"Why detain children if this policy is not aimed at deterring people smuggling, nor stopping the tragic drowning of asylum seekers at sea?"
"Why detain children if this policy is not aimed at deterring people smuggling, nor stopping the tragic drowning of asylum seekers at sea?" Photo: James Brickwood
The former and current ministers for immigration and border security, Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison, agree on one thing: that asylum seeker children are not detained to deter people smuggling. Rather, it appears that patrol boats and naval frigates, commanded by a three star general, and a refusal to allow refugees to settle here, have reduced the number of boats reaching Australia. 
Why detain children if this policy is not aimed at deterring people smuggling, nor stopping the tragic drowning of asylum seekers at sea?
The commission's inquiry into the impact of mandatory immigration detention on children is in its final stages and, last week, the draft report was provided to the Department of Immigration for comment. Here are some of the facts underpinning our inquiry.
</i>Illustration: Andrew Dyson </i>
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
The latest figures from August are that Australia holds 647 children in closed detention, 500 on the mainland and 147 on Christmas Island, including 28 children with disabilities. A further 222 children are detained on Nauru.  On  average, children and their families have been held in closed detention camps for over a year. Children on Christmas Island have had virtually no access to school; that is, until the Government funded Catholic Education to provide a program a few weeks ago. No claim to refugee status has been assessed by the Government since taking office more than 13 months ago, denying a last vestige of respect and dignity to asylum seekers.
The evidence is mounting that prolonged detention of children has severe negative impacts on their health and development. On Monday, the Medical Journal of Australia reported that over 80 per cent of the 139 pediatricians responding to the survey believe that the mandatory detention of asylum seeker children amounts to "child abuse", confirming the assessment made recently by the Australian Medical Association. One pediatrician, after visiting Christmas Island, concluded, "almost all the children are sick". Evidence of the children's significant mental and physical decline is confirmed by Department of Immigration reports of 128 incidents of self-harm by children over fifteen months from January 2013 to March 2014.
In the past few days troubling allegations of sexual abuse of children held on Nauru have been made. An internal departmental inquiry is to be held which will test the accuracy of these allegations, allegations that have also been made to the Australian Human Rights Commission's inquiry.
Vital to the success of the inquiry is the methodology adopted to ensure that our findings stand up to objective, critical scrutiny. We have held five public hearings;  the Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell and I made 13 visits to detention centres. Formal interviews were conducted with more than 1200 families and children in detention and medical experts were included in all detention centre visits. The inquiry has also received 239 submissions.
The commission has used its inquiry powers to good effect over many years. The 2004 Inquiry into Children in Detention – "A Last Resort?" – successfully encouraged the Howard Government to release all asylum seeker children.
Perhaps Minister Morrison, as the guardian of unaccompanied minors, can be similarly persuaded. Just before giving evidence to the inquiry, he announced that 150 children under 10 years, who arrived before July 19, 2013, are to be released before Christmas. This is welcome news, although hundreds of children will remain in detention, as most arrived after this date.
Recent reports of an agreement in the Senate to provide temporary protection and safe haven visas are a potential circuit breaker of the policy impasse. While refugees are entitled to a durable settlement, temporary visas, provide a more humane response than detention. But the bad news is that children will be released only if the Senate agrees to some form of temporary visa and under the proposed legislation, children on Nauru will not be eligible. This is to hold children hostage to political deals and is contrary to international law and, one would hope, Australian law.
In the last two weeks, amendments have been proposed to the Migration Act that are offensive to the rule of law. The bill provides that removing asylum seekers is not invalid if this fails to comply with Australia's international obligations. Adding salt to the wound, the rights to review of those permitted to claim protection will be curtailed, increasing the risk that they will be wrongly denied refugee status. Hopefully, Parliament has the sense to reject these retrograde and internationally embarrassing provisions.
The commission expects the report to be finalised and tabled before Christmas. The evidence gathered thus far is so compelling that all Australians should question the detention of children – especially when the reason for detention is unclear. Not only does the end not justify the means, but also the detention of children does not achieve the Government's objective of stopping the illegal traffic of asylum seekers.
Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs is the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission