A last resort?
National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
The arrest, detention or imprisonment
of a child shall be … used only as a measure of last resort
and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
Convention on the Rights of the
Few people would disagree with this fundamental principle
from the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, most
Australians would agree that every possible option should be explored
before a child is locked up. However, Australia's immigration policy makes
the detention of children who arrive without visas the first and only
option and it puts no limit on the time that they can be detained.
Australians don't need a team of experts or dramatic media
stories to convince them that detention centres are no place for children.
However, this Inquiry analysed evidence from a large number of sources
to objectively assess the environment in which children have been held.
The results are clear. Immigration detention centres expose
children to enormous mental distress - which confirms the need to ensure
that children should only be locked up in this environment as a measure
of last resort and for the shortest appropriate
period of time.
More than 92% of all children arriving by boat since 1999
have been recognised by Australian authorities to be refugees. In the
case of Iraqi children the figures are as high as 98%.
And yet we have welcomed these children by taking them to
remote facilities and detaining them there to wait for an outcome on their
Children regularly wait for months or years in detention.
In fact, as at the end of 2003, the majority of children in detention
had been held for more than two years. This policy seems a complete departure
from the principle of detention as a measure of last resort.
The irony is that the long-term impact of Australia's immigration
detention system on these children will, in the main, be borne by Australian
society, since almost all children in detention eventually become members
of the Australian community. They will carry the scars of their detention
experience throughout their lives.
It is worth noting that, despite ten years of a mandatory
detention regime, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and
Indigenous Affairs' own administrative measures and instructions virtually
ignored the special needs of children. There was also little regard paid
to obligations arising from the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This state of affairs changed somewhat in late 2001 - about the same
time that this Inquiry was established.
Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Human Rights Commissioner
Since then there have been some positive measures to
improve the environment in which children in detention live. I commend
the Department for introducing these changes without awaiting the formal
outcome of this Inquiry.
However, it is disappointing that these measures did
not occur much, much earlier. Furthermore, they ultimately represent a
band-aid approach to repairing a detention system that is fundamentally
flawed. The only real solution is to change the policy as a whole.
While recognising the right of Australia to protect
its borders, I hope that this report removes, once and for all, any doubts
about the harmful effects of long term immigration detention on children.
It is now time for our parliamentarians to change our immigration laws
to respect the human rights of children - rights that Australia has agreed
Let no child who arrives in Australia ever suffer under
this system again.