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Let no child who arrives in Australia ever suffer detention again

Ten years ago, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a previous report into children in immigration detention, when there were around 700 children in detention.

Today, there are over 1000 children in Australian detention centres including unaccompanied minors sent off-shore. The average length of time spent in closed immigration detention facilities is 226 days, the highest level in more than two years.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has announced it will conduct yet another national inquiry into the ways in which life in immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children.

Even though refugee advocacy group welcome the inquiry, the federal government has expressed disappointment that an inquiry into children in immigration detention was not launched under the previous Labor government.

Rather than both sides of politics blaming each other, or worse still backing each other up, rather than spending more time and money endlessly redoing investigations and reports, read what was written ten years ago and act on it NOW.

This is an excerpt from the paper written by Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM published in 2004 entitled A last resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. He began his paper with the following quote:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jnr

“The primary focus of this report has been on the human rights that all children in Australia should enjoy.

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. Few people would disagree with these words from the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, most Australians would agree that all other options should be explored before a child is locked up. The words from the Convention form the basis for the title of the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention: A last resort?

A last resort? talks about children who arrived in Australia to seek protection from despotic regimes like those of Iraq and Afghanistan where breaches of human rights were the norm. Most of these children arrived with their families, some were unaccompanied. More than 92 percent 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 percent. This means they left their homelands because they had little real choice. Seeking asylum elsewhere was, for them, a last resort.

Yet, since 1992, we have welcomed these children by taking them to remote facilities, detaining them there to wait for a visa. Australia’s immigration policy makes the detention of these children the first and only option and it puts no limit on the time that they are held there. Children wait in detention for months or years – one child spent almost five and a half years in detention before being released into the community as a refugee. In fact, as at the end of 2003, the majority of children in detention had been held there 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 this system on children is likely to be borne by Australian society as a whole, since almost all children in the detention centres eventually become members of the Australian community. They will carry the effects of their experience with them throughout their lives.

However, even if we were to ignore these human rights concerns, what is the rationale for, or logic of, the current immigration detention system? Does this rationale withstand vigorous examination?

Some have argued that mandatory detention is necessary to prevent floods of boat arrivals. We must take a reality check here. Even if we agree that between 1999 and 2002 the number of people arriving by boat was relatively significant, from a midrange time perspective the number of arrivals is small. Over the past 14 years approximately 13,500 people have arrived by boat – this number of people would fill approximately 15 percent of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Compare this to the approximately 1.4 million new settlers who arrived in Australia over the same period. In other words, ‘boat people’ constituted roughly one per cent of our total intake over that period.

But even if these numbers were greater, the detention of one group of children to deter another group from coming to Australia raises the issue of the proportionality of our policy response. Compare this with our treatment of children who commit a crime: such young offenders are only detained after prompt and careful consideration by a magistrate, the period of imprisonment is strictly limited and is reviewable at several levels. Yet under our immigration laws, children who have not been accused of any crime are detained automatically and for indefinite periods and there is also no real opportunity to argue their case before an independent tribunal or court. A comparison of the two regimes highlights the lack of proportionality of our immigration detention policy.

The international community must take into account the ’cause and effect’ nature of migratory movements when developing policies; if one part of the globe is under pressure there is likely to be a corresponding increase in asylum seekers elsewhere. The Australian experience with boat people is testimony to this reality. People smugglers who risk children’s lives by taking them on a perilous voyage in an unseaworthy boat, should be appropriately dealt with through international policing co-operation. However the answer to these issues lies more in international cooperation and planning than in the creation of ‘fortress Australia’.

Others have argued that in the post 9/11-Bali world the terrorist threat requires a total embargo on unauthorised arrivals. I am fully conscious of the threat posed by terrorism which, when all is said and done, represents the utter negation of human rights. But in the case of boat people, these are the children who are the victims of the Saddam Hussein’s of this world, not the perpetrators. That is why most of them left their homes in the first place. In any case, Dennis Richardson, the Director-General of ASIO, stated that not one person arriving by boat between 2001 and 2002 ‘had received an adverse security assessment in terms of posing a direct or indirect threat to Australia’s security’.

