It's no wonder that the Howard government kept silent on the issue or covered up as much as possible - there is now overwhelming evidence that mandatory detention has breached the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
According to Dr Sev Osdowski, Australia's Human Rights Commissioner, the findings of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention - A Last Resort? - are clear.
Immigration detention centres expose children to enormous mental distress - which confirms the need to ensure that children should only be locked up in this environment as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
From 346 submissions, including contributions by lawyers, health professionals, education and social workers, as well as case studies, emerged one of the most tragic stories in Australia's refugee history. Altogether the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) report found 53 breaches of the CRC with regard to the different categories examined.
These categories were the overall effect of Australia's detention policy on children; children's rights regarding the refugee status determination; provision of safety; protection of mental health; enjoyment of physical health; special provision for children with disabilities and for unaccompanied children; rights regarding access to education and recreation; rights regarding religion, culture and language; and rights when children are released on temporary protection visas. All categories, except for that of religion, culture and language, involved breaches of at least three articles of the CRC. The findings regarding mental health demonstrated a breach of eight articles of the CRC including article 37 (a) which stated that "no child shall be subjected to torture or other, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". In all, 17 articles of the CRC were breached.
The Inquiry found that for some families, being kept in detention in one of the housing projects offered some improvement but still fell far short of release or alternative detention in the community. Although given visiting rights for these families, fathers had to remain in the detention centre. The Minister for Immigration had made it clear that for families it was never the government's intention to release children into the community. It was in the best interests of the family that they remain together in the detention centre or in the detention area of the housing project (although the latter did involve separation of fathers from their families).
More importantly for the Howard Government was the perceived sign of weakness if children, and of course families, were released into the community. It would send a signal to prospective people smugglers that Australia was softening its policy on mandatory detention. Also, if families and unaccompanied minors were released then this would add to the distress of those single men and women having to remain in a detention centre. There would be more pressure on the government for their release. The chink in the mandatory armour would become a formidable crack and the deterrent value of the Howard Government's detention regime would be lost.
For children arriving in Australia between 1 July 1999 and 30 June 2003 and seeking asylum the report highlights the differences between those who arrived in Australia without a valid visa (2,184) and those with a valid visa (3,125). The startling disparity is that only 25 per cent of the children arriving with a valid visa were found to be refugees - these children were not held in detention. This compares to 92 per cent of children receiving refugee status when they had come without a valid visa - these children were held in detention (boat children accounting for approximately three-quarters of children in detention).
The government's focus was always on the boat people who had "jumped the queue". In fact, the people arriving by air who had a valid visa and sought asylum as soon as they had landed in Australia were the real queue jumpers. They had deceived the Australian government concerning their true purpose in coming to Australia. They were privileged with regard to status, connections, money or whatever to obtain a visa. They weren't fleeing for their lives and they were less deserving of refugee status.
Mandatory detention, as practiced in Australia, was destined for failure. It was incompatible with the application of children's rights under the CRC. The length of detention, being held in limbo, family disruption and the mental distress were always going to be prevailing factors which countered any measures by the Department of Immigration or by the management companies (Australasian Correctional Management and Group 4 Falck) to offset children's rights abuse.
The experience of trauma by children in the detention environment, the anguish experienced by children in family breakdown and the severe mental health problems suffered by children were among the more insidious and damaging effects. "They will carry the scars of the their detention experience throughout their lives," Dr Ozdowski said.
An ACM psychologist described one boy's deteriorating mental health at Woomera detention centre in June 2002:
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