August 09, 2013
The Immigration Minister is investigating the option of moving unaccompanied minors from Tasmania’s Pontville Detention Centre into the homes of local families.
Unaccompanied children as young as five are being detained around the country, with the largest number being held at Pontville.
The centre near Hobart houses 275 young asylum seekers and has been the scene of disturbances this year involving scores of detainees.
One detainee staged a hunger strike for several days and there were concerns about others self harming.
The Minister Tony Burke has told ABC Radio’s AM program the Government had been expanding community places for the youngest detainees across the country.
A five-year-old Vietnamese boy and his two teenage siblings who arrived in April were being held in Darwin before being moved into the community on Wednesday.
Another five-year-old Sri Lankan and his relatives who arrived in July are still being detained but will be moved into the community next week.
Tony Burke says that since he became minister he has moved 116 detainees from Pontville into community places.
“We still have, on the latest figures I’ve been given, 275 unaccompanied minors who are there in Pontville and we’re getting community places for them as quickly as we can,” he said.
Mr Burke says that there are 10 children inside Pontville who have been detained there and in other places for more than 150 days.
He hopes by next week that will have gone down to two.
The priority has been for the teenagers who have been held the longest and those who are young.
Mental health toll
One teenager inside Pontville recently spoke to the ABC about life inside the centre.
The detainee said the children inside Pontville feel down “about their freedom which they are not getting.”
“Everyone is feeling so down here they are not sleeping much.”
Other children have been moved from Christmas Island into Pontville.
Tony Burke says one of the two 11-year-olds held at Pontville has been moved into a group home with his two cousins.
“He remained in Pontville for a couple of weeks longer than I would have liked to have been the case because I wasn’t comfortable putting him into a group home with a number of 16 and 17-year-olds who he wasn’t related to.”
The minister says the 11-year-old and his cousins are now living in a group home where they are the only children in that home.
Another 11-year-old from Sri Lanka and his brother are still being held at Pontville – they are approved to be moved into the community this week.
A 16-year-old teenager who recently spent two months in Pontville and is now living in the community told the ABC it was like being in a prison.
“The life inside Pontville was something like prison. You just feel you’re in prison. Everything had boundaries for you,” he said.
“Mentally, it does makes you crazy. You find a lot of problems in there. Please don’t keep the boys a lot there – don’t keep them long in detention centre.”
Eager to help
The Hobart community has been eager to offer the teenagers that are being held inside Pontville a place in their homes.
The Australian Homestay Network wants to run a pilot program in Tasmania where teenager asylum seekers can live in local people’s homes.
Tony Burke says he has asked his department to investigate the option.
“My priority, as I said, is simply I want life to be as close to a normal family environment as you can get.”
“Foster care, or Homestay, is the best example of that; a group home is not as good but it’s still in the community.”