Explainer: What's Really Happening To Kids In Immigration Detention


Scott Morrison, patron saint of children.

That was the general tone of reporting on Tuesday morning as Morrison did the press rounds, boasting that his ‘tough-but-fair’ approach to stopping the boats had allowed him to release a large number of children from detention.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph could barely contain the Morrison mania, running an ‘exclusive’ news piece presumably hand fed to them by the Minister, an opinion piece written by Morrison himself, and lest there be any doubt about the paper’s feelings, an editorial in praise of Morrison.

But was there any substance to the announcement?

Before answering that question, we need to look at what was actually announced, something which remains surprisingly difficult to access given the hoopla that accompanied it.

In the rush to break the news, there was serious confusion.

According to the Australian, 150 children would be released from detention centres, while 1,547 under the age of 10 currently in community detention would be moved on to bridging visas.

One thing was made clear by the Minister: the announcement would not impact the status of those who arrived after July 19, 2013 and are subject to mandatory offshore processing and settlement. The children held on Christmas Island and Nauru, which an AHRC inquiry has heard are enduring suffering akin to torture, will not be helped.

So what about these 150/1,547 children, who are they and what do they get?

That first number, the 150 figure, is the important one.

Sophie Peer, from advocacy and support organisation Children Out of Detention (Chilout) told New Matilda her organisation’s understanding was that Morrison would be releasing the approximately 150 children who arrived before July 19 but are still being held in immigration detention centres in Australia.

“We believe the majority are actually in Darwin and they’re of Vietnamese origin. They have suffered the longest period in detention,” Peer says.

“They should have been released a long time ago. There has been no reason to keep these people.”

This is good news, especially given the Human Rights Commission has heard evidence that even in the best centres, for instance South Australia’s Inverbrackie facility, children are suffering serious psychological harm.

But it’s important to note there will still be a large number of children held in detention in Australia. Children who are in Australia to receive medical attention but did not arrive before July 19, 2013, for example, will remain detained (and most likely return to Christmas Island or Nauru).

Department figures from July recorded that 564 children remained in onshore detention centres. The release of 150 of that group suddenly looks a bit less generous.

Whether this outcome is actually news is another question entirely.

The policy of releasing children from these centres has been effectively bi-partisan since 2010, and shadow Minister Richard Marles accused Morrison of re-announcing an old Labor-era initiative.

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says the number of children being released from detention into the community slowed dramatically when Morrison took over from his Labor predecessor Tony Burke.

“The media are presenting it as if there is some new policy. It is not new. This policy existed from the day that Morrison took office,” Curr says.

“What has happened is Morrison has deliberately left families in detention when he had the option of releasing them. And now, because he’s facing the Human Rights Commission on Friday, he’s made the big announcement that 150 are going to be released.”

Asked in a press conference whether his impending appearance was the real reason for the announcement, Morrison told journalists it was a cynical question.

So that leaves the 1,547 number still to be explained.

Despite the Oz reporting this as the number of under-10s in “community detention”, the Department’s most recent figures show it is actually the total number of children (defined as under-18) in that position.

While this number ended up being banded about alongside the 150, the fate of these children is far more complex.

Technically classified as being held in “community detention”, the 1,547 children and their families are not really incarcerated in the way those in actual detention are, and do not live life behind locked gates.

While they need permission to travel, and are under other minor restrictions, they are actually in a fairly favourable position, and are provided furnished housing by the government.

According to Purr, the term “community detention” was invented by Labor to make a humane policy sound tough, and help sell it to voters.

Morrison’s announcement indicates children in these circumstances will now be moved on to bridging visas where appropriate. The amount of welfare support their families receive will go up (to 89 per cent of usual Centrelink rates) but they will have to find their own accommodation. Children will still have to leave the education system at the age of 18, and their parents remain barred from pursuing employment.

Curr and Peer are both warning this could in fact leave children and families worse off.

“When we talk about who this decision will positively impact, it’s not them. In fact they may lose out, because they may have some support programs taken away from them,” says Peer.

Of particular concern is the fate of unaccompanied minors.

Morrison has said repeatedly that new services will be provided for those transitioning to bridging visas, but has only hinted at the details.

“The types of things we are doing just to give you an example is the areas of support relate to accommodation,” he said on Wednesday.

“We have seen and all understand the issues of some of those who were released on bridging visas under the previous government, being found in totally unsuitable accommodation in very distraught circumstances.”

Asylums seeker advocates are anxious for further news. They say that under current arrangements community groups, churches, and volunteers are forced to pick up the slack to ensure those on bridging visas have access to food, medicine, and enough money for public transport.

Whether put on bridging visas or not, the long-term prospects of these children and their families are also looking darker, with Morrison vowing to reintroduce temporary protection visas, meaning those found to be genuine refugees will face ongoing re-examinations of their claims and could be deported after establishing successful lives in Australia.

This renewed effort, along with the promise to move families with children under 10 onto bridging visas, is the only new development.

Yet through all the spin, one important admission has come out of this massive pseudo-event.

In releases and statements, Morrison admitted that moving people out of actual locked detention would save the government $50 million, something Department Secretary Martin Bowles refused to be drawn on at the AHRC’s last inquiry hearing.

This proves a key claim made by pro-refugee groups, who have long argued onshore community processing is not only more ethical, but more economical.

With Morrison facing off with AHRC President Gillian Triggs tomorrow at the Commission’s next public hearing into children in detention, he’s sure to be asked to explain why that option is not being more broadly pursued.

NM will be in Canberra for the public hearing with reporter Max Chalmers tweeting. You can follow him here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.