UK & World News

  • 22 August 2014, 9:55

Australia's Child Detention Policy Under Fire

Australia's immigration minister has been grilled over claims hundreds of vulnerable children in asylum seeker detention centres are suffering from mental health issues, are self-harming and do not have access to proper facilities.

Scott Morrison was giving evidence to an Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) inquiry into the wellbeing of children in immigration detention centres on the Australian mainland and on remote islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Over recent years thousands of children and adults have arrived in Australian waters by boat, seeking asylum.

Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott won last September's election after campaigning heavily on tough immigration policies, which have been criticised internationally but polls show the policies remain popular with voters.

At times exchanges became heated between Mr Morrison and AHRC president Gillian Triggs.

"Is the detention of children a deterrent for the purpose of stopping the boats?" asked Ms Triggs.

"Children being detained in facilities has been a consequence of the policies that more broadly have been effective in securing Australia's borders, restoring the integrity of our immigration programme and stopping children dying at sea," Mr Morrison told the inquiry.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," replied Ms Triggs, who was then accused by Mr Morrison of putting words in his mouth.

Irfan Shafai from Afghanistan spent a year in detention after arriving unaccompanied on a boat when he was just 14.

Now 16, he told Sky News how harmful detention is for children.

"They keep waiting and waiting and waiting," he said.

"They get more stressed and start self-harming, they get mental problems."

The minister this week announced about 150 children in mainland detention centres would be released into the community on bridging visas by the end of the year.

The move was criticised by human rights groups who say about 700 children will remain in detention centres, including those in Nauru and on Christmas Island.

Mr Morrison also said under the Abbott government more children had been released from detention than had been put in.

About 16,000 asylum seekers came to Australia on 220 boats in the first seven months of 2013, but the government says only one "illegal" boat has arrived since December.

Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned in recent years when rickety boats, mostly from Indonesia, have sunk en route.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) said on Friday all the children should be released.

RACP paediatrician Karen Zwi, who visited Christmas Island, said many unaccompanied children there are now displaying symptoms consistent with major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or general anxiety disorders.

"These children have been living with uncertainty over their futures for over 12 months now and fear being transferred to Nauru," Ms Zwi said.

"If the minister were taking his responsibility as their guardian seriously, he would not be leaving them behind bars for any longer."

A former doctor at Nauru told the HRC inquiry last month that the government asked him to cover up evidence that children held in the camps were suffering from widespread mental illness caused by their confinement.

The inquiry has already heard evidence of detained children swallowing detergents, putting plastic bags over their heads and cutting themselves.

The detention of children has sparked much debate in Australia, where it has become a highly emotive and politicised issue.

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