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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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Updated 9 January 2003.