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Catholic refugee advocates: End immigration detention of children

Children in detention

Long-term trauma: Refugee activists protest outside the electoral office of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Brisbane. Photo: AAP

REFUGEE advocates have demanded the Federal Government put an end to children ever being held in immigration detention again.

The detention of children has been described as a contributor to long-term trauma, a violation of duty of care and morally wrong by refugee advocates.

Brisbane’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission welcomed the April 3 announcement by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to release all children remaining in immigration detention in mainland Australia.  

CJPC chair Maree Rose said the Government needed to do more to eliminate cruel and unjust measures, most importantly by closing down offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

“It is totally unacceptable that one group of people who have done nothing more than seek an end to suffering in their homeland should be subjected to indefinite detention in cruel and harsh conditions in order to thwart the activities of so-called people smugglers,” Ms Ross said.

“… Fifty children, along with their mothers and fathers and other adults, are still languishing on Nauru and facing more suffering and trauma.”

The Refugee Council of Australia has called for legislative change that would forbid child detention.

“The time is now to pass legislation to ensure we are never, ever in this situation again; where children are used as pawns in a political game,” Refugee Council chief executive officer Paul Power.

Asylum seekers in detention advocate Fr Malcolm Fyfe, said he was aware of the release on April 1 of a 17-year-old, a toddler and a baby, from the Wickham Point Detention Centre in Darwin.  

Fr Fyfe said those children were now in community detention.

“While we are happy to give credit wherever it is due, we feel obliged to add that this outcome has taken an excessive amount of time to come about,” Darwin diocese’s vicar general said.

“Furthermore we note that such children may still be forced to leave Australia, pending the outcome of their claims for asylum and that the latest decision will mean nothing if the Minister has plans to send any of them back to Nauru, adding to the 50 children still in detention there.”

About 260 asylum seekers, including more than 70 babies and children, could still be sent to Nauru where a large number of serious sexual assaults and other abuses have been reported.

They include more than 30 babies born in Australia after their mothers were transferred from Nauru on medical grounds. 

One-year-old baby Asha is among that group. 

She was evacuated from Nauru to Brisbane to receive treatment at Lady Cilento hospital for accidental burns.

Doctors refused to release Asha to detention centre guards in case she was returned to Nauru.

Asha is now with her family living in community detention awaiting possible return offshore.

“All are subject to going back to Nauru once the medical support has been provided, and we’ve been very clear about that,” Mr Dutton told ABC radio on April 4.

A day earlier, just as Mr Dutton, announced that there were no children left in mainland detention, he became embroiled in a media row about whether, in fact, the children had been released.

The Guardian Australia, quoted a source within his department saying the “release” was “more bureaucratic sleight of hand than emancipation”.

As an example, The Guardian reported, families with children in “held detention” in the “family compound” of Sydney’s Villawood detention centre were told by letter shortly before the Minister’s announcement their detention was now classified as “community detention”.

They had been “released” from detention without moving, The Guardian reported. 

Mr Dutton rejected the report. 

“The same definitions apply today as they did before,” he said. 

“There are certain characteristics that need to be met in relation to all these definitions, but that’s all beltway stuff.”

When questioned whether the children were out of detention, he told reporters: “They’re outside of ‘held detention’, so that’s the answer that I’ve provided to you before.”

Fr Fyfe said the release of children raised a number of issues including how the transition to freedom was managed – the children had already suffered serious trauma from their years in detention. 

“Their parents are going to need to re-establish effective parental influence over their children and work towards recreating a normal family environment to counteract the situation where security personnel were the ones to decide what happened in the daily program of the detention centre,” he said.

“We are conscious also of the stress experienced by those left behind in the detention centres whenever some individuals are released. 

“Such detainees currently have no basis to hope for a good outcome in their own case.

“What is really needed in terms of our Government’s policy is a radical overhauling of legislation to come up with a much more humane and compassionate way of managing the asylum seeker and refugee phenomenon, an inescapable feature of today’s globalised world.”  

Sisters of St Joseph justice co-ordinator Sr Jan Barnett said it was important to keep up pressure on the Government to act “morally” on the asylum issue.

“It is one thing for these children to be released into community detention, but there is the ongoing threat of their deportation to Nauru and detention there,” she said.

As part of a campaign, children at Josephite schools were encouraged on March 19, to “speak out”,  through artwork and written works, and ask the Government to let asylum seekers stay.

“St Joseph was a refugee,” Sr Barnett said.

 She said students at Mary MacKillop College, Nundah, listened to scripture and prayers of the faithful, and then each student placed a hand of welcome containing a written message on a door, the centerpiece of a symbolic art installation. 

“Our pledge on that day was ‘we will not close the door on those who need our help’,” Sr Barnett said.

Ms Rose paid tribute to the many parishes supporting people seeking asylum with accommodation, food and clothing, employment and other forms of practical support.

“We encourage all parishes to be beacons of compassion and justice for asylum seekers in this Jubilee Year of Mercy,” she said.

“By continuing to offer compassionate service to our sisters and brothers in need and by passionately advocating Government policies which respect their human dignity, let’s play our part in overcoming the indifference and heartlessness which plagues our country and our world.”

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