Refugee children on Christmas Island are being imprisoned rather than held in community centres, says a children’s rights advocate who has just returned from a tour of the remote island detention centre.
Dianne Hiles, founding member of ChilOut (Children out of Immigration Detention Inc) said children and families are still restrained and “squashed” in a compound of demountables that was originally built for the centre’s construction workers.
“They [the children] are in detention. They are not in any soft form of community detention, they are squashed in the construction camp that was built for 300 people. They can’t come and go,” she told The Epoch Times.
Ms Hiles said she felt she was “tolerated” by officials on her recent trip to Christmas Island to tour the facilities and speak with the children.
She said there were 251 children in detention in the workers’ camp at the time of her visit, but suspected that the numbers had swollen with the arrival of more refugee boats in the last week.
Conditions in the camp were tolerable, she said, but the compound was not “family appropriate” and was crowded with over 500 people crammed in.
“The concern is that every one is living on top of each other. It is not just family groups and not only the unaccompanied minors in there, but also adults,” she said, adding that captured Indonesian fisherman and “various other nationalities who can’t cope with the detention centre attitudes” are among the other adults held in the camp.
Children under 12 are attending the local primary school, which she described as “excellent”.
“It has a lovely atmosphere. They go for the full school day and they are treated like every other student.”
However, returning to the compound at the end of the day sets the children on edge. “If they are going to school that is fine, but we then have psychological issues where they don’t want to come back from the school.”
For the 12 to 18 year olds, life is more restricted, with only one hour of English instruction and one hour of recreation time per day.
“Beyond the age of 12, they are constrained within the Phosphate Hill compound area. They can go to some classes in another compound, but they haven’t got the run of the island, they can’t go down to the beach or play cricket or kick a football around on the nearby oval,” Ms Hiles explained.
She said some of the children are unaccompanied minors. One child she interviewed had already been on the island for seven months.
“So we are keeping people in these conditions for nearly a year, inflicting goodness knows what mental anguish on them, and then, when they come out in the community, we have to pick up the pieces,” Ms Hiles said.
Dr Sev Ozdowski, Australian Human Rights Commissioner from 2000 to 2005 and author of the 2004 children in detention report A Last Resort, said he was frustrated that conditions for children have returned to those identified in his report.
“It frustrates me, to say the least, to see these gains being squandered by a chronic lack of moral leadership among our national leaders,” he said in an op-ed published by News Ltd this week. “The current situation in our detention centres is nothing short of a national disgrace.”
Ms Hiles said ChilOut has identified over 1000 children presently in detention or in holding centres around Australia.
ChilOut, a non-government body, has recently reformed after disbanding following the initiatives put in place following Dr Ozdowski’s landmark report.
In a statement in March this year, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen reiterated a Gillard Government commitment to move the majority of children and vulnerable families out of detention and into community-based centres by June this year.
He called on the Opposition to support this process, saying in a statement to Parliament: “We will meet this commitment because it is the only responsible thing to do.”
But Dr Ozdowski and Chilout believe that for the children in detention, time is running out.