Suffer the little children – asylum seeking kids in Australia

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Right now there are 628 children in immigration detention. The new Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, would have you believe that these children are not really being detained. On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, he said that “There’s no children in detention centres as such, so there’s no children behind the razor wire.” As though the absence of razor wire alone can make detention humane or acceptable. Of course, the notorious Baxter detention centre did not have razor wire. Instead, there were “electrified courtesy fences” to use the language of the Department at the time. And Villawood detention centre has had no razor wire since Amanda Vanstone was Minister. Would anyone claim none of those people are being held in detention?

ChilOut was a volunteer group campaigning from 2001 to 2006 on behalf of children in immigration detention. We wound down our campaign after the amendment was written into the Migration Act that “Children should be detained as a measure of last resort.” At the same time, children were removed from the main immigration detention centres (IDCs) and put out into the community either on bridging visas or residence determinations. The only children held in any form of secure facility – residential housing– were those whose parents were a proven security or flight risk. This was not a radical left agenda. It was done by the Howard government.

The sad fact is that right now 618 children are being held in detention facilities – of the 628 in the immigration detention regime, only 10 are in the community under residence determinations. If you read the very small footnotes in the Immigration department detention statistics summary, you will see that this is the only form of detention where the person does not have to be accompanied at all times by a designated person i.e. under guard going to and from school.

The statistics summary states that as of August 27, 438 children were detained on the mainland “ten were detained in the community under residence determinations, 317 were in alternative temporary detention in the community, 51 were in immigration residential housing and 60 were in immigration transit accommodation. Of the 2379 people in immigration detention on Christmas Island, 190 were children (aged under 18 years) – all in alternative temporary detention in the community.” Let’s unpack what these nice sounding places mean.

Alternative temporary detention in the community is not ‘temporary’ as children have been in Leonora for four months as of the end of September and for far longer on Christmas Island. It is not really ‘in the community’ as children are held behind fences, and the few lucky enough to go outside to school do so under guard and are brought right back afterwards. There are 190 kids held in this form of detention on Christmas Island. Most of them are unaccompanied afghan children – effectively war orphans. There can be no argument that they are being held because they are a security risk.

For the 51 kids in immigration residential housing, things are no better. These places are actually mini-detention centers, albeit more humane, less institutional and with less security. It is generally a cluster of houses or demountables built around a common recreation area, fully fenced with a guard house and CCTV monitoring in the common areas. Again, there are no visitors in without authority and kids generally only go outside for school under guard. Any recreational trips are few and far between. The last category is the 60 kids held in immigration transit accommodation (ITAs.) These places were intended to be used only for very short term (around 7days) as a place of transit while a person was in the process of being removed from Australia.

Many children have not left their place of detention in months. While it was laudable that the ALP policy was to remove children from IDCs – the main detention centres – the result has been that kids are now held for long periods in places that do not have anything close to adequate facilities. At least the IDCs were purpose built to house people for long periods and have recreational and educational facilities. Places such as the Darwin Asti Motel are cramped, with only a cement carpark for children to play in. 150 afghan boys held in the Darwin Lodge have not been outside since April. Dr Louise Newman, an adviser to Government on immigration detention issues, has stated that in some cases, detention centres are actually better than the alternatives currently being used for children.

Sadly, ChilOut has had to resume our campaign in light of so many kids being held in immigration detention facilities in unacceptable conditions that are a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. When we ended our first campaign, there was overwhelming support from the Australian community to ensure that children were not being detained. When we closed up shop, members of our group were drained – emotionally, physically and financially.

But there is no way we are going to stand by and watch this happen again. Not in our name, not in our country. No way. We will not allow our government to damage and traumatize another round of vulnerable children who fled to us with arms outstretched, seeking safety and protection.

The first time around we were just simple middle-class mums and dads who thought a couple of letters to the papers would solve the issue. After a 5 year hard-fought struggle we are seasoned campaigners, polished media performers and savvy political operatives. And we are mad as hell that we have to do this all over again.

For more information or to join the campaign, go to www.chilout.org