The average time asylum seekers are being held in Australian detention centres has increased almost three-fold since the Coalition government came to office, an inquiry has heard.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been forced to defend the Coalition’s tough asylum seeker policies today after a Human Rights Commission Inquiry heard the average length of detention had extended from 115 days in September 2013 to 349 days by July this year.
Appearing before the Commission’s public hearings for the first time, Morrison said that while the average time of detention had increased, the total number of people being detained had declined.
He said there were now 516 less children in detention than when the Coalition came to power.
Flanked by Department of Immigration Secretary, Martin Bowles, Morrison was pushed to explain why children and families continue to be held on Nauru and Christmas Island.
In defence of the ongoing practice, the Minister said it was a consequence of the government’s broader efforts to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, which included offshore processing, turning back boats, and Operation Sovereign Borders.
Commission President Gillian Triggs probed Morrison to explain whether the long-term detention of children was being used to deter other asylum seekers coming to Australia. Morrison denied the government intentionally processes applications slowly.
“Why do you believe that stopping the boats and stopping the drownings… can be achieved by detaining children in these ways,” Triggs asked.
“Frankly Madam President, the results speak for themselves,” Morrison replied.
Triggs appeared unsatisfied with the response.
“How can you justify the indefinite detention of children in these conditions for more than a year when there is not evidence this is the policy that is stopping the boats?” she asked.
In previous hearings, the Commission heard from doctors employed to work on Christmas Island, as well as visiting child health experts, that the conditions at the centre were inappropriate for children.
At today’s hearing, Counsel Assisting the Commission Naomi Sharp noted that the Minister’s own Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention had visited Christmas Island earlier in the year and noted in a report: “All were disturbed by what they observed”. The report also recommended that detaining children on the Island was inappropriate.
Morrison conceded efforts needed to be undertaken to mitigate the impact of detention on children but rejected the accusation that services provided were insufficient.
“I do not accept that the services provided by our health contractor IHMS are substandard,” Morrison said.
The Minister also faced questions about those held in centres on the mainland.
Morrison said those who continue to be detained in Australian centres could not be processed until an appropriate visa scheme was in place. On multiple occasions, he attacked Labor and the Greens for refusing to pass Temporary Protection Visas in the Senate, which advocates warn prolong the suffering of asylum seekers by subjecting their claims to ongoing reassessment, even once they are found to be genuine refugees.
Morrison was also asked about a group of mothers held on Christmas Island who the Commission met during a July visit. The mothers attempted self-harm after being told they would not be moved to an onshore centre, more appropriate for their children.
Morrison said he could not move them onshore as doing so would be fulfilling the promises made by people smugglers.
“I understand they would like to come to the mainland and not be part of the offshore processing policy,” he said, but noted that “they paid people smugglers to get to Australia”.
In the course of questioning, the Minister conceded on two occasions that onshore community processing is a cheaper alternative to offshore processing. However, he argued that by stopping boat arrivals, the government had overall made far more significant savings.
The morning’s hearing became heated at several points. In one instance, Morrison and Bowles responded to assertions made by Triggs, aggrieved that she had compared the state of Christmas Island facilities to a prison.
Triggs, formally a Dean of Law School at the University of Sydney, fired back.
“I know a prison when I see it,” she said.
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