The Guardian 15 June, 2005

Enough is enough:
Children out of detention!

Bob Briton

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone attended a ceremony near Sydney’s Villawood immigration detention centre last week to mark the expansion of the facility with a Residential Housing Project. It will house women and children, but NOT their fathers, in conditions the minister says approximate normal community conditions. Vanstone wielded the shovel during a tree planting ceremony of the sort that forms part of official well-wishing rituals. However, with events and public opinion turning against the Howard government particularly on the detention of children, the minister would be well advised to keep the shovel on hand to bury the inhumane policy of detaining children and the whole system of mandatory detention along with it.

"Senator Vanstone is celebrating the construction of a prison for children, and asking us to call compassionate", Greens Senator Kerry Nettle told the media last week.

"Residential Housing is a detention centre that separates families, locks up children and then keeps people under 24 hour surveillance. I have visited the Residential Housing Project in Port Augusta that is simply a prison by another name. The Residential Housing Project is not a humane answer to immigration detention."

Last week was also the first anniversary of the deadline proposed by Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowki, for the release of children and their families from detention. The first two recommendations in the report from his National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention were:

  • Children should be released from detention centres and residential housing projects within four weeks of the tabling of the report (i.e. by no later than June 10 2004);

  • Australia’s laws should incorporate a presumption against the detention of children.

    One year later, neither of those urgently needed changes has been made. There are still 68 children in detention centres around Australia (including Christmas Island) and Nauru. Seven have been there from birth. Last February, Australia was given a practical demonstration of just how far the federal government still was from accepting Dr Ozdowski’s widely supported demands. Immigration officials swooped on a school in Sydney and removed children from their classrooms.

    Reports now reveal that at least two of the kids, 11-year-old Ian Whang and his six-year-old sister Janie, are doing very badly. They were separated from their Korean mother who, it is alleged, had overstayed her visa. Her children are now being looked after by strangers in the Villawood detention centre where they have witnessed acts of self-harm and even suicide attempts. The once cheerful Ian is becoming more and more withdrawn. "It’s a crazy place in here. There are crazy people," he told visiting representatives of the Children out of Detention group (ChilOut).

    ChilOut marked the anniversary of the Human Rights Commissioner’s deadline with a well-organised and well-attended rally in Sydney’s Martin Plaza last week. Merlin Luck — the culture-jamming Big Brother participant who used his exit from the "reality" TV program to draw attention to the plight of refugees in detention — was MC at the gathering.

    It was also attended by a number of former detainees from the Department of Immigration’s notorious centres. Najeeba Wazefadost and Sayed Reza Moosawi (both from Afghanistan and both held at the Curtin detention centre in WA) spoke movingly about their long ordeals with Australian authorities. So did Virginia Leong, whose three-year-old daughter Naomi recently became the publicly recognised face of the Howard government’s uncaring immigration policies.

    Naomi and her mother were released from Villawood detention centre after an assessment of the toddler by psychiatrist Dr Louise Newman revealed that she was disoriented and distressed by her environment. "She’s had considerable emotional distress and certainly has developed emotional problems", the expert told the Melbourne Age last month. The fact that the government responded to Naomi’s case is testament to the determination of her mother Virginia (who was part of the rooftop protest at Villawood to prevent the transfer of families to Baxter, for example) and to the effectiveness of the long-running campaign to get children out of detention.

    The heat generated by this campaign has led some Liberal backbenchers, led by Petro Georgiou, to propose a major shake-up of government policy. The private member’s bill he has proposed calls for the government to release asylum-seekers who have been in detention for more than 12 months, to introduce a system of automatic judicial reviews, to grant permanent visas to those currently on temporary protection visas and to release all women and children from detention.

    Last weekend Howard, Vanstone, their advisers and the rebel MPs were due to meet to thrash out a face-saving compromise that would see Mr Georgiou withdraw his bill and take some of the heat out of issue, which is clearly turning into a vote loser for the government.

    However, while additional resources and a speedup of bureaucratic processes might be suggested, it is doubtful that Howard will drop his "fortress Australia" approach to asylum-seekers. The growing public campaign may well have to go on demanding "Children out of detention!", "Put an end to mandatory detention!"

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