Author(s): Michael Garcia Bochenek
Published in: Sydney Morning HeraldRelated Materials:
- Australia’s cruel detention of migrant children must stopFebruary 11, 2015Commentary
The independent inquiry led by former integrity commissioner Philip Moss, which found credible allegations of sexual assault and child abuse in Australia's Nauru detention centre, was the third time in recent weeks that Australia faced a damning review of its system of mandatory immigration detention.
Since that time, we've learned that immigration authorities may have known about these abuse allegations for months before taking action. The cruel nature of Australia's immigration detention practices is starkly illustrated by reports that as many as eight asylum seekers in Darwin's Wickham Point immigration detention center harmed themselves in a one-week period at the end of March, including one woman who is said to have attempted suicide after deciding she would "rather die than go to Nauru".
Mandatory immigration detention is particularly abusive when it comes to children, as the Moss review and other reports have confirmed. Anyone of these sharply critical reports should have prompted a genuinely rights-respecting government to take a hard look at its practices. Not the Abbott government. Its first reaction was to double down, attempting to defend the indefensible by attacking those who bring abuses to its attention.
Back in October 2014, following reports of rape and child abuse in its Nauru detention centre, nine contract service provider staff members were summarily dismissed at the government's insistence on the basis of uncorroborated, and now discredited, allegations they had facilitated protests and sent confidential information off the island. Similarly, in February, after the Australian Human Rights Commission released an authoritative and meticulously researched evaluation of the immigration detention of children, government officials accused the commission and its president of being partisan, and called for her resignation.
(The commission's report was just as critical of the policies of the former Labor government as of the current Coalition government's, so it's not clear what was partisan about it.) And at the beginning of this month, when the United Nations special rapporteur on torture concluded that Australia's failure to end immigration detention of children violated the international prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment, Prime Minister Tony Abbott replied that Australia was "sick of being lectured to by the United Nations".
The government's latest gambit is to casually dismiss any suggestion that serious crimes may have been committed on its watch. "Occasionally, I daresay, things happen," Abbott said in response to the Moss review.
Dismissive rhetoric and underhanded tactics can't conceal several unassailable facts. First, Australia has held children in immigration detention for 413 days on average – more than a year and two months. There are now some 800 children in mandatory closed immigration detention, including 186 held on Nauru. At its high point, under the Labor government in July 2013, nearly 2000 children were warehoused in immigration detention. Second, prolonged immigration detention takes a tremendous toll on children's physical and mental health.
As the Australian Human Rights Commission's report puts it, "The evidence shows that immigration detention is a dangerous place for children." On Australia's Christmas Island, for example, which held children and their families until December 2014, converted shipping containers, most measuring 3 by 2.5 metres, served as living quarters. To make matters worse, the Christmas Island detention centre offered no schooling between July 2013 and July 2014.
Conditions on Nauru are even more extreme. "The weather here is so hot that if you sit outside in the sun for a period of time, you lose consciousness," one child told the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Temperatures in the detention centre tents regularly reach 45 to 50 degrees Celsius. The camp is near open-pit phosphate mining operations, which raise dust that causes recurrent asthma and eye and skin irritation. In all detention centres, infections spread quickly in close quarters.Cutting and other forms of self-harm are common in the centres – more than 300 detained children had engaged in or told the commission they had thought about self-harm during a 15-month period. Some think about suicide.
These and other adverse health consequences led the Australian Medical Association and 14 other health professional associations to call this month for the release of all children and their families from immigration detention. Third, Australia's treatment of child asylum seekers is unique in the world.
Other countries, to their shame, continue to detain migrant children and their families. But no other country makes closed detention mandatory for child asylum seekers. In fact, Australia's Migration Act states that "a minor shall only be detained as a matter of last resort." But the government has effectively ignored that provision – and international law – since 1992, when it introduced mandatory immigration detention.
Third time's the charm, the saying goes, so maybe the Moss review will finally prompt action. But surely even one report should be enough for a government to protect the children in its care. It is high time for Australia to rethink its abusive policies.
Michael Bochenek is senior counsel on children's rights at Human Rights Watch.
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