Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski, Human Rights Commissioner at the Brisbane Rally - Saturday, 19 June 2004 and the Canberra Rally – Sunday 20 June 2004

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to their elders both past, present and future.

World Refugee Day

We live in a troubled world where there is much unrest. There continues to be large numbers of people who need to flee their countries because they are persecuted for what they believe in or who they are.

The latest figures from UNHCR say that there are more than 10 million refugees in the world. They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Burundi, Sudan and Angola - amongst other places.

In some regions more than half of the refugees are children. And there are increasing numbers of children who have been separated from their families and are seeking asylum alone.

Australia is one of those lucky countries that does not produce refugees. Rather, Australia is a country that refugees come to so they can find shelter from violent and dictatorial regimes.

Although Australia has a quota of 13,000 humanitarian visas, we are not too kind to those people who come to Australia's shores by boat.

In particular we have not been kind to the 2,184 children who have arrived in Australia since 1999. 93 percent of these children have been found to be refugees.

Australia has a mandatory detention policy which means that children who arrive in Australia by boat are detained for indefinite periods of time. The worst example of this is a child who was detained for five years, five months and twenty days before being found to be a refugee.

I have just completed a two year Inquiry into the treatment of children and families who arrive to Australia's shores by boat.

The report

The report of this Inquiry - which we called A last resort? - is the first of its kind in the world.

Since there are increasing numbers of children who seek asylum in Australia, I wanted to make sure that Australia would treat these children according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Australia signed in 1990).

So I spent two years assessing the policy and conditions in detention centres.

Unfortunately I found that there have been many serious breaches of this Convention.


First - we found that the mandatory detention policy itself breaches the Convention on the Rights of the Child because it makes detention the first and only resort, not the last resort.

Second - we found that children have been in detention for long periods of time. Many of the children in detention today have been there for more than three years. On Boxing Day last year the average length of detention was one year, eight months and 11 days.

Third - we found that children in detention for long periods are at high risk of serious mental illness.

And in some circumstances the Department of Immigration's refusal to release these children was cruel and inhuman treatment.

Fourth - we found that the conditions in detention centres:

  • FAILED to provide sufficient protection from physical and mental violence;
  • FAILED to provide the appropriate standard of physical and mental health;
  • FAILED to provide adequate education until late 2002;
  • FAILED to provide appropriate care for children with disabilities; and
  • FAILED to give unaccompanied children the special protection that they needed. This directly relates to the fact that the Minister for Immigration is both the guardian and jailer of unaccompanied children.

Inquiry Recommendations

So what do we do about this problem?

Recommendation 1: Release

The first step is to get the children who are in detention centres and residential housing projects out of there.

I gave the Government until June 10 to release all the children. Well that day passed and there were still children in detention.

However, last week the Prime Minister publicly stated that the government is working on releasing all children so that 'the numbers dwindle to zero'. That is definitely a step in the right direction.

But releasing the children who are in detention now only solves the immediate problem.

Recommendation 2: Change the law

We need to make sure that asylum seekers who arrive in the future don't end up suffering under this same system again.

Unless Australia's laws change, children will continue to be locked up in places like Christmas Island and Baxter for indefinite periods of time.

We need new laws that make detention of children the last resort - NOT the first and only resort.

We need new laws that make detention of children for the shortest appropriate period of time - NOT for indefinite periods of time.

And we need new laws that make the best interests of the child a primary consideration - NOT laws that force a choice between family separation or indefinite detention. This is a false dichotomy.

Our current immigration detention laws just do NOT make any sense - either legally, practically or morally.

Australia as a human rights leader

This year Australia is the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

This is a great opportunity for Australia to be a human rights leader.

We should use this opportunity to change our laws so that they comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


I hope that all of you gathered here today can help us bring about the change to Australia's immigration detention policy that is so desperately needed.

I ask you to:

  • write to your local MPs
  • write to your local newspapers and
  • call talk-back radio

Tell them what you think

Ask for the children to be released from detention

Push for a change to the overall policy so that no more children have to endure indefinite detention.

Thank you

Last updated 23 June 2004.