Jan 8, 2014

Government directive - end the lifeline of family unity.

The Governments' latest directive involves advising migration agents that applications for family migration lodged by refugees who arrived to Australia by boat will go to the bottom of the pile. We understand this directive does not take into account age, circumstance or any other individual factors. 

This means; A 15 yr old boy who arrived to Australia alone in 2011 - recoignised as a refugee granted his permanent protection visa in 2012 and weeks later lodged an application for his mother (widowed) and 3 younger siblings to come to Australia has no real hope of ever living in the same country as his mother ever again. The application had been 'in train' for 2yrs, not at all an unsual wait time for such applications. Everyone involved knows that the wait is long, but they also took comfort from knowing there was a process and that they were in a system. That is no longer the case.

The boy will not get protection in another country, he has Australia's protection. The mother and siblings may receive protection somewhere else in the world, but where, when, and will they be able to apply for their (by then) adult son / brother to join them? 

In 2009 the boy and his family were recognised by UNHCR as refugees, ever since they have been awaiting settlement, anywhere safe, just like millions of others. The decision to send the eldest boy in the family was made just after his 15th birthday, just after the two year anniversary of his father's murder by militants at home, 22 months after they had arrived in Malaysia where the boy and his sisters could not attend school, his mother could not legally work and where protection seemed a lost hope. 

What a directive Minister. 

If stopping boats and saving lives is the aim - then wouldn't we encourage family reunion applications, people applying through formal channels where possible -  not forcing people into such desperate positions that their only hope of seeing their child / parent is to also undertake a dangerous boat journey? 

And why does this so-called 'deterrent' directive apply to people who have been in Australia as recognised refugees for years? Whom does that deter? No-one. In fact, if you were the mother mentioned above, faced with persecution at home, another 2 (and potentially 22) years trying to provide for and protect your daughters in a transit country where you have no rights, even faced with the threat of detention on Nauru wouldn't you perhaps consider a boat journey to be reunited with your child in Australia? That family application your son had lodged, it was taking time, but you knew it was there, you had hope. 

Procedure until now had roughly been that applications for family migration were assesed in order of lodgement, whether made by someone who had arrived by plane, by boat, had been here for a year or ten years. There were of course some exceptions and other avenues in extenuating circumstances and other visa options. What we have now is another layer of punishment based on mode of arrival - something prohibited by the Refugee Convention (Article 31). 

This move should be hardly surprising, it is current operational practice to seperate a pregnant woman from her children and husband (woman brought to mainland for scans and other medical needs, rest of family remain detained on Christmas Island). The right to family unity, the best interests of the child and so many of Australia's international obligations are nowhere to be seen in the cruel at all costs asylum policies of our Government.

Guardian Australia coverage of the issue - including comments from Sophie Peer, ChilOut Campaign Director. 


Nov 14, 2013

"Border protection" separating mums and bubs.

Latifa, Niza and their 2 children arrive to Christmas Island by boat sometime after 19 July. Latifa is pregnant, with twins (as she understands from advice given in Indonesia) and has diabetes.

The family is transferred to detention on Nauru. Around 3 weeks later (approx 18 October) Latifa is transferred to Brisbane for medical care in preparation to give birth. Here it is discovered that Latifa was not carrying twins. Three days later after much insistence, Niza and the two children are also brought to Brisbane. The family is detained at the BITA (Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation), near to the Brisbane Airport.   

On Weds 6 November Latifa delivers a baby boy, Farus by ceserean. Niza is present and meets his newborn son. The older siblings meet their brother and sister. Visits to the hospital are arranged over the ensuing days. 

Sunday 10 November, Latifa is discharged from hospital and taken back to detention. Baby Farus requires medical care for some respiratory issues and remains at the hospital. Daily visits are arranged for Latifa, she can be at the hospital between 10am and 4pm under Serco escort. Niza and the children are not taken with her, the father does not see his baby for 5 days. 

