Sophie Black writes:


More than 10% of illegal fishermen apprehended in Australian waters
in the last year were children, and Crikey understands that
unaccompanied minors as young as ten who
are found on these vessels are being detained by DIMA and kept in hotel
rooms.

As more illegal fishing vessels
are being apprehended by Australia’s coastal patrol, DIMA are placing
unaccompanied children captured from boats in hotel rooms or apartments
under the protection of guards from the private detention services
contractor GSL for up to three weeks and then repatriating them without the involvement of the usual body responsible for such migrants – the International Organization for Migration. Unaccompanied minors have no legal guardian or family member with them on the
illegal fishing vessel.

DIMA spokesman Phil Allan told Crikey that of the
2647 illegal foreign fishers apprehended this financial year, 289 were
minors. Crikey understands that the
majority of children come from the Kupang region in West Timor. As of yesterday, there were three
unaccompanied illegal foreign fisher minors being held.

“The border control
obligations of the Immigration minister always gazump
the child protection obligations,” Professor Mary Crock, author of the
report Seeking Asylum Alone,
told Crikey. “The Immigration minister is the guardian of all unaccompanied
non-citizen children who can’t point to a responsible adult as
guardian… it’s an
impossible
conflict of interest situation.”

Several advocacy groups have raised concerns about these children with DIMA. “There’s no real transparency or
accountability,”
says James
Thompson from the National Council of Churches.

Illegal fishing vessels are proving to be a steady source of DIMA detainees. According to DIMA statistics,
of the 739 people in detention at the end of June 2006, approximately 34% were illegal foreign fishers.

“The present practice is unacceptable, children should not be
retained for as long as they are and they should be returned within seven days
to their country of origin to the nearest port,” former Supreme Court Justice John Dowd told Crikey. “Clearly the parliament
never intended that people arrested for illegal offshore fishing be held for as
long as they are and it could never have been the intention that having been
detained, they would transfer to immigration detention…”

Illegal
foreign fishermen are detained under the
Fisheries Management Act 1991 on enforcement visas for up to seven
days. On release from fisheries detention, their enforcement visas
expire
and they become unlawful non-citizens liable to detention and removal
under the
Migration Act.

These unaccompanied minors are “poor, terrified boys, who are
completely out of their depth, from remote Indonesian islands,” Alanna
Hector from advocacy group Chilout told Crikey. They should be placed “immediately in
culturally appropriate foster care with people who speak the same language… and
given access to a lawyer straight away.”

DIMA
told Crikey that the minors are
“accommodated in alternative arrangements …such as
motels and apartments with an appointed minder who is an adult from the
crew they arrived with…”

“The average age of illegal foreign
fisher minors apprehended in 2005-06 was 16-years-old. Minors are
repatriated as a matter of priority…in an average of between 1-3
weeks,” says Allan. “All immigration detainees have access to legal and
consular assistance if requested…” and minors are “repatriated as a
matter of priority to
their home port…”

Crikey understands that unaccompanied
asylum seeker minors who’ve been detained or granted temporary
protection visas are usually accompanied by DFAT’s International Organisation for Migration on the return journey home, in compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But
IOM are not involved with the return of unaccompanied minors from
illegal fishing boats. “I’m aware that there’s increasing numbers of
minors on
these boats,” Denis Nihill, Regional representative from IOM told
Crikey. “Certainly if we were asked to be involved with their return we
would look into it, but we haven’t been.”

Peter Fray

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