THE Australian Government is deliberately muddying the legislative waters around children held in immigration detention in order to “deflate” controversy, according to paediatricians and psychiatrists.
Dr Karen Zwi, a community paediatrician with Sydney Children’s Hospital Network and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ spokesperson on refugee children, told MJA InSight that the Department of Immigration’s recent announcement about the release of 150 children in detention was “confusing” and an attempt to “deflate the issue”. (1)
“The new announcement is about the release of children under 10 years old who arrived before 19 July 2013”, Dr Zwi said.
The majority of children in held detention had arrived after 19 July 2013, and “very few” were aged under 10 years old, she said.
“There are very few children who are eligible for release from held detention under this legislation. The government is trying to deflate the issue.
“People come up to me and say ‘oh, all the children are being released’. No they’re not. There are still nearly 1000 children who aren’t eligible for release.”
Dr Zwi told MJA InSight most of these children had been on Christmas Island, Nauru and other harsh detention environments for more than a year, with most aged over 10 years.
“This is happening when we know this is harmful to children’s health and wellbeing and when we may be causing long-term damage.”
The latest statistics on children in detention show that as at 31 August 2014, there were 2429 children held in all forms of immigration detention, with 222 on Nauru, 647 in on the mainland, and 1560 in community detention. (2)
The number of children in offshore detention was at its highest level since October 2013. The average time in detention — 391 days — was the longest since November 2011. The number of people (adults and children) in immigration and community detention for longer than a year — 4140 — was at its highest since July 2011; and 564 people have been detained for more than 2 years.
Research published in the MJA this week shows that more than 80% of Australian paediatricians surveyed in November 2013 considered “mandatory detention of children constitutes child abuse and disagreed with offshore processing”. (3)
The researchers from the Sydney Medical School and the Sydney Children’s Hospital also sought to gauge paediatricians’ knowledge about immigration detention. They found respondents correctly used the term “asylum seeker” rather than “boat person” or “illegal immigrant”. However, less than half of the 139 respondents knew which subgroups of asylum seekers were eligible for Medicare, or had received pre-departure HIV and tuberculosis screening tests.
“Only about 60% knew that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship was the legal guardian of detained unaccompanied minors”, they wrote.
“There is a clear need for education about practical issues such as current health screening practices and Medicare eligibility.”
Professor Louise Newman, director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, said the research confirmed the widespread concern about the current immigration detention policy.
Professor Newman is also the convenor of the Alliance of Health Professions for Asylum Seekers and an advocate for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. She chairs the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group, an independent body providing advice to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the health needs of asylum seekers.
Professor Newman told MJA InSight she agreed that the government had been disingenuous about the so-called “release” of 150 children from detention.
“This policy is not the release of children from detention in any sense”, she said. “These are high-risk children, particularly the unaccompanied minors, who are in the confusing position that the Minister has both guardianship over them and is imprisoning them.”
She said it was clear that Australia is not living up to its international legal obligations to asylum seekers. “Detention seems to be a law unto itself”, she said.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection said the government would continue to reduce the number of children in detention “as we have been doing since the day we were elected”.
“The number of children on Christmas Island has dramatically reduced by over 60%. There are 587 less children in detention today than there were at the last election. This is a more than 40% reduction due to our successful border protection policies”, the spokesperson said.
“More than 80% of children are resident in the community either on bridging visas or under residence determinations. July 2013 was the peak for children in immigration detention with almost 2000 accommodated.”
Dr Zwi called for a more rapid and humane system to process asylum seekers. “This is an urgent matter [when] 128 children are known to have self-harmed since last year. Most people cannot function without hope.”
(Photo: Ulet Ifansasti / iStock)