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Protecting children is Commission's aim, not political points

Asylum Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Drawing by child in immigration detention in Australia

The Forgotten Children – the report of the Australian Human Rights Commission's national inquiry into the impact of immigration detention on children – was released this month, three months after it was provided to the government.

The report makes for disturbing reading. Anyone who has read it will be left with one question in mind: why has Australia maintained a policy that medical and other evidence has proven beyond doubt causes severe damage to children?

Why, critics have asked, did I as president begin the inquiry in 2014 and not six months earlier in July 2013, when the numbers of children in detention reached a record high. Why, it has been asked, did I not act earlier? 

Since the report was provided to the government last October, the commission has been subject to the criticism that it is politically biased. Why, critics have asked, did I as president begin the inquiry in 2014 and not six months earlier in July 2013, when the numbers of children in detention reached a record high. Why, it has been asked, did I not act earlier?

The answer is that the commission has worked tirelessly over many years reporting on the failure by both Labor and Liberal governments to comply with their international law obligations to refugees. In July 2012 the commission reported its findings of an inquiry into the treatment of asylum seeker children who were subject to mandatory detention as people smugglers. A number were held in adult prisons, on the basis of flawed age determination processes. The report revealed major concerns over how a number of government agencies dealt with these children. Over the subsequent months, significant changes to law and policy were made to address the concerns identified by the commission.

Within eight weeks of commencing as president in July 2012 I was at Villawood Detention Centre, interviewing children and other detainees. Four weeks later I was on Christmas Island.

The report of that inspection visit was the first of three reports, six background papers and five extensive submissions to parliamentary and other inquiries that the commission completed on asylum-seeker issues in my first 15 months as president.

In addition to this, as president I handle complaints made under the commission's legislation which allege breaches of human rights. Between January 2009 and September, 2014, the commission received 159 complaints in relation to children in immigration detention – each of which is separately investigated and conciliated by the commission.

So where was I and the commission in 2013? We were using the range of powers and functions available to us to address the longstanding and ongoing concerns about the treatment of asylum-seeker children. We were in detention centres, publishing reports and investigating complaints. Consistently, we were highlighting the collateral damage to children of maintaining a mandatory immigration detention policy.

The year 2013 saw a peak in the number of asylum seekers globally – largely as a result of the unrest of the Arab Spring. This impacted on Australia, with asylum seeker numbers rising to a record high in July 2013. There were 1992 children in detention in that month. By October 2013, efforts to move children into the community had reduced this number to 1045.

In stark contrast, over the six months after the new government took office, it became clear that children were being held for significant periods and were not being released. While the boats were stopping, the children were being detained for lengthening periods of time. When the inquiry was announced in February, 2014 children had been held on average for seven months and 1006 remained in closed indefinite detention.

I was deeply troubled by this. As I ask in the report, how had the gains of the Howard government – which had removed all children from detention by mid-2005 – disappeared so quickly?

The commission had always intended to come back and review what changes had occurred in the 10 years since our landmark 2004 report, A last resort? These worrying developments confirmed that it was appropriate for us to do so come 2014.

While the report of the inquiry makes for disturbing reading, not only because it documents the damaging conditions in which children have been held, contrary to Australia's legal obligations, but also because we have known this to be the case for over a decade.

The Migration Act provides that children who arrive by boat are subject to mandatory immigration detention and removal to third countries. Australian domestic law has not been effective in preventing children from being detained for lengthy periods.

That is why The Forgotten Children report has so explicitly identified the health and developmental impacts of detention on children. And it is why we have called for a royal commission into the long-term impacts on children and to consider repeal of the mandatory and indefinite detention laws.

Both sides of politics are responsible for their treatment of children in immigration detention since 1992. The focus should remain on the substance of the report.

Please do not shoot the messenger. The commission is doing its job.

Gillian Triggs is president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

Drawing: Picture by a child in immigration detention.