Date: 
Friday 5 December 2014

As President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I welcome the news that the Minister for Immigration has agreed to release all children and their families from detention before Christmas.

Having seen first-hand the damage that detention does to children, I am very eager to find out where they will end up. Their release marks an important moment at which it is acknowledged that stopping the boats is not contingent on detaining children.

I am relieved to know that they will be released after, on average, a year and three months in detention. For some of these children it will be the first time they will experience the world outside the fences of detention centres.

The impacts of prolonged detention on children are documented in my Inquiry Report to the Government that is currently awaiting tabling in Parliament by the Attorney. The Report makes for distressing reading. Over the past eight months, the Commission’s Inquiry team worked closely with officials with the Department of Immigration, sharing information and conducting monitoring visits of detention centres across mainland Australia and Christmas Island.

The report should steel our determination to ensure that children are never detained for prolonged periods again. What remains to be done is to release the 167 children who continue to be detained on Nauru. These children should also be brought back to Australia. I met some of them earlier this year because many were in the camps on Christmas Island. A number of these children were without parents or any guardian.

As Christmas approaches, these children are sweltering in tents in the equatorial heat. Christmas is a time for reflection and rebirth. Let’s extend the generosity of Christmas to Nauru, so that we can all be sure that no child is suffering unnecessarily as a consequence of Australia’s asylum-seeker policies.

While I welcome the release of children in detention, I am concerned that the process to assess asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status will be compromised by the changes to migration legislation. Specifically, the removal of judicial scrutiny, the expansion of power to arrest people at sea and send them to another country, as well as the ‘fast track’ assessment process. This legislation strips away fundamental human rights in breach of Australia’s international obligations.

Let’s hope the children currently in detention will be released as soon as possible so they can enjoy the right to liberty, safety and security in the Australian community.