UnitingCare appalled at children behind bars

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Two little children stare through prison bars longing to be free. Obviously this is a staged photograph, the children pictured will safely go home with their families. But for others the reality is different.  For thousands of children in detention in Australia and our off-shore processing centres right now. In May this year, statistics revealed that 3057 minors (aged under 18 years) were being held in Australian immigration detention centres.

Two little children stare through prison bars longing to be free. Obviously this is a staged photograph, the children pictured will safely go home with their families. But for others the reality is different. For thousands of children in detention in Australia and our off-shore processing centres right now. In May this year, statistics revealed that 3057 minors (aged under 18 years) were being held in Australian immigration detention centres.

UnitingCare Tasmania has described the detention of an 11-year-old boy at Pontville, near Hobart, as appalling. The boy is one of about 300 unaccompanied male minors being detained at the former army camp, north of the Tasmanian capital.

It was revealed last month that the boy is the youngest unaccompanied minor currently being held in detention. He is at the facility with two older cousins.

July turned into a month of horror for those wanting to see asylum seekers treated with dignity and respect. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sought to out-tough the opposition by decreeing that any asylum seeker who came by boat would be settled in Papua New Guinea and not Australia.

A massive riot at Nauru detention centre left a damage bill estimated at $60 million amid claims that rape was a regular occurrence at the Manus Island facility and self-harm was reported daily.

UnitingCare Tasmania chief executive Lindy O’Neill has called on the federal government to do more to release minors into the community.

“The fear and distress these children must be feeling is unbelievable. A prison-like environment is no place for them,” Ms O’Neill said.

“It is really appalling and it is no wonder we are hearing so many reports of self-harm and even suicide attempts by these children.”

The Sri Lankan boy had been detained since arriving at Christmas Island in April.

Rod St George, a former senior manager with the security firm G4S at the Manus Island detention facility, told SBS program Dateline of repeated instances of sexual abuse between asylum seekers in the single-male compound.

He said victims often remained in the same compound as their abusers because there was no ability to separate them.

Mr St George, who resigned in disgust earlier this year, said suicide attempts and self-harm were an “almost daily” occurrence at the centre.

“I’ve never seen human beings so destitute and so hopeless before,” he said.

National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell supported calls for more community places to be found for children following a recent visit to Pontville.

“As children they are developmentally and emotionally very vulnerable, and this is why the (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that detention should be a last resort and for the shortest possible time,” she told a refugee conference in Sydney last month.

Ms Mitchell said a number of the children had been in detention for more than six months.

“They also raised concerns about the jail-like environment, difficulties at school, excursions, phones and clothing, among other things.”

A Hazara boy told her: “Four months we have been staying here. Our request is they should get us out of here when we are fit and healthy, not when we are crazy.”

Immigration Minister Tony Burke has said he is seeking to place the Sri Lankan boy and his cousins in community detention. At the time of writing all three were still at Pontville.

“Everyone in Pontville is an unaccompanied minor… I’m dealing with two situations, neither of which I like, and the judgement call that I’ve made is it is better right now just to keep them together as a family group,” Mr Burke told ABC Radio.

According to the latest immigration figures more than 1600 unaccompanied children are held in detention centres
Australia-wide.

About 1300 others are in community detention such as group homes and foster homes.

By Nigel Tapp

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