The safety of a child cannot be guaranteed in a place of detention, regardless of any measures taken to protect the child, due to the volatile, and at times unstable, environment that detention centres occupy.
Jesuit Refugee Service has called for an end to the detention of children and for the Immigration Minister to relinquish his role as detained children’s official guardian to avoid an ongoing conflict of interest.
In a submission to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, JRS said that the facilities in which 833 children are currently being held in detention on Christmas Island and the Australian mainland are inappropriate and that all children in held detention should be immediately released.
While JRS is opposed to the arbitrary and indefinite detention of all asylum seekers, it is particularly concerned about the detention of children. Minors are among the most vulnerable of asylum seekers, and their welfare is being detrimentally affected by the terms of their detention.
“JRS has observed that the length of detention is directly correlated with increased negative outcomes for child detainees,” the report says.
“The safety of a child cannot be guaranteed in a place of detention, regardless of any measures taken to protect the child, due to the volatile, and at times unstable, environment that detention centres occupy.”
Moreover, says the report, the longer a child is detained, the more likely it is that they will be exposed to traumatic events such as riots, hunger strikes, and exposure to self-harm incidents.
“This week there have been reports that asylum seekers on Christmas Island have suffered serious injuries after they clashed with security staff in the centre,” says the submission author and JRS’ Head of Policy and Advocacy, Oliver White.
“This is another serious incident that further illustrates that detention centres are not appropriate environments for children.”
JRS is also concerned about the limited or total lack of access to educational, recreational, and health services for children in detention centre’s like those on Christmas Island. Without access to these fundamental services, it says, the development of the child is severely impeded.
The findings articulated in the submission are based on the observations of JRS staff and volunteers who work with child asylum seekers. They report that self-harm and suicidal tendencies are often present.
The report sheds light on other disturbing outcomes for children in detention, including participation in a hunger strike on Christmas Island and the presentation among children separated from their families with weight loss, nightmares, insomnia, increased crying and feelings of isolation.
In the submission JRS calls on the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, to relinquish his role as legal guardian of unaccompanied children in detention, saying it is not an appropriate arrangement due to an inherent conflict of interest.
“The minister oversees policies that result in children being detained and transferred to offshore processing centres, outcomes that are not in the best interests of these children. Yet he is simultaneously their responsible guardian, and as such is expected to base all decisions that affect them on their own welfare,” it says.
Despite positive changes over the past ten years, such as the introduction of community detention, the current policy of offshore processing of unauthorised maritime arrivals has resulted in the prolonged detention of a large number of children on Christmas Island while awaiting transfer to Nauru, in facilities where conditions remain detrimental to their wellbeing.