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.”