in this prison, I will not have a good future. I came to become a good man in the future to help poor people ... I am tired of life. I cannot wait much longer. What will happen to us? What are we guilty of? What have we done to be imprisoned?” asks a 13-year-old child in the Blaydin Detention Centre, Darwin (12 April 2014)

“I’m just a kid, I haven’t done anything wrong. They are putting me in a jail. We can’t talk with Australian people,” the child adds.

Many children described instances of significant trauma that occurred before they arrived in Australia. For some, the difficult or terrifying boat journey to Australia from Indonesia compounded the horrors that they experienced in their home country.

“My father and brother were killed. I saw death on the way here. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be”, one unaccompanied child on Christmas Island told the Inquiry.

A mother of children aged 6 months, 8 and 11 years in the Melbourne Detention Centre, who had made three suicide attempts, reported that she had thoughts of harming her children.

How could anyone not be moved by these other children quoted in the Report.

Since the release of the Report, more than 200 Australian organisations and community groups have combined to sign a joint statement calling all members of the Australian Parliament to take action to end the detention of children once and for all.

“The Government, Opposition and all members of the Australian Parliament must take immediate action to ensure that all children are released from Australian-funded detention centres, in Australia and Nauru, and to ensure that these policies are never repeated,” the statement says.

The report is primarily based on interviews with 1,233 children and their parents in detention facilities and the Australian community. The team, led by HRC president Triggs, was accompanied by highly qualified and experienced child psychiatrists, paediatricians and other experts. They visited 11 detention centres including Christmas Island but were denied access to Nauru.

In July 2014, the 56 school-age children detained on the Christmas Island were provided with regular education with a new school. It is funded by the WA government and run by the Catholic Education Office despite the fact many, if not most of the children are Muslim.

Breach of International law

The Report provides a heart-wrenching and deeply disturbing record of the harm inflicted on so many children by successive Labor and the Coalition governments. It is not a political document. Its focus is on the treatment of and its impact on children in detention.

It proves with a solid body of evidence that “the laws, policies and practices of Labor and Coalition Governments are in serious breach of the rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

“Australia is unique in its treatment of asylum seeker children. No other country mandates the closed and indefinite detention of children when they arrive on our shores,” the Report notes.

“No country in the world, especially not comparable countries such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US, mandates the indefinite detention of children as the first policy option and then denies them effective access to the courts to challenge the necessity of their detention over months and even years,” Commissioner Triggs said.

Demands

The Commission’s main aims were to tell the stories of “the forgotten children” and “to ensure that ‘never again’ will refugee children be detained in such numbers or for such a length of time or in such damaging conditions.” Its specific recommendations include that:

  • all children and their families in detention in Australia and Nauru be released as soon as practicable and that on their release they be given the medical and educational support they need in the future
  • legislation to be enacted ensuring that children may be detained only for health, identity and security checks within a strictly limited period
  • an independent guardian should be appointed for unaccompanied children as the Minister “has failed in his responsibility to act in their best interests”
  • a Royal Commission be set up to examine the continued use of the 1992 policy of mandatory detention, the use of force by the Commonwealth against children in detention and allegations of sexual assault against these children and to consider remedies for breach of the Commonwealth’s duty of care to detained children.

“It’s a depressing read, replete with stories of children crying themselves to sleep at night, illustrated with children’s drawings of bars, tears and upturned faces, and containing testimony from expert paediatricians that the physical, mental and emotional harm being done to children may in many cases be irreversible,” Professor Nick Talley, president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians said.

“In short, it shows successive governments have clearly failed to uphold their duty of care towards an extremely vulnerable group of people that has no voice to defend itself, and in so doing have breached the United Nation’s International Convention for the Rights of the Child.”

Political

“As the medical evidence has mounted over the last eight months of the Inquiry, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the policy of both Labor and Coalition Governments. Both the Hon Chris Bowen MP, as a former Minister for Immigration, and the Hon Scott Morrison MP, the current Minister for Immigration, agreed on oath before the Inquiry that holding children in detention does not deter either asylum seekers or people smugglers. No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has been offered,” the Commission says. (Since the time of writing Scott Morrison has been replaced by Peter Dutton.)

In the lead-up to the release of the Report and since, the Murdoch media and government have vented their spleens on the HRC and Gillian Triggs. According to media reports there was even an attempt to persuade her to resign!

Instead of responding to the report’s alarming content, the government continued its attack on the Commission and its president. “The Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself,” PM Tony Abbott said. The report is “blatantly partisan political exercise.” He was either lying or hadn’t a clue what the report said.

Labor in many respects comes off worse than the Coalition and should hang its head in shame.

“I reckon the Human Rights Commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison saying well done, mate,” Abbott went on. When asked if he felt any guilt about the children still in detention, Abbott, showing no evidence of his self-professed Christian values saying: “None whatsoever.”

The Abbott government should stop playing politics with the lives and futures of children whose only “crime” is to seek our assistance and fully adopt the Report’s recommendations.

The Refugee Action Coalition calls for all the immediate closure of Nauru and for all children and their families and for all asylum seekers and refugees to be brought to the mainland, and allowed to live and work in the community.

Commissioner Trigg ends on a personal note:

“Leading this Inquiry has been a life changing experience for me. Although I have been a lawyer for 46 years this Inquiry has taught me how important it is to respect the dignity of every human being and how vulnerable the rule of law can be to abuse, even in a mature democracy like Australia’s ...

“The practice of locking up children taints all of us and is contrary to those values we admire in the Australian spirit; a generous hearted welcome to those needing our protection and a fair go. I appeal for a more humane and legally responsible approach to refugees who seek our help.”

Guardian readers are urged to read the report and lobby Coalition, Labor, PUP and independent MPs for immediate action on the Report. The Greens already have a strong commitment on this issue. The full report can be found on the Human Rights Commission website (www.humanrights.gov.au)

Next article – Editorial – A renewable or radioactive future

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