Disturbing report on children in detention presents opportunity for change

While the report acknowledges that mental health and wellbeing improves dramatically once a child is released, it also demonstrates that the harm caused is ongoing, sometimes effecting children into adulthood.

Kings Cross, 12 February 2015 – The latest report on asylum-seeking children in detention demonstrates the extreme failure of the Australian government’s refugee policy. However, this presents an opportunity to implement long-overdue changes, according to the Jesuit Refugee Service.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention report was recently tabled in Parliament. The report found that the prolonged detention of children has severe negative impacts on their health and development, with 34 per cent of children detained in Australian centres displaying signs of serious mental illness that require a mental health professional. This compares with just two per cent of the general population.

“These findings are extremely disturbing and prove what human rights groups and mental health professionals have been telling the government for years: that detention is dangerous and harmful to children,” says Oliver White, JRS Australia Head of Policy and Advocacy.

“It’s now well-documented, thanks to the AHRC’s report, that children in detention are exposed to disturbing incidents, such as assault and hunger strikes; some of them have been subjected to sexual assault; and many resort to self-harm.”

While the report acknowledges that mental health and wellbeing often improves dramatically once a child is released, it also demonstrates that the harm caused sometimes affects children into adulthood. By detaining children in this way, Australia is in breach its international obligations under human rights law.

As a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is obliged to ensure that the best interests of the child are always a primary consideration. The convention clearly states that children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest period of time. They should not be detained arbitrarily, and if they are deprived of their liberty, they should have the right to challenge their detention in a court of law.

While the government has made progress in relocating children held on Christmas Island to the Australian mainland, 330 children remain in detention: 211 in mainland facilities and 119 on Nauru.

“The report – the first of its kind undertaken in ten years – presents the government with an opportunity to acknowledge the inherent flaws in its refugee policy and to utilise existing alternatives that will align it with other, less punitive, countries. We welcome the fact that the majority of children have been released from detention, but those who remain are vulnerable to the conditions that have now been exposed by the AHRC report”, added Mr White.

Furthermore, there are no legal measures in place which prevent children from being detained for immigration purposes in the future.

“The government can no longer claim ignorance about the long-term psychological damage that detention causes to children, and we echo the AHRC recommendation that the government end all mandatory detention with immediate effect,” says Mr White.

“The findings of this report document the harm caused to children who have come to this country seeking safety. This is an opportunity for the government to take stock, reflect on the effects of current policy and make a positive change.”

For further information

Oliver White
Head of Policy and Advocacy
Tel: +61 93563888

Note to editors

JRS Australia staff regularly visit asylum seekers held in a number of detention centres in the country, offering psychosocial and pastoral care to nearly 5,000 people in 2014. Teams also provides a small number of refugees in vulnerable circumstances with emergency and longer-term accommodation, and assists with legal aid, preparation for employment, healthcare, English lessons and financial management. Based on their close proximity to refugees, JRS supports initiatives and efforts for lasting policy change by both national refugee agencies and the International Detention Coalition (IDC).

Internationally JRS programmes are found in 50 countries, providing assistance to: refugees in camps and cities, individuals displaced within their own countries, asylum seekers in cities, and to those held in detention centres. The main areas of work are in the field of education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services.

At the end of 2014, JRS employed approximately 1,400 staff: lay, Jesuits and other religious to meet the education, health, social and other needs of nearly 950,000 refugees and IDPs, more than half of whom are women. Services are provided to refugees regardless of race, ethnic origin or religious beliefs.

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