OUTRAGE develops on social media. Midwives are horrified. Health professionals cannot fathom it. Mothers take to the internet expressing their disbelief that this could happen. Mother and baby contact, breast milk production, can she express? will the baby take a bottle?, bonding, emotional trauma, recovery from a cesarean, travelling an hour each day in the car, being at the hospital without husband or other children... on so many levels, so many people have connected with this situation. In so many ways, this is not about asylum seekers, this simply about motherhood and about a tiny, new life. 

So is Minister Morrison to blame? Yes and no is my belief. He would not have directly made the operational decisions about where in Brisbane Latifa and the family are detained. He has of course directed his Department to call Latifa and baby Farus "illegals". From this extremely low benchmark decisions are made and actions justified. Perhaps, I am being naive, but I don't believe this was a cruel hand played from Canberra I think this is an a poor operational decision made within a destructive system that does not place the needs of the child front and centre. The false notion of 'border protection' trumps child protection at every turn. 

What else could have been done? Any place can be designated a place of immigration detention. For the days that Latifa was in hospital, their room would have been just that. A Serco officer would have been present at the hospital. Why could Latifa, Niza and the children not be accommodated in the hospital as many other families with sick babies are? If it was about capacity at the hospital, is there not a hotel nearby that would be used again by families in the position of Latifa? Some kind of arrangement that would have maximised her time with Farus, allowed her to be with him as his sleep pattern, his medical treatment and her own rest permitted. Perhaps she chose not to exclusively breastfeed, but was every possible chance given to her and baby Farus to make this happen? Milk supply is most likely going to be hampered when mother and baby only have contact for 6 hours per day, Farus was 4 days old when the separation commenced.

Playing on Latifa's mind constantly is the threat of being sent back to Nauru with her new baby and other children. Latifa has said that she fears her baby may die in the detention conditions of Nauru. There is every likelihood that once Farus is medically cleared, the family will be returned to indefinite detention in a camp with only tents for accommodation, unreliable water, power and limited medical care. 

We understand that Farus was likely to be discharged from hospital on by 16 November and is now at the BITA with his mother and family. We question the level of support and healthcare treatment available to Latifa. Perhaps she has full access to midwives for post-natal care, perhaps 'home visits' will take place in the BITA, perhaps she has access to a lactation specialist. We simply do not know, the secrecy surrounding contracts, detetnion facility operations etc mean that we are not told - and this is a Ministerial level issue. Perhaps there are some terrific Dept and Serco staff in Brisbane but the fact remains that this mother and baby should not have been separated in this manner. More flexibility could have been exercised which would have seen security needs met and importantly, health and best interests of the child met to a far better degree than they have over these past 5 crucial days. 

Should this situation occur again anywhere in Australia for any asylum seeker family we very much hope that Dept officials will exercise more common-sense and find an option that works far better than has been the case for Latifa and Farus.  And the likelihood of another case like this is high. There are more than 50 pregnant women detained in Australia today and with indefinite detnetion on Nauru and Manus Is, it is likely that more women will become pregnant in locations where their health care needs may not be met.

Written by Sophie Peer. Views are my own and not necessarily those of ChilOut


An update: Hospital staff counter Morrison's argument about visiting hours.

Among the tweeters on the issue was Wallaby and ACT Brumbies player, David Pocock:

Dear , I have a hunch that Latifa + Farus are "the least of these" Jesus said to look after. Thoughts?


Oct 8, 2013

Vanstone's opinion minus Vanstone's facts

OK, I know an opinion piece is just that. I know that writers are not discouraged from being controversial. BUT... when the author has facts at hand, has an insight not available to many and is a former public representative - are they not compelled, at least in part, to base their opinion on fact? It seems, the answer is no. 

Former Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone had an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 October, 2013. Among other things, Ms Vanstone stated that asylum seekers who pass through several countries cannot be actually in need of protection. What a load of rubbish.

Ms Vanstone is fully aware of the realities in countries like Malaysia (as highlighted in the media just a few weeks ago) where authorities randomly arrest asylum seekers and even those already deemed by UNHCR to be refugees. These people are placed in horrendous detention facilities, children are separated from their parents, people are returned despite the dangers they may face, others (particularly women and girls) are too terrified to leave their overcrowded apartments for fear of exploitation of some kind or another. 

