By Minoli Perera
The Australian government’s policy of mandatory detention for boat-arriving asylum seekers has been characterised by commentators as a human rights violation. Under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) there is no time limit on detention and as a consequence asylum seekers are often detained for months and sometimes for years. The policy also makes no distinction between adults and children. The most recent statistics of the Department of Immigration and Border Force provides that as of 31 August 2015, there are 104 children held in closed immigration detention facilities in Australia and 93 children in the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru. There are also 405 children living in Australia in community detention. This is first hand evidence of Australia breaching its international obligations in respect of children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC).
By ratifying the CRC in 1990, Australia has accepted that it has special obligations towards all children within its jurisdiction. Article 22 (1) of CRC makes special reference to refugee children, stating that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that a child seeking refugee status must be given appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance. Article 37(b) of the CRC further provides that detention of children must be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. However, despite these international obligations and various promises made by successive governments, Australia continues to detain asylum seeking children behind razor wires, where they are forced to build their childhood memories.
A recent publication by the Australian Human Rights Commission has found that on Christmas Island, families live in converted shipping containers, the majority of which are 3 x 2.5 metres. Children are effectively confined to these rooms for many hours of the day as they are the only private spaces to provide respite from the heat. The report further provides compelling evidence on how prolonged immigration detention causes a high risk of mental distress and trauma to children. In fact, in October, doctors and nurses of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) held a public protest in support of a doctor’s decision not to discharge asylum seeking children who would be returned to immigration detention, on the basis that detention is contrary to the health needs of those children. The doctors participating in the protest claimed they have children with marks around their necks by attempting to self-harm and that there are children whose hair is falling out due to the trauma they are experiencing. Twenty-five years after Australia ratified the CRC, vulnerable groups of children in our care are being subjected to serous human rights violations. And yet, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s own words, ‘one child in detention is one child too many’.
Minoli Perera is a graduate of The University of London and she is currently studying a Master of Laws at La Trobe University.