By National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell
I recently met with some of the families and children transferred from Nauru to Australia for health reasons.
I have seen first-hand the impacts of indefinite detention on the wellbeing of these children.
It was clear that the living conditions they experienced on Nauru, along with prolonged uncertainty about their situation, has negatively impacted their physical and mental health.
The deteriorating mental health impacts of their detention over many years is profound and has resulted in withdrawal, anxiety, refusal to eat and self-harming.
Since 2013 when I took up this role I have met with children and young people in immigration detention to monitor their wellbeing and ensure their voices and stories are heard.
These experiences have reinforced my view that we need to do everything possible to get children out of detention.
In the last six months approximately 50% of children on Nauru have had to be removed due to the escalating health problems they are facing. This indicates a systemic problem that is likely to affect all the children that remain.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all decisions that affect them.
There is only one course of action that can be taken given the seriousness and extent of the mental health issues being faced by the children on Nauru.
The children should be transferred to Australia with their families without delay.
Refugees and asylum seekers have been living on Nauru and Manus Island for a prolonged period of time under difficult conditions, without any certainty about their future.
The Australian Human Rights Commission, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and many others have warned for years that leaving refugees and asylum seekers in these circumstances would place their health at serious risk.
As early as 2013, UNHCR advised the Governments of Australia and Nauru to be ‘vigilant about the rapid deterioration of psycho-social health of detainees as prolonged uncertainty continues’.
In the report of our National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, the Commission raised concerns about ‘the risk of serious harm to the children and families’ detained on Nauru.
Tragically, we are now seeing these predictions come true with the complex health conditions that are now presenting and which cannot be adequately treated on Nauru.
Since 2015, refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru have not been confined to closed detention facilities. The Commission welcomed this development.
The resettlement arrangement with the United States has also begun to provide long-term solutions for some of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.
But for most, the future remains uncertain.
Until this uncertainty is resolved, we cannot expect to see meaningful improvements in the health and wellbeing of anyone subject to third country processing.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child also requires that refugee and asylum seeker children should receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance.
Having a sense of hope and optimism about the future is critical to children’s wellbeing. It is one of the key factors that allows children to thrive and reach their potential.
Conversely, children who cannot see any hope for their future cannot be expected to thrive. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the current situation of refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru.
The Australian Government must resettle all remaining children on Nauru and their families as a priority.
Our immediate focus must be protecting the best interests of the children on Nauru and restoring their hope for a positive future.
Photo credit: World Vision Australia