Ms Vanstone AGAIN tried to use the "queue" argument. That we should not grant protection to someone who will be otherwise persecuted if they dared to arrive here by boat. And that if we do, a person in a camp misses out. RUBBISH. Australia is the ONLY Refugee Convention signatory to link the two systems ( a change introduced by the Government that Vanstone was a part of*). We can and should take both. Increases in asylum applications to Australia are and have always been in line with global increases in refugees and conflicts. Ms Vanstone would be fully aware of this as well as the fact there is no 'refugee camp to wait in' in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan etc..

Ms Vanstone seemed to apportion blame for the most recent boat tragedy off the coast of Java on 'media savvy asylum seekers'. Ms Vanstone was Australia's Ambassador to Italy. She cannot be oblivious to the immense numbers of asylum seekers who arrive to Italy by boat and the incredibly high number of fatalities. Does she also blame 'media savvy asylum seekers' for these deaths? Can she not see the parallels in her writing this opinion piece the very week that Italy held a National Day of Mourning for asylum seekers who died en-route to their country. 

There are many opinion pieces on these issues that provide me with insights into the way others form their views. Some that share personal accounts of how people reach the position they hold. Some that bring interesting and at times odd ideas to the table. I am able to like an opinion piece even without agreeing on the opinion presented. But this one just looks like pure spin and basic denial of what we know the author knows!

*p4 Seeking asylum: Australia's Humanitarian Program

Sophie Peer.  (These views and blog are my own and not necessarily the views of ChilOut).


Sep 12, 2013

Burnside's 'Tasmanian solution'. Craziness that could-sort-of work?

Julian Burnside has suggested the 'Tasmanian Solution' to the current asylum seeker situation and as an alternative to indefinite detention in locations such as Manus Island and Nauru. 

Some are dismissing the idea as nonsense, some are saying that Burnside is simply trying to show how absurd the whole asylum 'solution' discussion is. I actually see some merit in investigating the idea. Plenty of areas are designated as places of detention. There is easy precedent for that. The cost saving is very clear. Burnside says $3billion/yr and proposed that the Federal Govt pay Tasmania $1billion/yr. The idea is that people live in the community as they choose but are 'in detention' because they cannot leave the island state.

I have not seen any detailed analysis or response from Tasmanian officials as yet. The most obvious questions would be about housing availability, specialist services needed (translators, trauma counsellors etc), job opportunities, pressure on local education and health services. I guess this is where the $1 billion is spent. Would the idea apply to the approximately 30,000 people currently awaiting determination of their asylum claims in Australia? Could this be a location for permanent resettlement of refugees? There is much to ponder and I look forward to seeing some Tasmanian commentary on the idea.* 

Above all, even if this idea goes nowhere, I am glad it's come this far. We need some creative thinking and humane approaches - without these, Australia will be responsible for the loss of lives through suicide and permanently damaging lives by removing hope, causing mental illness, separating families and destroying childhoods. 

*Good to hear so many people today asking what the Tasmanians think. It must be said there has been little of the Nauru or PNG commentary on what locals there feel of Australia's 'solution' on their soil ! 

Sophie Peer

(these views are my own and not necessarily those of ChilOut)


Sep 4, 2013

Election 2013: where does ChilOut sit?

"ChilOut is not non-partisan, you are a pro-Greens organisation." OK, let's chat about that. 

We are most definitely non-partisan. One of the leading pics on our website shows our Ambassadors with an ALP and a Liberal member of Parliament. Present at that press conference were also a Greens Senator and an Independent Member. In our 12 years of operation, ChilOut has met with a whole range of parliamentarians, spoken at a wide variety of events, stood side-by-side with people from across the political spectrum.  We are not pro or anti any particular party. We are in favour of child protection, upholding the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in support of humane asylum seeker and refugee policy no matter where it comes from. We wish it came from all directions and if we were invited to speak at the next Young Liberals function, we would most certainly attend! When the ALP launched their 'New Directions in Detention' policy in 2008 we applauded it. When it was not implemented we were critical. We are advocates and we make no apologies for holding any politician to account. If we see policies and announcements that will harm people,  cause mental health concerns, are detrimental to children - we will speak out against them. 

