After an ugly election fought over boats and borders, when the newly appointed Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told the nation that getting kids out of a detention was a priority in October last year, it looked for a moment like he was ready to shift the Labor Government’s approach to asylum seekers back to the humane approach promised in 2007.
On 18 October 2010, Bowen and Julia Gillard announced that the Government would work with community organisations and charities to move unaccompanied children and families into community-based accommodation. They said:
"Today’s announcement … recognises the importance of balancing the Government’s policy to mandatorily detain unauthorised arrivals with the humane treatment of those fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in our country.
"This is especially important for children, for whom protracted detention can have negative impacts on their development and mental health.
"The Government intends to progressively move several hundred children and families into community-based accommodation — with the assistance of community organisations — by June 2011."
That’s right, by June 2011: in 12 days time.
Bowen did the media rounds, telling Lyndal Curtis on AM, "The aim is to get the majority of children out of detention". When asked by Sandy Aloisi on 2UE Breakfast why he planned to release parents along with children, Bowen stuck to his guns.
"Well, because I don’t think you can realistically split up families, Sandy … I think most people would recognise that children are a special case and there’s a special responsibility to make sure that we do no harm, and that whether they’re returned to their home country eventually or whether they’re allowed to stay in Australia, we should encourage their growth and development, and we should make their experience in Australia one which they remember and they don’t remember being locked away in detention centres or detention facilities."
In February, as the Department of Immigration, the shadow immigration spokesman Scott Morrison and the talkback radio hosts thrashed out whether or not the nine-year-old Iranian orphan Sina, then detained on Christmas Island, should be allowed to attend his parents’ funeral or not, Bowen confirmed the timeline for getting kids out of detention. "We’ll be meeting my commitment made in October that the majority of children will be out of detention by June."
As June approaches, Bowen looks unlikely to make good on this commitment.
The most recent statistics on the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s website (of 15 April 2011) show that 1048 children are still in detention.
Last week, Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre circulated an email with these figures, writing:
"Out of 1048 children in detention — there are 156 who have been released into the community. There are 79 unaccompanied minors in this group of 156. This has taken 7 months to achieve this. The government has told us that 900 children and families will be released by June 2011.
She was subsequently contacted by a spokesperson for the Minister who told Curr her figures were out of date. The representative wrote:
"As at 12 May 2011, the Minister has granted community detention placements to 759 people, including 368 children. Some 79 of these people have been granted permanent Protection visas since being approved for community detention placements, and the rest are either living in the community or are awaiting transfer in coming days."
Curr then asked for an accurate figure of how many children were still in locked detention environments. She was told the Minister could not provide this information at this time. However, based on her own calculations, Curr told New Matilda "We can be sure that there are still at least 600-800 children in locked detention environments".
The organisation ChilOut was established in 2001 to advocate for the rights of children in detention. The plight of six-year-old Shayan Badraie in Villawood Detention Centre gave impetus to the organisation and led to years of high-profile campaigning. Their activities ceased in 2005 when the Howard government moved to release kids from secure detention facilities:
"We all breathed a collective sigh of relief in June 2005 when the Howard government capitulated to its backbenchers’ revolt and agreed to release all families into community detention and amended the Migration Act to include the principle that ‘children should be detained as a measure of last resort’."
The organisation got back in action in 2010, explaining their decision like this:
"The current ALP Government tries to split hairs, claiming that kids are not kept behind razor wire. This is a cynical play with words. Children are kept behind high fences under guard. They cannot come and go. They are in remote locations, some in camps in the WA desert. These children ARE detained. We decided we simply had to revive ChilOut and its network of supporters. Now with over 1000 children incarcerated we continue to regroup our volunteers and recruit new ones."
Since election in 2007, Labor has gone to some lengths to distinguish its treatment of asylum seekers from that of the Howard government: Labor, voters are told, is more humane, more civilised, more compassionate. It has been a difficult task given its equally strenuous efforts to assert a tough approach to border security and an unshakeable commitment to mandatory detention.
In July 2008, then immigration minister Chris Evans delivered a speech entitled "New Directions In Detention".
"Labor rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response."
"The detention of children behind razor wire and the obvious damage done to them caused outrage in the Australian community. The Howard government could not defend that practice but never abandoned the option of again detaining children.
"Labor’s detention values explicitly ban the detention of children in immigration detention centres. Children in the company of family members will be accommodated in immigration residential housing (IRH) or community settings."
This speech is cited on DIAC’s website as a reference point for "key immigration detention values". Point 3 is unambiguous: "Children, including juvenile foreign fishers and, where possible, their families, will not be detained in an immigration detention centre."
That speech was delivered almost three years ago. Bowen’s announcement that some children and families are being moved out of detention and into community accommodation is welcome — but it’s far from the majority that he promised last year.
Indeed, Labor has had years now to deliver on the rhetoric about children in detention which saw Kevin Rudd elected in 2007. Hunger strikes, protests, and violence continue and asylum seeker advocates across the country report that conditions have never been worse in Australia’s detention centres. And as the leaders of the two major political parties stumble in the race to express an ever harder line on asylum seekers, hundreds of children remain — unacceptably — locked up.
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