The report of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention provides compelling evidence of the need for Australia to cease the detention of children once and for all. Drawing on interviews in detention facilities with more than 1000 children and their parents, the report offers a deeply disturbing record of the harm inflicted on so many children by successive governments. 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 indefinite mass detention of children is a national disgrace for which both of Australia’s major political parties bear responsibility. Under the Rudd and Gillard Governments, record numbers of children were detained, reaching a peak of 1,992 in July 2013. Under the Abbott Government, hundreds of children have experienced prolonged detention, with the average time spent in detention rising from three months in August 2013 to more than 14 months in January 2015. In doing this, governments have ignored numerous reports, including from the Commission’s previous national inquiry in 2004, which have outlined detention’s shocking impacts on the mental health of children.
At the public hearings conducted as part of the inquiry, previous Ministers for Immigration Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison both acknowledged that the detention of children was not an effective mechanism for deterring boat arrivals or preventing deaths at sea.1 Without a clear policy purpose, it is bewildering that this deeply harmful and exorbitantly costly practice has continued for so long.
For more than a decade under successive governments, we have watched Australia’s detention policies go through the same cycle: people are kept in indefinite detention unnecessarily for prolonged periods until the human and financial costs of doing so become so high as to compel the Government to make greater use of community-based alternatives. It is high time that we put an end to this cycle.
Australia is the only country in the world to detain children as its first option. In the United Kingdom, for example, the number of children simultaneously in UK immigration detention over the past three years has not exceeded four, a tiny fraction of the number detained by Australia.2 The United Kingdom also has legislative limits on the detention of children which restrict the detention of families with children in pre-removal centres to a maximum of 72 hours, or seven days if authorised by the responsible minister.
Effective alternatives to detention already exist in Australia – and have done so for a decade. We urge the Australian Government to expand the use of these alternatives, ensure that they are used routinely for children and families and develop safe alternatives to detention for children now detained in Nauru.
We reject the argument that the welfare of asylum seeker children sent to Nauru is the sole responsibility of the Government of Nauru. The harm being inflicted on children detained there is a direct result of Australia’s actions. Australia was responsible for sending children and their families to Nauru against their will, in full knowledge that they would face prolonged indefinite detention. Australia remains responsible for funding the detention centre in Nauru; indeed, without Australia’s support, the centre would cease to operate.
After the Commission’s 2004 report into the detention of children, the Australian Government pledged that children would be detained only as a last resort. As the Commission’s new report clearly shows, such non-binding political promises are meaningless. We urge the Australian Parliament to: 1. Introduce legislation to prevent children from being detained for immigration purposes in the future. 2. End the offshore processing of asylum claims and return all asylum seekers currently subject to offshore processing to Australia, prioritising children and their families. 3. Refer allegations of child sexual abuse in Australian-funded detention centres to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has ruled, “the detention of a child because of their or their parent’s migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child.”3 So long as Australia continues to detain children as a measure of first rather than last resort; so long as our laws fail to protect children against prolonged indefinite detention; so long as any child remains in detention as a result of Australia’s actions, we will be failing in our duty to protect the best interests of children in our care.
We have comprehensive, consistent and irrefutable evidence of the harm caused by prolonged indefinite detention. We have practical, humane and effective solutions at our disposal. It’s time to end the detention of children once and for all. It’s time to stand up and say: never again.
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