One of ChilOut's founders, and current Board member Dianne Hiles is the Greens candidate for the seat of Sydney. We have been consistently transparent about this fact and Dianne is a passionate advocate for the policies outlined in documents such as this report card prepared by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.  

This Saturday we are not telling you how to vote. We are suggesting that if asylum seeker policy matters to you and if the protection of children matters to you, perhaps have a look through material such as those compiled by ASRC and the Refugee Council of Australia and below is a taste of what's on offer at the polls. Vote wisely. 

Video below authorised by Independent Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie. 

Dept of Immigration advertisements under ALP Govt, 2013. ALP Campaign page (no specific info on asylum seekers / refugees)

Liberal  policy platform. A Liberal election flyer, 2013

Greens Refugee Plan video 2013


Jul 5, 2013

Asylum seeker kids off Manus Island, what does it mean?

On 20 June 2013 as if to mark World Refugee Week, 22 children and their families were moved out of the Manus Island detention facility (Regional Processing Centre - RPC is how the Government refers to it, not that any refugee processing has happened in the facility's 8 months of operation).  

12 children and their families remained in detention at the RPC. The flight removing them from the Island landed on Christmas Island on 4 July 2013. Other children had been moved off the Island earlier as their mothers fell pregnant. So that's it - no more children detained on Manus. 

A win; right! A veritable advocate celebration! Well sort of... The chorus of people and organisations calling for an end to offshore detention for asylum seekers, particularly children, is diverse and loud.  

Where are those children now? Safe. Secure. No - they are in incredibly overcrowded detention on Christmas Island. These children and other vulnerable people removed from Manus Island (read; those to first feel the worst mental health effects of their remote detention) face complete uncertainty. They know that they could be returned to Manus Island at any moment, perhaps even Nauru (this is where the Opposition proposes to send children). These asylum seekers arrived after 13 August 2012 and so fall within the Government's no-advantage principle. These children and families now realise that this could mean at least five years in limbo, possibly all of that time in detention. See why we are far from a celebration!

Construction has just commenced for a permanent detention facility on Manus Island. It is set to house 600 people in family groups, the transfer of unaccompanied minors to this location has not been ruled out (even though they would have no guardian once there). The new facility is deisgned to include one classroom. Yes, one! That is to cover the children and the adults - for five years. The centre is set to be an open one where people can come and go as they please. But to where? To do what? 

The Opposition is saying that Manus Island is not suitable for children. The Government acknowledges that children under the age of seven and pregnant women cannot stay there due to the malarial risks and issues with medication for these particularly vulnerable groups. The United Nations has just visited the facility for the second time and despite some changes still finds the facility unsuitable for any detainees. 

As the families were moved out of the detention facility on Manus Island, it made room for more single men to be sent there. The Australian Parliamentary Library just completed a report into health care realities for asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru - the conclusion - it would be very difficult to deliver appropriate care to anyone in these settings. 

So, yes we welcome the fact that today there are no children detained on Manus Island. We fear for children who may be sent there in the future and we fear for the wellbeing of those adults presently enduring such remote detention. These people are so 'out of sight, out of mind' that they don't even feature in Dept of Immigration statistics. This policy is shameful and will certainly cause harm. 


Jun 13, 2013

ASIO assessments what does it all mean?

In recent weeks two refugee families have been released because ASIO has reversed their findings that the parents in question posed security threats to Australia. 

A component of the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process invovles an ASIO security check. Someone can be a refugee, that is need protection, but still be deemed a security threat. This is case for 52 people locked up today. This adverse finding is not challengable in a court of law, the allegations against the person cannot be known to the person or their lawyer. If the person has children they too will be detained with them, as is the case for around 10 children today. 

Following a High Court ruling in 2012, a review process of sorts was instigated. Former Justice, Margaret Stone was appointed to review the files, some information was provided to lawyers and Ms Stone is in the process of making recommendations in each case. Her recommendations are not binding and the process is not enshrined in legislation, the Oppositon have stated that if in government they would do away with the mechanism. 

