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The Guardian 28 January, 2009

Human Rights Commission report
damns detention centres

Bob Briton

A report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has called for the closure of the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island and legislation to ensure that detention of asylum seekers is a last resort for immigration authorities. Despite changes to Howard era legislation in July last year, the report found detainees — including children — continue to be held indefinitely.

The report identified one detainee who has been held for six years. An unaccompanied twelve-year-old was kept in guarded "transit accommodation" for nearly a month and a baby kept in residential detention housing for "quite some period of time". The facilities at Villawood are said to be "prison-like" and have not improved since the supposed softening of federal government policy towards asylum seekers.

The Rudd government vowed last year to resolve outstanding applications for asylum and to halt the practice of detention for low-risk asylum seekers. It also pledged to put an end to the detention of children. While children are no longer kept behind razor wire, they continue to be held in intimidating low-security facilities.

"It’s a pretty scary thing for a teenager or an 11 or 12-year-old to do, and they are kept in these centres way too long," Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes told The Age recently. Public outrage forced the Howard government to amend the Migration Act in 2005 to declare that children should not be held in detention centres. More than three years later, authorities are still defending the practice that breaks Australia’s undertakings under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"It is simply not feasible to be instantly able to identify a community housing option for families," Immigration Department Deputy Secretary Bob Correll told a Senate estimates committee last year. The Human Rights Commission insists that detention at facilities should be for days — not weeks — just long enough for health, security and identity checks to be carried out.

The $400 million maximum-security centre on Christmas Island also came in for scathing criticism in the AHRC report. The federal government is sensitive to growing public disquiet about the centre and describes it as an inheritance from the Howard government. Nevertheless, the Rudd government is pressing on with its completion and announced late last year that it intends to use it.

A group of representatives from human rights organisations visited the forbidding facility in August last year and described it as "extremely harsh". Images of the centre are available on the website of refugee advocacy group A Just Australia. (Visit

Government MP Michael Danby headed a Parliamentary delegation that visited the facility in 2008. He said it resembled a stalag and described it as "grandiose" waste of money, a "white elephant". Others insist that the centre is being kept in case of a renewed influx of refugees, including environmental refugees and people driven from their homes as a result of worsening societal breakdown in the region. The Howard government stated that the facility was being maintained in case of "contingencies".

For some time the Immigration Department has been detaining asylum seekers at a construction camp, the old detention centre at Phosphate Hill and in the community on Christmas Island. Asylum seekers have inadequate access to interpreters, translated documents, recreational and education facilities. The HR Commissioner describes the practice of detention on remote islands as "shameful" and conditions for the asylum seekers on Christmas Island as "utterly miserable".

The AHRC is calling on the federal government to appoint an independent guardian to protect the welfare of detained children (particularly those who arrive unaccompanied) and legislation setting standards for the treatment of detainees. The Rudd government has said it will look into the concerns raised in the report but its defensive stance on recent criticisms does not bode well for the rights of this particularly vulnerable group of people.

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