January 26, 2015 | the guardian
Indefinite detention of children, who are not accused of any crime, is ‘inhumane and unnecessary’, write former winners in an open letter.
Eight former Australians of the Year have used Australia Day to call for the immediate release of all refugee and asylum seeker children from immigration detention.
In an open letter published on Monday morning, the Australians of the Year write that the indefinite detention of children, who are not accused of any crime, is “inhumane and unnecessary”.
“We are a country of hope, with a commitment to the freedom and dignity of all people … that strives to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. Indefinite detention of children and babies is at odds with these hopes and principles.
“These children and their parents came to us in desperation, seeking our help. They came to us seeking safety, knowing of Australia’s reputation as a fair, inclusive and just society and knowing we are a people who are never afraid to lend a hand to those in need.”
The letter is signed by eight winners of the Australian of the Year Award: Prof Ian Frazer (2006), Prof Peter Doherty (1997), Ian Kiernan (1994), Prof Gustav Nossal (2000), Simon McKeon (2011), Geoffrey Rush (2012), Prof Fiona Stanley (2003), and Prof Pat McGorry (2010).
The letter, co-ordinated through Unicef, argues children are damaged when they are held in detention, often for years.
“We know that serious mental ill health is a frequent consequence of prolonged detention, especially for children. Such prolonged detention is clearly inconsistent with our hard-won reputation for humanity and fairness.
“If we continue to detain these children and their families, it would not only be inhumane but unnecessary, and diminish our reputation as a fair and mature nation.”
Currently 468 children are held in Australia’s immigration detention system. Of those, 135 remain on Nauru, while 333 are in “alternative places of detention” on the Australian mainland.
In December, then immigration minister Scott Morrison promised crossbench senators that all children and families held on Christmas Island would be released from immigration detention in exchange for the senators’ support for government legislation reintroducing temporary protection visas.
Those 94 children, and 100 family members, have been taken from Christmas Island, but they remain in detention, at Blaydin Point in Darwin. The government says they will be released from detention in “early 2015”.
Overall, the number of children in immigration detention has decreased from 1,038 to 468 over the last year, though the number of children held in detention on Nauru has increased by 19.
Fiona Stanley, the epidemiologist who was Australian of the Year in 2003, told Guardian Australia the letter was not a partisan attack, but rather a call for all Australia’s political leaders to reconsider policies that had proved ineffective, inhumane and harmful.
“People I speak to are anguished about the fact Australia is keeping children in detention. All the data, all the studies we have, show that children are seriously damaged by being held in detention, there is damage to their mental health, their physical health, their general wellbeing and chances for the future. We are causing long-term harm to these children.”
Stanley said Australia’s international reputation as a nation committed to human rights was being degraded by its holding asylum seeker children in detention.
She said Australia’s immigration detention regime for all asylum seekers should be reconsidered from a more humanitarian perspective, but that children should be released from detention immediately.
“As a mother and a grandmother, I feel anguished. No developed country, no country like Australia, with its respect for human rights, should have children, who have committed no crime, held behind wire. That should stop immediately.”