The review process is one small step and seems to be pushing ASIO to reassess its own findings (as in Manokala's case). Still the fact remains that a person can be detained for life with no trial, no appeal, no justice whatsoever. Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Gillan Triggs says; "It is a parlous situation. We'd argue for much greater speed (of the reviews) and frankly, for access to a court to determine if the evidence against them stands up,'' 

In Manokala's case a few weeks ago, ASIO stated it had 'new evidence' hence the decision to rescind the adverse finding. Lawyers for Manokala and her 6yr old son responded by stating 'they were surprised as in their view, there had been no new evidence'. Here's a podcast from Elizabeth O'Shea, lawyer for Manokala and Ragavan, explaining her client's case and more on the whole ASIO process for refugees. 

In Mr and Mrs Rahavan's case this week, Justice Stone recommended the adverse finding be overturned and that the family with three young children (one born into detention) be released into the community. That's it, approximately three years of detention, for no apparent reason and just a blip of 'oops we got that wrong'. We welcome the family's release but are left pondering how many others are locked up incorrectly? 

The ASIO Act 1979 does not require that someone with an adverse finding be detained indefinitely. It is a practice of the Department of Immigration at the direction of the Immigration Minister and Government of the day. There is no scale of 'adverse' finding, it's all or nothing. Surely some people must be at the lower end of concern and appropriate for community detention with reporting requirements? Surely there are Australian citizens 'of concern' to ASIO who are not locked up.  

I acknowledge this sounds a tad 'crazy-leftie' but is this a piece in the 'demonise asylum seekers' puzzle? The number of asylum seekers to Australia who are convicted terrorists is zero. The presentation of information to the public is that there is something to fear and that people coming by boat constitute some national threat.

Now I understand the need for security checks and I appreciate that there may be people with whom authorities have a reason to conduct further investigation. But to have no appeal process, to lock someone up for life with no trial, to deny a childhood over an unknown allegation - that all seems out of kilter with basic rules of natural justice and Australia's human rights obligations. And let's not forget that people who come by plane have not had an ASIO assessment, only a basic character test (as someone on a visitor or other visa would usually receive). With only a few exceptions, these people are all housed in our communities not in detention centres. 

Sophie Peer. Campaign Director, ChilOut


May 8, 2013

Families out of detention - what the Minister didn't say

Minister O'Connor has announced that families with young children will soon be eligible for release into the community and that families will be spend less time in immigration detention. So we should be rejoicing right, planning another end to ChilOut. Sadly, nope.

Here's a wrap up of what the Minister had to say, our take on it and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

No Advantage Bridging Visas (BVs) -  In announcing the changes to BVs the Minister stated that he is "not changing the no-advantage principle".  

Does this mean people will be on bridging visas for five years? This is the length of time the Govt has suggested people will be detained on Nauru and Manus Island. The "no advantage" principle applies to those who arrived after 13 August 2013, who is selected for detention on Manus Island or Nauru and who remains in Ausrtalia is a complete lottery. 

If processing of refugee claims on Nauru and Manus Island continues to be delayed, will BV holders in Australia also have to face delays just to keep them in line with their extremely unfortunate counterparts detained offshore? 

Giving advocates what they asked for. Minister O'Connor stated that his announcement was "...a response to, I think, advocates who've called for ensuring that people are treated properly." Ummm, these changes are not what we or any of the organisations we work very closely with asked for. We have all called for well supported community detention not bridging visas. We have all called for asylum seekers in the community to have work rights and we have all called for money to be spent on positive community programs rather than remote, costly detention facilities.

Releasing people into the community without adequate support can be devastating. here is just one article exploring this in November 2012.

Cost Effective - the Minister stated that a reason for including families in BV grants is that it is"cost effective".

Yes there will be a huge saving by having less people in expensive, remote detention facilities for long periods. But this isn't exactly what's happening...In the same press conference Minister O'Connor confirmed that families will be detained at Curtin (very remote WA) and Wickham Pt (35km outside Darwin). Transfer costs alone involved in getting people to and from these centres are huge, let alone running costs and capital upgrades needed. 