Finally, some have warned that without detention, children and families will disappear into the community and will not be available for removal if they are found not to be refugees. This argument lacks supporting evidence and disregards the fact that, according to the Department’s own statistics, around 90 per cent of boat arrivals whether adult or child – are found to be genuine refugees. While there is always some flight risk, since almost all children arriving by boat are given protection visas in the end, there seems little incentive for these refugees to go underground. In any event, our domestic justice system deals with hundreds of children charged with a crime, who may also present a flight risk, but are released on bail. We accept this system as a necessary hallmark of a ‘civil society’, yet fail to apply these principles to children seeking asylum in Australia.

While recognising the right of each country to protect its borders, I hope that A last resort? removes, once and for all, any doubts about the harmful effects of long term immigration detention on children. It warns governments, in Australia and around the world, that mandatory, indefinite and unreviewable detention of children is no answer to the global issue of refugee movements.

Even if there is no child in detention when this report is tabled in Parliament, it is now time for our elected parliamentary representatives to amend our immigration legislation to ensure that it complies with Australia’s accepted human rights standards.

Let no child who arrives in Australia ever suffer under this system again.”

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now



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  1. Kaye Lee

    For those people who still want to blame the asylum seekers for the riot on Manus Island here is the truth from eyewitnesses. Our government is lying to us. Will we allow this to be done in our name?

    Manus Island – An insider’s report

  2. john921fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    Do you think its time for the ALP to admit a mea culpa in order to change direction on refugees ?

    Do you think they have the guts to do it ?

    My answers :


    No !

    Shorten is just going to be Abbott's whipping boy and the refugees are the ones who suffer.

  3. Kaye Lee

    Of course they must fess up. They have to say “We got it wrong. This isn’t working”

    To say the policy is a success is just ludicrous. No refugee has been helped. They have just been bottled up in transit countries or detention camps, or have we made it bad enough that they stay at home and face the atrocities there?

    They want to stop the deaths at sea? Then give them a safe way of getting here.

    Processing was suspended in August 2012. It was supposed to resume in July 2013 but a UNHCR report dated 26 November 2013 found that, since the facilities re-opened in 2012, only one claim for refugee status had been fully processed in Nauru and none had been fully processed in Manus Island. They have cut the humanitarian intake and foreign aid.

    Hiding a problem or expecting someone else to deal with it is a real coward act.

  4. john921fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    Or a political coward.

    They just don't seem to understand that they have to stand up to a bully.

    They (ALP) have to do whatever it takes (just like Abbott did) to fight back.

    Oh god ! I just said "fightback" … hope Hewson isn't listening.

  5. Stephen Tardrew

    Agreed John:

    It’s time to attack and attack hard. Unethical behaviour is unethical LNP or Labor.

    If you compromise on refugees to this degree how far are you willing to compromise on the rights of your fellow citizens. This is a slippery road to competitive meanness not democracy and justice.

    LNP are using intolerance to their corporate advantage.

    Once a paradigm is changed and infects a populace it can have devastating effects.

    We need to make Labor realize what a poisoned chalice they are drinking from.

  6. Stephen Tardrew


    The report by Tara Moss is appalling.

    I just do not know what to say.

    If Australians do not react to have off-shoring shut down after this then we have reached an all time low.

  7. john921fraser


    @Stephen Tardrew

    After watching Parliament Question Time yesterday and seeing Bishop (the elder) in action I can't understand why the ALP don't just rebel.

    Play dirty tactics … get thrown out … one by one.

    Next day lead a walkout.

    Day after day civil disobedience in Parliament by those who were elected to oppose !

  8. Kaye Lee

    If I was there I would take my lead from our very wise indigenous brothers and sisters who turn their back on bullshit.

    “In Melbourne, the 8000-strong crowd at Federation Square turned its back on the screen during Dr Nelson’s speech, amid chants of “get him off”.”


  9. Stephen Tardrew


    Too bloody right mate where is the courage to act.

    It’s time to take a stance and stand up for what is right regardless of consequences.

    Walk out.

    Show you are not afraid to put your electoral buts on the line.

    That is what you were elected to do.

  10. AsGrayAsGray

    “Yet another national enquiry”, says it all. Call me naive, but don’t we already know that the impacts of detention on children (or any person, actually) are of the negative variety? Why should we need another enquiry – to ‘prove’ to politicians that detention is harmful?

