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New report reveal alarming impact of detention on children

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

[Check against delivery]

Thank you for joining us today.

Over a year ago, the Australian Human Rights Commission produced The Forgotten Children Report.

This Report examined the impact of prolonged mandatory, indefinite immigration detention on the mental and physical heath of children. The findings were disturbing. In short, detention, whether on Christmas Island, Nauru or centres on the Australian mainland, is dangerous and unsafe for children. 34% of the hundreds of children we visited had severe to moderate mental illness, compared to 2% of children in the Australian community. Their health and wellbeing, and that of their parents, was at risk from cramped conditions in tents and remodelled containers, inadequate health care, even sexual and other assaults.

Our findings in the Forgotten Children report have since been confirmed by other government reports, including the Senate Inquiry last year, the earlier Moss Report and also by reviews under the United Nations monitoring mechanisms, leading to the conclusion by the UN Rapporteur on Torture that conditions offshore- tropical heat, poor access to water, inadequate education and medical care- amount to cruel treatment, contrary to the Torture Convention.

Today, Australia continues to detain about 80 children, including 36 babies, at Wickham point in Darwin.  About 70 children remain in the Regional processing Centre on Nauru, where they are held in isolation from extended family, friends and legal advice, with no hope for permanent settlement as refugees.

Since our Forgotten Children’s Report was tabled in Parliament the AHRC Commission has continued its monitoring role in detention centres. In November last year, we reported our findings in respect of the children held at Wickham Point in Darwin. These children along with about 267 others remain vulnerable to removal to Nauru under the Migration Act.

Accompanying the Commission team to Wickham Point were two consultant paediatricians with experience in the health and well-being of asylum seeker and refugee children, Professor Elizabeth Elliott and Dr Hasantha Gunasekera who are with me today and will makes some comments in a moment.

At the time of the Commission’s visit to Wickham Point there were 164 families with 76 children younger than 18 years. The Commission conducted interviews with 69 of these children and the parents of 15 children who were born in detention. Many of the families and children interviewed had spent time in Nauru and were traumatised at the prospect of a return to the harsh conditions they had experienced
The medical team interviewed and assessed the children using internationally recognised tools appropriate for their ages.

Professor Elliott and Dr Gunasekera will describe the medical evidence, but in essence it reinforces the Commission’s long-standing concerns about the severe mental and physical health impacts on children of prolonged detention in conditions that are considered by the UN to be well below international standards.

In light of these findings, both the Commission and the two consultant paediatricians recommended to the Government that these children and their families not be returned to Nauru and that they be released into community detention on mainland Australia or granted a bridging visa.

The Commission sent a copy of the paediatrician’s report and our recommendations to the Department of Immigration and the Minister for Immigration on 6 November last year.   On receiving an inadequate response to our concerns several weeks later, I wrote again to the Minister for Immigration last week to reiterate our concerns about his public comments reiterating his intention to return the children and their families to Nauru.
Since then, and as you will be aware, the High Court, in a 6:1 decision, has confirmed that Government officials have the legal right under the Constitution, and the retrospective amendments to the Migration Act, to remove the children and their families to Nauru or to any other designated offshore processing centre.

We respect the High Court decision, in so far as it makes clear the constitutional powers of Parliament under Australian law. The Court’s decision does not, however, deal with international law, nor with the specific treaty obligations that have been negotiated, signed and ratified by Australia over many decades.

The Commission is concerned that transferring children and their families to Nauru will further compromise their health and wellbeing, placing Australia at serious risk of breaching its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Australia has an obligation to the international community to ensure that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of each child is a primary consideration. Indeed, over 60 nations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last November called on Australia to reconsider its current offshore processing policies and to comply with its treaty commitments to refugees, especially children.

Sadly, there is a widening gulf between the constitutional powers of the Australian government and the country’s international legal responsibilities.  Our national laws, in effect, allow us to wash our hands of the welfare of refugee children once they leave Australia’s shores. Our laws impose no standards on Nauru to meet educational and medical needs of refugees.  Indeed, the government’s chilling defence to claims that it is in breach of its duty of care is that it has no control over the treatment of refugees transferred to Nauru.

Now it seems, it rests with the international community to use its influence to ensure the safety of refugee children under the agreed principles of international law. 

Australia’s policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing are frequently defended by Governments as necessary to stop the boats and to save lives. This is a profoundly misleading conflation of the two issues. There is little evidence that detaining children for prolonged periods is an effective deterrent to people smugglers. Indeed, both former Ministers of Immigration Scott Morrison and Chris Bowen, have confirmed this under oath to the AHRC Inquiry 18 months ago.

In conclusion, I urge the Australia government to take the mature and humane decision to temper its technical legal powers with respect for its human rights obligations under the treaties we have accepted.
I hope that the open hearted Australian people can persuade both the Coalition and Labour parties to return to the ideals of our democracy by allowing the children and families to remain in Australia to rebuild their lives as healthy and fruitful citizens.

Thank you

May I now ask Professor Elliot to describe the medical evidence.

Professor Gillian Triggs, President