Dumping people in the community to fend for themselves may be an immediate cost saving for the Government, but it means that charities and NGO will be stretched even further to provide basic assistance to vulnerable men, women and children.  Families will receive around 89% of Newstart allowance, no housing assistance (or perhaps bond to be re-paid via deductions at a time chosen by the government) and will not be permitted to work. 

Is it really cost effective in the long-term to leave people destitute, out of the work force for five years, have them needing crisis assistance and potentially developing mental health issues as a result of their desperate situation? (the cynic would say the long-term is not important to this Govt)

Unaccompanied Minors - Minister O'Connor did not mention and was not asked about UAMs. There is no suggestion that children will be thrown out into the community to fend for themselves on BVs. However, we are very concerned that these changes could indicate a winding back or even end to Community Detention and therefore a hugely increased time in remote detention facilities for children who arrive to Australia without an adult relative. 

What are Bridging Visas? This visa class is exactly what it sounds like, a stop gap between visas. Something to keep you afloat, or in this case to keep you living in the community with a lawful visa status. They're not just for asylum seekers by any means, someone who came on a tourist visa and is awaiting their de-facto or other substantive visa may be granted one. Briding Visa E (BV E) is the one most commonly granted to asylum seekers in the community, associated conditions are that the holder cannot work and cannot apply for family reunion. BV E's leave people in a complete state of uncertainty. You try going to a real estate agent and asking for a lease and then saying you're not sure how long you will be in the country, that you are not and cannot be employed and that you have two children.... straight to the top of the list of potential leasees...?

What is Community Detention (CD)?  Supported living in the community, the Red Cross is the lead agency funded to run this program which commenced in 2005. Unaccompanied minors and some families with children have been eligibile for this program. Assistance is provided in the following ways; access to accommodation, health, education, a living allowance and English language classes. Read more from our great friends at the ASRC.

Would you people stop whingeing. It seems we're never happy, we're always telling the Government that they got it wrong. We are not trying to be adversarial, we do give credit where credit's due. Yes, we did call for children and families to be released for immigration detention. Doing this is a manner that leaves people destitute is yet another prong to Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Perhaps it is part of the deterrent plan (which has not worked to date. Over 15,000 people have arrived by boat since the commencement of the no-advantage policies). Perhaps the Government is hoping that some people will become so desperate, in poverty and without their family that the 'choose' to return home. We have never questioned the need for prompt health, security, identity checks. We have never suggested that asylum seekers be given a silver platter on arrival to Australia just a level of support and that sees them being self-reliant (able to work), safe and living above the poverty line. We are simply calling for dignity, humane treatment and particularly for Australia to meet its obligations to children. 

Transcript of Minister O'Connor's interview

This comprehensive document from the Australian Parliamentary Library describes CD, BV E's and outlines different programs and treatment of asylum seekers. 


Apr 29, 2013

No advantage in remaining silent

No Advantage

Photo Credit: ABC4Corners 

ABC's 4Corners "No Advantage: Inside Australia's Offshore Processing Centres" - Monday 29 April 2013

Just how bad are things on Manus Island and Nauru? Even worse than many had first thought. UNHCR had reported, Amnesty International had reported. We knew things were grim but there's nothing like footage, images and first hand accounts to really tell the story. We urge you to watch this program and to share it with as many people as you can. 

With ex-staff speaking out, smuggled cameras and UNHCR reflections on costings this program really does have a lot to say. We are grateful to those who spoke to 4Corners. The lack of transparency around these detention facilities makes their voices and first hand accounts essential. 

The program shed light on some details we didn't know, just how dire the medical care is on Manus Island, just how frequent the protests are on Nauru, just how much the whole mess is costing taxpayers and some things we did already know -just how much people are suffering and that childhoods are being destroyed. 

