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Why are over 1000 kids still in detention?

Recent moves by Scott Morrison (the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), as well as ongoing cruelty to children in detention have bugged me hugely for a long time. So I wrote a bunch of letters to politicians on the weekend. And I thought I’d put the letter in this post, because this is something you might have wanted to try but needed a nudge.

Scott Morrison has gone from publishing the much-slammed Big Brother go-back-to-where-you-came-from video, to spending our money playing legal word-games in several courts, to actively keeping us in the dark about what the government knows and doesn’t know about boats.

Only this week, the secretive action continues, with Sri Lankan refugees being turned back to face ‘enhanced imprisonment’, something that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has termed “piracy on the high seas”.

I’ve had enough

But what really gets me is the blind eye and inaction on the child abuse going on in these detention centres, and that we’re flouting international law and doing nothing about it. And I’ve really had a gut-full. And there’s loads of organisations who have had a gut-full too, and who are working in the community to agitate for change. Organisations such as Love Makes A Way,  Chilout and End Immigration Detention of Children.

So I wrote letters

If you’re wanting to go beyond clicktivism, and civil disobedience isn’t for you, I have it on good authority that writing letters to your local member and to the MP in charge of the portfolio does help agitate for change (I’m married to someone who used to work in a parliamentary office, so she should know ;).

Here’s what I wrote to The Hon Scott Morrison, if it helps you craft your own letter:



I, like many of my friends, community members, church members and work colleagues, are feeling increasingly disturbed and dismayed at Federal Government policy – and the implementation of that policy – toward treatment of asylum seekers. I’m trying to keep this letter from being too broad and hyperbolic, so I’m focusing particularly on the facts and specifics about the treatment of children in detention.

Put simply: children are being detained for longer than ever in a completely inappropriate environment, being denied decent healthcare, and (in some cases) are suffering sexual abuse for so long, that they have suicidal thoughts, are suffering mental illness, and are harming themselves.

Last time I checked, there were 1,106 children kept in detention. Chilout (the child asylum seeker support organisation) quotes 1,023. Current data shows that the average length of time a child spent in detention in Australia was 231 days, with 38 children having spent more than a year in detention as of January this year.

Professor Gillian Triggs (President of the Australian Human Rights Commission) at a recent public hearing day of the national inquiry into children in immigration detention, said “One of our greatest concerns is that children are being held for significantly greater periods of time than has been the case in the past, and that leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance.”

Australia is currently in contravention of three separate international conventions (United Nations treaties) of which it is a signatory:

  • Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37 – “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily.”
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 – “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”
  • Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 31 – “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization.”

From the associated UNHCR Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers (PDF): “Minors who are asylum-seekers should not be detained”.

There were 128 reported self-harm incidents amongst children in detention between January 2013 and March this year. Children account for the “greatest percentage” of self-harm incidents and suicidal behaviour by asylum seekers in detention.

I echo the statement by Sophie Peer (of Chilout), that Australia’s immigration detention system is child abuse, and nothing short of that.

Minister, children are suffering and harming themselves because of the impact of your government’s policies, and the reckless implementation of those policies.

This is toxic. This is cruel. This is morally, politically, and legally wrong. And it has gone on long enough.

My questions to you and your department:

  • What are you doing to hasten the process and effect of the current inquiries into the treatment of people in detention? What actions do you expect to be taken after these inquiries? And what actions can be done now to alleviate these conditions? Children should not have to wait so long under these conditions for better treatment.
  • What are you doing to ensure that the implementation of policy, care and due diligence toward detainees is done properly, and not handed out to completely inappropriate third parties? This is a symptom of what Prof. Triggs has called the “element of bureaucratic cruelty” that erodes the otherwise good and compassionate work that your department is trying to do.

And on a more positive note:

  • How can we help? Whether you realise it or not, many of us see this whole situation as a great opportunity for Australia, one where we as a nation can lead with different thinking and different solutions. I for one want to be a part of that. You have taken the national conversation into a purely legal word-smithing territory, whereas we the nation need the conversation to be about opportunities and ideas. Even your own team mate Malcolm Turnbull said “I don’t think any of us are entirely comfortable with any policies relating to border protection.”

In your response, please provide specific answers to my questions. Please don’t write things like “It’s a complex matter”; I know it is complex. But I also know that stopping children from being locked up and providing decent care is certainly not complex.


I also wrote letters to my own local member (you can find yours here), Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Prime Minister, and the Labor candidate for my electorate. Hope this letter is useful as a template to someone else out there.

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