November 04, 2013
Teenagers, one with mental health issues, have only a ping-pong table and videos to keep them occupied, Guardian Australia told.
Two unaccompanied teenage boys are being held in a small secure compound at Australia’s Manus Island asylum camp and one, who has had mental health problems, has been under 24-hour surveillance, multiple sources have told Guardian Australia.
Amid widespread allegations of sexual assault at the camp, the boys are held in a separate compound for their own safety – away from the 1,137 single men held in the rest of the camp.
The boys – one of whom is understood to be 15 or 16 – have their meals brought to them from the dining mess in takeaway food containers. They have a video player and a cut-down ping pong table but no access to other facilities at the camp.
A third asylum seeker has claimed he is a minor but authorities are not yet sure if this is true. One of the two confirmed minors attempted self-harm and was being watched 24 hours a day.
The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, has said there are “no exceptions” to Australia’s policy of sending all asylum seekers arriving by boat to either Papua New Guinea or Nauru within 48 hours. He has refused to confirm that unaccompanied minors are being held at either centre or comment on the issue when asked during his weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefings.
Human rights and church groups argue that detaining children is wrong and breaches Australia’s international obligations.
It is unclear whether the boys would even be considered minors under Papua New Guinean law: in some cases only under-16s are categorised as such. It is not known who is deemed to be the boys’ legal guardian as the designation of the Australian immigration minister in that role ceases when they are sent to PNG. Nor is it clear what processes will apply to them or what arrangements would be made for their resettlement if their asylum claims were upheld.
In a recent report the Australian Human Rights Commission reiterated that it had “repeatedly stated that hot, remote locations are not appropriate places to send asylum seeker children or other vulnerable groups. The mandatory and prolonged detention of children on Nauru and Manus Island breaches the requirement under the convention on the rights of the child to detain children only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
“The commission is not aware of any unaccompanied minors currently on Nauru or Manus Island. However the commission continues to have significant concerns regarding the arrangements for the care and custody of unaccompanied minors that in the future may be transferred to Nauru and Manus Island. The minister ceases to be the guardian of unaccompanied minors who are transferred from Australia to a ‘regional processing country’. It is unclear what arrangements will be put in place for the guardianship of any unaccompanied minors transferred to PNG. The minister for justice in Nauru is the guardian for unaccompanied minors.”
The former Labor immigration minister Tony Burke, who presided over the expansion of the Manus Island camp under the former Rudd government’s last-minute “PNG solution”, said it had also been Labor’s intention to send unaccompanied minors to the camp “but not until appropriate accommodation and services were in place and not until it was clear what arrangements would be made for their resettlement if their claims were upheld.”
He said he would not have sent unaccompanied minors to Manus under the new arrangements until those questions were answered.
“Even though as minister my guardianship responsibility did not continue once they were in PNG, it would have been present at the time I decided to send them there and I did not think I could discharge that responsibility unless I knew what principles and arrangements had been made for their resettlement,” he said.
The human rights commission president, Gillian Triggs, said recently “children should not be detained unless it is absolutely necessary in their best interest. And that is highly doubtful in the context of offshore processing.”
The memorandum of understanding with PNG signed by the former Labor government provides that “special arrangements will be developed and agreed to by the participants for vulnerable cases, including unaccompanied minors”. It is not known whether this has happened.
In its October report All The Lonely Children, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce said the policy of transferring unaccompanied minors to offshore detention represented “an unconscionable abrogation of our rights and duties towards the unaccompanied children who arrive in Australia seeking our protection and care”.
Dr Peter Catt, the Anglican dean of Brisbane who chairs the taskforce, told Guardian Australia he could not understand how Australia could send children overseas “without knowing who is responsible for them, who is caring for them and who has their interests at heart”.
“We can’t even be sure that people who we would clearly define as children will be treated as children,” he said.
Morrison said on Friday that he believed the coalition’s border control policies were beginning to work to stop the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.