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Issue #1563      5 September 2012

Call to end the detention of society’s most vulnerable

Leading paediatricians and child mental health experts are calling for an immediate end to the detention of children seeking asylum, in Australia and in offshore centres.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) Paediatrics & Child Health Division and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have voiced their concern for the health, emotional wellbeing and development of children who are seeking asylum.

Following the release of the Houston Report recommendations into asylum seeker policy and the passing of The Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 in both houses of parliament, the RACP and RANZCP urge a review of the policy in the treatment of one of society’s most vulnerable groups.

“We strongly oppose the mandatory detention of children and unaccompanied children and adolescents in Australia and in offshore centres,” Associate Professor Susan Moloney, RACP Paediatrics & Child Health Division President, said.

“There is now a large body of evidence to suggest that prolonged detention, particularly in isolated locations, with poor access to health and social services and uncertainty of asylum seeker claims, can have severe and detrimental effects.”

These long-term effects include damage to social and emotional functioning, especially in children who have experienced torture or trauma, and worsening of existing mental health problems.

“Many asylum seekers are vulnerable to mental ill health due to their experience of poverty, persecution, torture and war in their countries of origin,” Dr Nick Kowalenko, Chair of the RANZCP Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said.

“We remain concerned that highly vulnerable children are living in conditions known to be damaging to their social and emotional wellbeing, growth and development.”

According to Associate Professor Moloney, the best interests of the child must be upheld. All asylum seeker arrangements and humanitarian solutions must be considered, including community residence with appropriate health and social supports over that of community detention.

Both the RANZCP and the RACP ask for the immediate placement of detained children in the community and that this be the default option, unless there are special circumstances preventing this that are in the best interests of the child.

“Citizenship status must not be a barrier to early childhood education, acceptable living conditions and appropriate means of support.

“The most urgent priority is to see that these children are provided access to appropriate healthcare,” Associate Professor Moloney said. The detention of children should be seen only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time to ensure only the most essential health and safety checks are done, he said.

“Australia must do everything to provide supportive, caring and non-traumatising early experiences for refugee children and adolescents on their way through to joining our community.”

The RACP and the RANZCP acknowledge the Houston Report’s recommendation that adherence to international obligations should be one of the factors which shapes Australian policymaking on asylum seeker issues. Clause 2 of The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child states: “The child shall enjoy special protection ... to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration”.

As at June 30, 2012, 1,080 children were recorded as currently being detained in immigration detention in Australia, with 45 percent in the community under residence determination. This is currently below the 50 percent target announced by the Minister of Immigration for June 2011.

Through its Refugee Child Health Policy, the RACP calls for the relocation of detained children and their families into the community as a matter of urgency.

About the RACP: The RACP trains, educates and advocates on behalf of more than 13,500 physicians – often referred to as medical specialists – and 5,000 trainees, across Australia and New Zealand. Beyond the drive for medical excellence, the RACP is committed to developing health and social policies which bring vital improvements to the wellbeing of patients.

www.racp.edu.au  

Next article – Why you’re a lot poorer than you thought you were

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