Here's a few key points from the program to share with your MPs, Senators, colleagues, friends... 
  • offshore processing is costing $2.3billion and we know the Government is looking for money ahead of the 2013 budget to fund disability and education committments. 
  • we are currently spending around $1million per asylum seeker on this model of detention and it hasn't acted as a deterrent. Since Nauru and Manus Is detention re-opened in 2012 15,543 people have arrived by boat seeking protection. 
  • children are suffering. There are 30 children detained on Manus Island. They are witnessing self-harm, suicide attempts, they are bored, afraid, they are drawing things like this 
  • Dr Vallentine previously employed at the Manus Island facility has stated that 'on medical grounds alone, this location is not suitable for children'. 
  • President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs; 'One has to argue about not only the legal but the ethical dimensions of using some children and some families to send some sort of deterrent message that clearly is not being effective'.
It's time to create the stampede that we saw following the 4Corners expose on live exports. Enough is enough. This policy is not working, people are suffering and it's costing us a fortune. 

They came for the refugees, but I said nothing because I am not a refugee... 


Apr 24, 2013

Certain harm at Curtin

Rumours have abounded in the past week that children are to be sent to the detention facility at Curtin, remote Western Australia. 

The facility is currently a place of detention for 748 single adult men (according to DIACs latest statistics). The centre has long been referred to as one of the worst in Australia's detention network. Then Immigration MInister, Chris Bowen indicated that Curtin would be the first centre on his list to close, stating; 'We need to reduce the number of people in detention, and obviously I would consider Curtin as a centre to close before I close other centres which are perhaps less confronting and less harsh.

How serious are the rumours? Unfortunately, we think there is every likelihood that children will be transferred to the Curtin facility in the very near future. 

What's so bad about Curtin? Location, location, location. Here's a little of what has been written about Curtin in the past... 

Zachary Steel, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of NSW, studied the mental health of 10 families held at Curtin and called the facility a "psychiatric catastrophe". More

Curtin is the facility that drew headlines for continual lip-sewing, self-harm, suicide attempts, mistreatment of asylum seekers by guards, extreme mental illness, desperation from parents and children alike. In 2010 when the Curtin Air Force Base was being re-opened to detain asylum seekers, the UNHCR warned against the move stating that location made "the provision of essential social services very challenging". The UNHCR is opposed to secure detention of children in any location.

2011 Human Rights Commission report following their visit to the Curtin facility commented many times on the harsh, isolating and extreme conditions. The Commission noted specifically: "Limited outdoor recreation areas. As noted, the heat at Curtin is often extreme and there are limited shady areas for sports or recreation. At the time of the visit there was a dirt soccer pitch and a recently refurbished volleyball court, but with limited shade they would be unsuitable for use during much of the day."
Area used as cricket pitch. Image Credit: AHRC

But the Govt and DIAC are adamant there are no children in detention. The facility will get a new name, it will no longer be called an Immigration Detention Centre, a new sign will read 'Alternative Place of Detention'. I may sound cynical on this point, I am. Detention is detention no matter what the sign says. Children will be denied their freedom, have inadequate access to education, support, community and may need to be transferred away for medical care. The facility is akin to a prison not a child appropriate living environment. 

Has the centre improved since the Howard era? No. Isolation remains the most devastating factor of this facility. Community groups, volunteers, supporters, lawyers cannot drop by for visits. There are no child-centric amenities at the facility. The logistics of separating the adult male population from the children and family groups will be very difficult, recreation areas, meal areas, common grounds... This facility is not set up to operate in the manner of, for example, the Inverbrackie detention facility where parents can at least prepare their children's meals at suitable times. If such infrastructure upgrades are planned these will take time. It is true that DIAC and Serco (who were not managing Curtin last time it held children) have learnt much about detention. Still, the reality is that children are under guard not under the care and protection of child welfare specialists, there is no child welfare advisory body to DIAC, there is still a guarantee that children and parents will suffer.  

But the numbers of children in detention are so high. Surely the Govt needs to look at new centres to place children? There are presently more children than ever in Australia's secure detention facilities, over 1000. The answer is not more damaging, costly, remote detention centres. The answer is to expand the existing and successful model of community detention where families have relative freedom and live within the Australian community. Or, to look towards flexible approaches such as the open centres that exist around the world and once existed in Australia as well. These are located in metropolitan areas, people are not locked inside them 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. There are some restrictions and safeguards and they are shown to work, absconding is not an issue. 

Australia is bound to act in the best interests of the child. How could anoyone claim that detention at Curtin is in the best interests of any child?