Australia’s human rights watchdog yesterday launched an inquiry into the detention of more than 1,000 children under punitive government policies that banish asylum seekers arriving by boat to remote Pacific camps.
Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs said the probe would examine the impact of mandatory detention on more than 1,000 asylum-seeker children being held in immigration facilities in Australia and more than 100 on far-flung Nauru.
“These are children that — among other things — have been denied freedom of movement, many of whom are spending important developmental years of their lives living behind wire in highly stressful environments,” Triggs said.
The inquiry will examine whether Australia is in breach of international child protection obligations and measure progress on the issue over the past decade.
A similar investigation was held in 2004 into the then-government’s “Pacific Solution,” a policy aimed at deterring dangerous people-smuggling journeys from Indonesia by detaining asylum seekers arriving by boat on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Hundreds of asylum seekers have died attempting the voyage in recent years.
The Pacific detention policy was revived last year by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party, who made it tougher still by mandating that anyone who arrived in Australia by boat would be permanently settled in Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
The number of children held in immigration detention dropped markedly following public outcry over the 2004 inquiry’s findings, but Triggs was pragmatic on whether such a backlash would be seen again.
“The political circumstances are perhaps different today, the public has in some respect become used to the idea that we keep children in detention. So maybe it would be optimistic to imagine that we’d have quite the same impact this time around,” she said.
The previous inquiry’s report found mandatory detention of children was “fundamentally inconsistent” with Australia’s international human rights obligations and minors locked up for long periods of time were at “high risk of serious mental harm.”
During their time in detention — an average of almost two years — children were exposed to hunger strikes, violent acts of self-harm and wild riots, the report found.
Triggs said there were an “unprecedented” number of children in detention under the current administration, compared with the 700 seen 10 years ago, and said that Austrian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government had offered “minimal cooperation” on the issue.
Australian Minister of Immigration Scott Morrison rejected Triggs’ claim that the government has been uncooperative and said there were so many children in detention because of border security “failures” by the Rudd government, which was voted out in September last year.
“There were over 1,000 children held in detention when we came to office ... because over 50,000 people turned up on illegal boats on Labor’s watch,” he said.
Morrison said Canberra would cooperate with the inquiry and any recommendations would “be treated with respect and considered.”