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'A dark day for Australia': Church laments detention of child asylum seekers

Banner a drawing by a young child in immigration detention for the national inquiry into children in immigration detention 2014 credit  australian human rights commission cna 2 1

A drawing by a young child in immigration detention for the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014. Credit © Australian Human Rights Commission.

A report detailing the profoundly negative effects of the long-term detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has led Church leaders there to call the government's policy “barbaric.” Asylum seekers – including children –  travel by boat from Indonesia and are intercepted by the Australian navy before reaching land. They are then sent to detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a small Micronesian nation. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, or Iran. The Australian Human Rights Commission released “The Forgotten Children”, an inquiry into children in immigration detention, on Feb. 11. The report details threats to the health, both mental and physical, of children detainees, some of whom have been held on Nauru for more than 19 months. The average length of detention is 17 months. In a period of 15 months, 128 detained children committed self-harm; 171 threatened self-harm; 33 reported sexual assault; and 27 went on hunger strike. “The world’s most vulnerable children are being deliberately detained and harmed for seeking asylum,” commented Fr. Maurizio Pettena, director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office, on Feb. 13. “It is with deep sadness that we read the findings of the report on children in detention.” Fr. Pettana called the Australian government's asylum detention policy “barbaric”, adding that “the Australian Government has thoroughly failed in its duty to care for these children.” His office added that the Australian government “deliberately detains children in dangerous places that have subsequently led to innumerable cases of mental illness, developmental delays, sexual assaults and self-harm.” The Australian Human Rights Commission visited 11 detention centers, and conducted more than 1,200 interviews with children and their parents, both those detained and those who had been released. “The findings in this report on children in detention leave no doubt about its credibility,” said Fr. Pettena. His office also noted the report emphasizes that “Australia is the only country in the world that practises the mandatory and indefinite detention of children,” which it reckoned “a clear violation of their rights under the Convention for the Rights of Children.” Fr. Pettena urged the government to take full responsibility and to release the remaining 800 children in community detention and on Nauru, saying, “All eyes are now on Australia, to see how we as a nation respond to this inquiry.” The government of Australia – led by Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party – responded to the inquiry by asking that Gillian Triggs, president of the independent Australian Human Rights Commission, resign from her post. Mark Dreyfus, a member of parliament and a former Australian attorney general, said the government's request that Triggs resign was “a disgraceful attack by the attorney general on a statutory agency in his own portfolio. The first law officer should be defending the independence of the national guardian of human rights.” The number of child immigration detainees has fallen in the last year, but 257 remain, including 119 on Nauru. The human rights commission's report found that 34 percent of the child detainees in Australia and Christmas Island have a mental health disorder severe enough to require psychiatric report, and believes the rate to be higher on Nauru. By comparison, the rate is below two percent for children in Australia at large. The Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office said it has “continuously advocated against the detention of children seeking asylum in Australia.” To gain asylum in Australia many come from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Iran, sailing in dangerous conditions on conventional unsafe boats, often paying human traffickers. In their bid to reach Australia, many die in capsized boats, and many others are intercepted and sent to detention camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

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