Date: 
Friday 9 April 2010

The Australian Human Rights Commission has expressed serious concerns at today's announcement that the processing of new Sri Lankan and Afghani asylum seekers will be suspended, effective immediately.

Commission President Cathy Branson QC, said she was concerned that the suspension of processing could lead to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

"We are extremely concerned that this suspension could result in the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, including families and children already in distress," President Branson said.

"New asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are now in a situation of considerable uncertainty, as a review of the suspension in three or six months time does not guarantee the suspension will be lifted.

"We have real concerns that this policy shift could lead to arbitrary detention and take Australia down a path that is at odds with our international human rights obligations," she said.

Ms Branson said the detrimental impacts of prolonged immigration detention, particularly on the mental health of asylum seekers, was well documented. She said the prolonged detention of asylum seekers, especially children, could have a serious and long-lasting impact on their mental health.

"The Australian Human Rights Commission is also concerned about the impact the suspension in processing will have on the already overcrowded Christmas Island detention facilities," she said.

"We have consistently maintained that the small size and remoteness of Christmas Island makes it an inappropriate place to hold people in immigration detention.

"Detainees cannot get adequate access to crucial support services such as legal advice, health and mental health care, and religious support. Staff and detainees are already under significant strain.

"We also hold particular concerns about the impact of this change on families with children and unaccompanied minors," Ms Branson said. "There are already significant numbers of children in immigration detention on Christmas Island. Today's suspension in processing will mean that any new families or unaccompanied minors arriving could be subjected to prolonged periods in detention."

Ms Branson said subjecting children to mandatory detention was a breach of Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires that children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

"The Commission recognises that there is community concern about the recent arrival of asylum seekers by boat," Ms Branson said. "However, it is important to keep this in perspective: Australia receives a comparatively low number of asylum seekers," she said.

"The focus should be on ensuring that if people do arrive and seek asylum in Australia, we treat those people fairly, humanely and in line with Australia's international obligations.

"This means allowing them entry in order to assess their refugee claims, and providing them with asylum if they can prove they are a refugee."

Media contact: Louise McDermott 0419 258 597