    This is all making me very angry…

    In concert with other comments here, it is high time for parliamentary disobedience of the highest order, for that mass walk-out we’d all love to see, for the ALP to stop keeping their powder dry and let them have both barrels, for individuals (politically and ‘in the street’) to stand up for what they know to be right.

    We really are getting to the bottom of a very murky barrel…

  11. Matters Not

    As I suggested elsewhere, asylum seekers present a ‘wicked problem’.

    There is a compassion trap set for those who argue for a “let them come” approach to border security.

    It was, after all, the Rudd/Gillard experiment with lenience and on-shore processing that wilfully neglected the lessons of the Howard years, opened the floodgates to “illegal” arrivals and brought the tragedy of more than 1000 deaths by drowning.

    How do you counter that argument? How do you argue for any relaxation in the punitive and confrontingly stark set of policies now in play, if the apparently inevitable consequence is a stream of boats and drowned children?

    Green goes further:

    The compassion now shown to the miserable victims of circumstance and people smugglers is of course opportunistic and politically inspired. It is as genuine as the tears that flowed when Liberal members howled down the Malaysian people swap promoted by the Gillard government, only to sit back, smug and happily certain when more recent policy left people beaten to death, bloodied or shot while within the not-so-protective custody of a detention camp administered in our name. Camps, it should be said, established specifically to promote hopelessness, psychological trauma, degeneration and despair; the sum of these parts being deterrence.

    But read the whole article.


  12. Dissenter

    Kaye Lee, it took me a while to stop crying after I read Tara Moss’s account.
    THIS PLACE IS POPULATED by primitive people with unsophisticated values.
    IT APPEARS that LABOR UNDER SHORTEN has taken the EXPEDIENT and SAFE path and not the Moral or correct path.

    Today I recieved my ABC petition which now I REFUSE TO SIGN. I sent the the return message THAT THEY HAVE GOT their campaigns and POLICIES arse up and that theiR MEDIA team should be sacked because they are SO INADEQUATE.

  13. Dissenter

    Sorry I could not finish. If you type in LAbor party you will arrive at their OFFICIAL site.
    NOW THERE IS SHORTENS CHRISTMAS message STILL POSTED even though I have lambusted them here about it but also 6 emails to George WRIGHT.
    SO this is a party whose media team COULD NOT RUN A CHOOK RAFFLE and we have 3 upcoming ELECTIONS. WHAT BRILLIANT WORK WILL THEY DO FOR THOSE!
    THE PRINT MEDIA IS ABYSMAL and the only things that worked for TERRI BUTLER someone else did or she DID HERSELF.


  14. Paul Raymond Scahill

    We concur that all processing should be done on-shore (Labor Party Policy). All those incarcerated, especially children, should be processed within 90 days or returned. The lifeboats that Morrison purchased should be used if they are the safest way to get them to Australia.. It must be very apparent that visas are required and that provided they pass the immigration test they should be processed without delay.
    We are of the belief that something like 90% are legitimate refugees, so what is the problem. Howard no longer has anything to do with the refugee (invasion) so why would the Labor Party concern themselves with compromising the LNP I say forget the LNP lets make it our policy to do on-shore processing.
    They can be taught English (particularly children) and the children will in turn teach their parents, you never know we just might be a much stronger and smarter country than we are at present. Hope someone else takes up the fight.

  15. trevor vivian

    When the government of a country takes it upon itself to lie, manipulate, create circumstances that support the lies and manipulation then that country has entered a minefield of conflicting circumstances.

    As has been shown throughout history all countries entertain this lie method to maintain the power structure that exist.

    The only question is what will the people of that country do to right the ship of state. And that presupposes that the people are able to affect the power structure and at what cost..

    Of course the Minister for Immigration in his duel role as Jailer of and Provider to unaccompanied children is conflicted.

    The present Royal Commission into Child Abuse shows that this country has a wicked history of child abuse and institionalised supporting the abuser over the abused.

    Wiki leaks and Edward Snowden release information that should rightly be available for perusal by the people in all the countries mentioned and they are at risk of being eliminated as treasonous.

    Abbott et a,l lied to gain government and lie daily hourly by the minute to the second and are lauded by the mainstream.

    With the forces of state arraigned against revealing the duplicity and devious methodology of protecting the lie and the State liars then courage is the recipe for ordinary people. Who feels courageous enough to perhaps be trounced by the organs of the State?

