March 05, 2013
URGENT action is needed to allow state child protection agencies to investigate abuse or neglect of children in immigration detention centres, Australia’s commissioners for children have warned.
Tasmanian Children’s Commissioner Aileen Ashford yesterday became first children’s commissioner to be given access to child asylum-seekers in detention and said it was unacceptable that the 137 boys from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, were receiving no schooling at Pontville detention centre, aside from English.
Ms Ashford said the Immigration Department had told her the boys were not attending school because it was too difficult to transport so many to and from schools each day. However, the centre is only about 30 minutes’ drive from Hobart and Ms Ashford said she did not accept the department’s argument.
Ms Ashford said despite a growing number of children in some detention centres, state child protection agencies had no jurisdiction to act on cases of alleged abuse.
She and her counterparts had written to the Gillard government demanding asylum-seeker children be afforded the same protection as all other children, but so far to no avail.
After speaking to 29 of the boys, she said some had told her they feared “going mental” through worry and were having trouble sleeping, while all were suffering severe boredom and were desperate to enter the community and go to school.
“If there is any issue around abuse and neglect for those young people, they should have the same rights as every other young child . . . in our society,” she said. The states and commonwealth needed to give state child protection agencies jurisdiction over immigration detention centres, she said.
The issue, first raised with the Gillard government in 2011, has become more urgent with the increasing number of children in centres such as Pontville.
“Just think if we had 260 young people out at Pontville – that’s a lot of young people in the one place together,” she said.
“Anybody who thinks about children under 17, who haven’t got a guardian with them, would want to make sure they are protected; they are part of the society they live in and the federal government, as their guardian, makes sure they are safe and well.”
She said other than in South Australia, which had negotiated protocols with the commonwealth, no state child welfare agency had jurisdiction to investigate inside detention centres.
Ms Ashford said it was unacceptable the children in Pontville lacked basic equipment or facilities to play cricket and soccer, and were getting injured playing on gravel while wearing only thongs.
She called for the boys, who had been in detention for three to six months, to be released into the community. Failing that, they should be sent to local schools and be given sports equipment.
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor did not comment on the child protection issue but defended conditions at Pontville.
“A comprehensive range of age-appropriate programs and activities, including educational classes, are being delivered,” he said through a spokeswoman. “Excursions outside the centre are also offered. We are working with the Tasmanian government to make arrangements for young people at Pontville to study in the local community.”