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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Melbourne Catholic Migrant

& Refugee Office


The Melbourne Catholic

Migrant & Refugee Office (MCMRO) provides advice and guidance from

a Catholic perspective in response to policy and program issues relating

to migrants and refugees.

The Director of the

Office was also the Episcopal Vicar for Migrants & Refugees and was

assisted by 41 chaplains ministering to 21 migrant communities.

There is also an

Archdiocesan Commission on Migration consisting of members drawn from

various Catholic agencies and migrant communities in the Archdiocese.

The Commission oversees the pastoral response of the Church to the needs

and aspirations of migrants and refugees; and provides policy and program

advice to the Archbishop on these issues.

Because this Office

does not provide direct social welfare or counselling services, it is

not in a position to provide first-hand evidence of breaches of human

rights. However, the Office would like to lend its support to related

organisations that have also prepared submissions for this Inquiry.

In particular -

  • Australian Catholic

    Migrant & Refugee Office (ACMRO)

  • Australian Catholic

    Social Justice Council (ACSJC)

  • Catholic Commission

    for Justice, Development & Peace (CCJDP), Melbourne

  • Justice for Asylum

    Seekers (JAS) Alliance and

  • National Council

    of Churches in Australia (NCCA).

As Catholics, we

are guided by the philosophies of the Bible scriptures -

  • not to mistreat

    foreigners (Exodus 22:21 & Leviticus 19:33)

  • to show love

    and compassion toward others especially those who have less than us

    (John 3:34-35 & 1 John 3:17) and

  • to welcome the

    stranger into our midst (Matthew 25:31-46).

Human Rights are Refugee Rights

When the Australian

government detains all men, women and children, including unaccompanied

minors, who arrive by boat seeking our protection, as a nation, we violate

their right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. We deny

their right to liberty. We have broken the rule that no one

shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.

When we employ a

company like Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), we engage in

a punitive system that imposes penalties on refugees on account of

their illegal entry or presence.

In the case of children,

the Australian government has used mandatory detention as a measure

of first resort rather than of last resort.

When this detention

is indefinite, children are not being detained for the shortest appropriate

period of time. And because this is an "administrative detention",

there is no imperative for the government administration to process claims

quickly.

When children have

been born and spent the first, most formative years of their lives behind

barbed wire in desert detention centres, then we have imprisoned the innocent

and the deprivation of their liberty is unlawful.

The extrajudicial

nature of immigration detention means there is no independent review of

decisions. The law has no power to release anyone from immigration detention

and it has limited scope for review as it is limited to only points of

law rather than the merits of individual cases.

When adult applicants

are floundering with a complex immigration application system, that requires

intensive preparation by migration agents, the child's fate is precariously

bound to the fate of their parents or guardians. We must question how

well a child can participate in decisions being made about them.

When the number of

unaccompanied minors drops from 53 in November 2001 to just 8 in May 2002,

we should be overjoyed that the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural

& Indigenous Affairs has shown his discretion and released these vulnerable

youth. However, the reality is that they have been detained so long they

are no longer classified as "unaccompanied minors".

When the guardian

of these unaccompanied minors is also their gaoler then there must be

a conflict of interest and the guideline "in the best interests

of the child" must be seriously compromised. It is doubtful whether

a Court of Law would normally award guardianship to a person who intended

to keep the child in a restricted area with limited access to food, health

care and education while having no intention of developing an on-going

relationship with that child.

When children's artwork

depicts ACM staff in riot gear wielding batons or using water cannons,

detainees beaten and bleeding on the ground and high fences topped with

razor wire, then we have failed to protect the most vulnerable from further

atrocities.

When the word 'feerdom'

appears in one of these pictures, it could be passed off as a spelling

error and should have read 'freedom'. It could also be a name describing

Australia, not as a sovereign state or kingdom but as a country where

its political power was based on fear and the only misspelling was it

should have been 'feardom'.

By confining men,

women and children, from different countries, with different ethnic and

cultural backgrounds, in inhospitable environments, such as the Australian

desert, we have denied them the freedom to choose their residence.

We have also seriously compromised their right to security of the person.

To the parents, we

have not given them a family environment or an atmosphere of

happiness, love and understanding to bring their children up in. And,

in some cases, the Australian government has kept fathers separated from

their families or held them as ransom in the case of the Home Detention

scheme at Woomera.

By their very nature,

Australia's Immigration Detention Centres are fertile environments for

the growth of hopelessness and dysfunctional responses to situations outside

the detainees' own control. No wonder there is a high incidence of self-mutilation,

hunger strikes and attempted suicides. Detainees, including children and

unaccompanied minors, can only protest with the only resource they have

some control over - their own bodies. And no wonder detainees attempt

escape. However, if their detention, in the first place, is unlawful then

their attempts to escape should not be illegal.

It is well known

that indefinite, non-reviewable, mandatory detention contributes to the

ill physical and mental health of detainees by imposing unnecessary stress

and anxiety on the individual, impairing their ability to function as

rational human beings, let alone good parents or role models for their

children.

With higher incidences

of self-harm and suicide attempts in detained populations as compared

to the wider community, we must question the adequacy of living standards

in detention. Australia has a high standard of living so giving the

minimum requirements in the areas of nutrition, health care, education

and recreation is not adequate.

The psychological

cost to these people goes well beyond their time in detention and, in

the case of children, must greatly affect their self-perception and their

development throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Where education is

seen as a key to a better life, Australia denies detained children the

right to education beyond 12 years of age and severely limits access

to a full education below this age. Again, Australian parents have fairly

high expectations for the healthy growth and development of their children

to reach their full potential. There should be no less an expectation

for the children of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. And,

in the cases where children have experienced torture and/or trauma, these

children need even greater assistance to counter these experiences.

Refugees and displaced

persons, including their children, have been recognised as the most vulnerable

people in our world. If the treatment of the most vulnerable is a measure

of a civilised society, then Australia falls well below the mark. What

is needed is a real commitment to restoring "cultural normalcy"

for refugee children and their families, as soon as possible, to ensure

the least disruption to their development; and by seeing their children

flourish, we will give hope to their parents.

In an address to

the International Catholic Migration Commission (November 2001). Pope

John Paul II invites us to see Christ in every brother and sister in

need, to proclaim and defend the dignity of every migrant, every displaced

person and every refugee; and to give assistance not as alms from the

goodness of our heart, but as an act of justice due to them.

Yours sincerely

Brenda Hubber

Executive Secretary

 

Last

Updated 9 January 2003.