    Do you want to do something against this depraved political circumstance that ABBOTT et al. bring daily to your breakfast table?

    The organs of the State can jail your ass (pre and post VLAD) for caring enough to want to challenge the liars lying, to get these children safety.

    First step is to work out if you are an Arrest-able or not.. If not an arrest-able stay lawful and extend help to those who will be jailed.

    Because these forces arraigned have absolute State sanctioned power to shut up if that is determined as appropriate.

    I agree with Kaye Lee again.

  16. allenmcmahon

    Labor’s asylum seekers policies were as bad as the LNP’s and with regard to children and Manus Island I would say worse.

    Malaria is endemic on Manus Island, 62% of the locals are affected, and some strains are completely drug resistant. The camp is in the worst possible location, a low lying area and subject to flooding a breeding ground for disease.

    When returning to offshore detention, Labor chose to send women and children to Manus Island. This was despite advice from health provider International Health and Medical that there were unacceptable risks to children under eight, who could not take anti malarial medication, and to pregnant women, due to the toxicity of the chemicals used to control mosquitoes and the likelihood of the chemicals being absorbed into the bloodstream and crossing the placenta.

    After a great deal of pressure from ChilOut the AMA and other advocacy groups the families were moved from Manus Island to the Inverbrackie detention center which where I first came in contact with them. Of the six pregnant women three lost the child they were carrying, there was one natural full term birth and the other two women required early medical intervention but had healthy babies.

    While on Manus children witnessed fights between the detainees over the limited resources available, suicide attempts and incidents of self harm. There were also two unaccompanied minors sent there due to an ‘administrative’ error.

    Water for showers and food preparation was and is still provided by a reverse osmosis system that should work 24/7 to purify the water properly. Due to the tidal range at Manus the system had to be shut down at low tides so the filters, which take four hours of constant running to work, were unable to provide a regular supply of clean water. Of greater concern untreated sewage from the camp is pumped out near the intake hose so the water is contaminated. Skin conditions and stomach complaints are common and it still happens today but it is worse because there are now 1,200 people on Manus Island.

    Out of the 20,000 asylum seekers who came to Australia from August 2012 that time only 300 went to Manus Island and these included families, rather than single males as is now the case. This was intentionally done to send a message to other prospective refugees.

    To make matters worse we still have four of the families from Manus in Inverbrackie because when they came to Australia they then went to the back of the queue. It took on average three months for families in the low risk category to be released into the community. These families have been in detention since September 2012 their friends and families have been in the community getting on with their lives while they are still in limbo.

    I have no axe to rind and do not stand in judgement on the actions of others. I understand that many people don’t know the full extent of what is going on and others have more than enough difficulties and responsibilities to contend with in their lives. What I do know is that at some time in the future what we are going to be collectively held to account for allowing this to happen.

    I expect nothing from the LNP but I feel betrayed by Labor, the party that is supposed to have a social conscious and more so because of Kevin Rudd’s support and understanding of the plight of asylum seekers both in the years before and for a short time after he became our Prime Minister. I never imagined that Labor delve lower into the filth than Howard but I was wrong.


  17. Matters Not

    Yep CMMC, it’s total warfare, and very well co-ordinated as well.

    And, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, Labor has inescapable choices to make.

    To participate/play in the current ‘paradigm’ or to attempt to create a different ‘reality/paradigm’?

    Currently, they are playing ‘safe’ (accepting the current ‘common sense’ and even reinforcing same), which suggests they will be easy meat re the next election.

  18. mars08

    “…the detention of one group of children to deter another group from coming to Australia raises the issue of the proportionality of our policy response…”

    I think it should raise a whole bunch of other issues as well. Like… er… the fact that these children have committed no crime!!!!

  19. doctorrob54

    Kaye this is a brilliant article,thank you ever so much.Labor must admit they stuffed up by bowing to perceived public opinion at the time,and they must do it now.

  20. Dissenter

    Alan Mcmahon, Please onsend your wonderful comment to the guardian and also to as many LABOR POLITICIANS and GREENS politicians as you can. I was grateful for the detail you have previously provided and this about the malaria and CONTAMINATEd water TAKES THE CAKE.
    Many THANKS for this post Alan.

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