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WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2004

Rights Rights and Freedoms

WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2004

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski, Human Rights Commissioner at the Brisbane Rally
- Saturday, 19 June 2004 and the Canberra Rally – Sunday 20 June 2004

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional
owners
of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to their elders
both past, present and future.

World Refugee Day

We live in a troubled world where there is much unrest. There
continues to be large numbers of people who need to flee their countries because
they are persecuted for what they believe in or who they are.

The latest figures from UNHCR say that there are more
than 10 million refugees in the world.
They come from Afghanistan,
Iraq, Burundi, Sudan and Angola - amongst other places.

In some regions more than half of the refugees are
children
. And there are increasing numbers of children who
have been separated from their families and are seeking asylum alone
.

Australia is one of those lucky countries that does not produce
refugees. Rather, Australia is a country that refugees come to so they can find
shelter from violent and dictatorial regimes.

Although Australia has a quota of 13,000 humanitarian visas,
we are not too kind to those people who come to Australia's shores by boat.

In particular we have not been kind to the 2,184 children
who have arrived in Australia since 1999. 93 percent of these children
have been found to be refugees.

Australia has a mandatory detention policy which means that
children who arrive in Australia by boat are detained for indefinite
periods of time
. The worst example of this is a child who was detained
for five years, five months and twenty days before being found
to be a refugee.

I have just completed a two year Inquiry into the treatment
of children and families who arrive to Australia's shores by boat.

The report

The report of this Inquiry - which we called A last resort?
- is the first of its kind in the world.

Since there are increasing numbers of children
who seek asylum in Australia, I wanted to make sure that Australia would treat
these children according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights
of the Child
(which Australia signed in 1990).

So I spent two years assessing the policy and conditions in
detention centres.

Unfortunately I found that there have been many serious
breaches of this Convention.

Findings

First - we found that
the mandatory detention policy itself breaches
the Convention on the Rights of the Child because it makes detention the
first and only resort, not the last resort
.

Second - we found that children have been
in detention for long periods of time. Many of the children
in detention today have been there for more than three years.
On Boxing Day last year the average length of detention was one year,
eight months and 11 days
.

Third - we found that children in detention
for long periods are at high risk of serious mental
illness
.

And in some circumstances the Department of
Immigration's refusal to release these children was cruel and inhuman
treatment
.

Fourth - we found that the conditions in
detention centres:

  • FAILED to provide sufficient
    protection from physical and mental violence;
  • FAILED to provide the
    appropriate standard of physical and mental health;
  • FAILED to provide adequate
    education
    until late 2002;
  • FAILED to provide appropriate
    care for children with disabilities; and
  • FAILED to give unaccompanied
    children
    the special protection that they needed. This directly relates
    to the fact that the Minister for Immigration is both
    the guardian and jailer of unaccompanied
    children.

Inquiry Recommendations

So what do we do about this problem?

Recommendation 1: Release

The first
step is to get the children who are in detention centres and residential housing
projects out of there.

I gave the Government until
June 10
to release all the children. Well that day passed and
there were still children in detention
.

However, last week the
Prime Minister publicly stated that the government is working
on releasing all children so that 'the numbers dwindle to zero'.
That is definitely a step in the right direction.

But releasing the children
who are in detention now only solves the immediate problem.

Recommendation 2: Change the law

We need to
make sure that asylum seekers who arrive in the future don't end up suffering
under this same system again.

Unless Australia's
laws change
, children will continue to be locked up in places like
Christmas Island and Baxter for indefinite periods of time.

We need new laws that make
detention of children the last resort - NOT the first
and only resort.

We need new laws that make
detention of children for the shortest appropriate period of time -
NOT for indefinite periods of time
.

And we need new laws that
make the best interests of the child a primary consideration - NOT laws
that force a choice between family separation or indefinite detention. This
is a false dichotomy.

Our current immigration
detention laws just do NOT make any sense - either legally, practically or morally.

Australia as a human rights leader

This year Australia is the Chair
of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

This is a great opportunity for Australia
to be a human rights leader.

We should use this opportunity to
change our laws so that they comply with the Convention on
the Rights of the Child.

Conclusion

I hope that all of you
gathered here today can help us bring about the change to Australia's
immigration detention policy that is so desperately needed.

I ask you to:

  • write to your
    local MPs
  • write to your local
    newspapers
    and
  • call talk-back
    radio

Tell them what
you think

Ask for the children
to be released from detention

Push for a change
to the overall policy
so that no more children have to endure indefinite
detention.

Thank you

Last
updated 23 June 2004.

See Also