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02 Mar 2015

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has called for children to be released from immigration detention centres and the appointment of an independent panel of medical experts to oversee the health care of detained asylum seekers.

Following the release of an Australian Human Rights Commission report showing hundreds of children held in detention have suffered violence, sexual assault and serious mental harm, A/Professor Owler told Sky News that any children currently being held should be immediately released into “a safe environment”.

In a damning assessment of Australia’s immigration detention system, the Commission reported that between January 2013 and March 2014, children in detention were the victim of 233 assaults, most of the 33 reported sexual assaults and 128 instances of self-harm. In addition, a third of children detained last year suffered serious mental health problems.

Among its findings, the Commission reported that, “in the first half of 2014, ­34 per cent of children in detention were assessed as having mental health disorders at levels of seriousness that were comparable with children receiving outpatient mental health services in Australia.”

Commission President Professor Gillian Triggs said the overarching conclusion of the Commission’s investigation was that “prolonged, mandatory detention of asylum seeker children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays, [and] is in breach of Australia’s international obligations”.

A/Professor Owler said that although the Abbott Government had overseen a significant fall in the number of children being held in detention, the harm caused showed it was an inappropriate environment for any child, and those remaining in detention should be immediately released.

The confinement of children in immigration detention centres has long been a highly controversial aspect of the tough asylum seekers polices pursued by successive governments since the early 2000s.

The number of children being held behind wire peaked in July 2013, when, under the former Labor Government, 1992 were held in detention. Since then, a sharp slowdown in the arrival of asylum seekers by boat has seen the number of children in detention plunge, down to around 1100 when the Human Rights Commission inquiry began, and the Government claims there are just 192 now.

The AMA President added that the treatment of those being held in immigration detention should be the subject of oversight by an independent panel of experts, such as the Immigration Health Advisory Group, which was disbanded by the Abbott Government in December 2013.

A/Professor Owler said the standard of health care provided to asylum seekers, particularly in the offshore detention centres, was “well below what we would accept on the mainland”, and should be subject to independent scrutiny.

But a spokeswoman for International Health and Medical Services, which has a contract to provide health services at the immigration detention centres, rejected claims of sub-standard care and invited A/Professor Owler to visit the facilities, including those at Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island, so that "he can make statements based on the facts". 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded to the release of the report Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention by accusing the Human Rights Commission of engaging in a “blatantly partisan politicised exercise”.

Mr Abbott rejected the Commission’s call for a Royal Commission, and instead launched an extraordinary attack on the watchdog.

“There won't be a Royal Commission into children in detention, because if there were a Royal Commission into children in detention, it would condemn them,” Mr Abbott told Parliament.

He continued his attack on Macquarie Radio, claiming “this is a blatantly partisan, politicised exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself.”

The issue has since become mired in legal controversy amid allegations the Government attempted to induce Professor Triggs to resign before the publication of the report.

It was revealed in Senate estimates that that the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis, acting on instruction from Attorney-General George Brandis, approached Professor Triggs just before the report was released to inform her she had lost the confidence of the Minister and to discuss a possible alternate “specific senior role” for her, though the Government has denied it sought her resignation.

Professor Triggs strongly rejected the Prime Minister’s accusation of bias.

“I can assure you and the Australian public that this is not a politicised exercise,” she told The Australian. “It is a fair minded report and I ask all Australians to read the report and you will see that the evidence on which we rely is evidence that covers the period of the former government as well as the nearly 18 months of the current government.”


Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Mar 2015