A wedge issue: child migrants in Australia

Recently, the Guardian published an article describing the situation of child asylum seekers living in immigration detention camps of Australia. These children suffer from severe mental illnesses and suicidal behaviors (sometimes even had suicidal attempts). Many suffer sexual abuse, and show sexualised behaviors. They are harassed and unheard.

Sadly, this situation is not something new. Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM Human Rights Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, held an inquiry about the children in the detention camps on the period of 1999-2001. The same results were found at that time. It is very distressing to see that ten years later nothing has improved for children.

Immigration detention camps are a consequence of the mandatory detention policy established by the 1992 Migration Reform Act of the Australian Government. According to this policy, all persons entering or being in the country without a valid visa, are to be held in detention camps until their situation is resolved. The Act allows the detention to be indefinite.
Although there have been some attempts to achieve a smoother policy, since 1992, the High Court of Australia has again confirmed, by majority, the constitutionality of indefinite mandatory detention.
However, indefinite mandatory detention was heavily criticized by numerous human rights organizations.

This policy leads to long periods of detention, in which migrants are left in a limbo, not knowing how their situation will evolve. As for children, it has devastating effects. It is due to these long periods of detention that children develop traumas. The longer they remain, the more vulnerable they become to all types of abuse.

The 2001 “Tampa Affair” resulted in further measures to ensure the existence of these detention camps. The Tampa Affair was a controversial situation, in which 483 migrants (many in need of medical assistance) were denied permission to enter Australia and were transferred to detention camps. Almost immediately after these events, the Australian Government issued the Border Protection Bill. This Bill allows the Government to reject and detain indefinitely migrants. This power was finally recognized as “central to its [Australia’s] sovereignty” by the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia. Asylum seekers were denied the habeas corpus to be released: the judges argued that asylum seekers were not under “detention” by the Government, for they could travel to any other country, except for Australia.

Around this same time, the Australian President also introduced the so-called “Pacific Solution”: offshore detention camps were created to held migrants who wished to enter Australia. Detention camps were established in nearby islands, such as in Nauru, in Papua New Guinea and in Christmas Island. Several human rights organizations denounced the constant violation of the refugees’ most basic rights occurring in these detention camps ever since. The violated rights include the right to health, freedom of movement and sexual integrity. Attempts to close these facilities, however, proved unsuccessful. Refugees have to stay here indeterminately until it is decided whether their refugee status is genuine or not. If it is not genuine, they will be repatriated, or sent to a safe third country other than Australia. One of these refugees had to wait 7 years before getting his visa.

Children experience the same hardships. But, as we all know, children are more vulnerable. A report shows that 34% of children in detention had moderately severe to very severe mental health problems while less than 2% of children in the Australian community have problems at this level. This report also points out how the mandatory and prolonged detention of children is in clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including Article 24(1) which provides that all children have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Finally, this report insists on the mental illness, sexual abuse and suicidal behaviors mentioned above.
The name of the quoted report, published by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2014 is: “The Forgotten Children”.

I think this title is most appropriate: these children are ignored, forgotten. As I noted before, ten years later, reports still show the same distressing results. No country is taking care of these children.

A good starting point would probably be for international NGOs protective of children’s rights, receptor countries and expelling countries to sit at the same table in order to coordinate and provide appropriate answers to these children.