The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on Australia’s five mainland immigration detention centres released on Friday received pretty good press over the weekend, echoing HREOC commissioner Graeme Innes’ line that conditions within the centres have improved substantially.

Despite the revelation that detainees at one centre were being used to wash staff cars, according to the report most detainees made no complaints about staff attitudes or the way they were treated.

But buried within the reports was a passing reference to the continuing detention of children. The HREOC addresses the detainment of minors, all of whom at the time of writing the report were children who had been picked up by customs on illegal fishing boats.

These kids don’t get much press. They’re usually boys around 15 to 16-years-old, many are from the Kupang region in West Timor and many are unaccompanied by a guardian. Once Customs seizes the boat that they’re on, they’re handed over to DIMA, and according to DIMA, they’re then detained in Australia for around three weeks before being returned home.

One tenth of illegal fishers are minors. There is an average of one child on every 2.5 boats picked up by Australian authorities. Last financial year there were 289 children from fishing vessels detained by the Immigration Department.

The HREOC report asserts that these children continue to be held in detention centres, despite DIMA’s assurances to Crikey back in August last year that they’re “accommodated in alternative arrangements … such as motels and apartments with an appointed minder who is an adult from the crew they arrived with…”

The HREOC report on Australia’s five mainland immigration detention centres: Villawood (Sydney), Baxter (Port Augusta), Perth, Maribyrnong (Melbourne) and Northern (Darwin) reports:

It was disappointing to find 13 unaccompanied children in the Northern centre when HREOC visited on 1 November. All of these children were Indonesian boys found on illegal fishing boats. As at 1 November, those 13 children had been detained for between 8 and 15 days.

Crikey understands that the 13 children were found spending their waking hours (7.30am till 7.30pm) in the Northern IDF, described around that time by Senator Trish Crossin as “grossly inadequate” and spent their nights in motel rooms.

The Human Rights commissioner reported:

There is nobody onsite at the Northern centre with child welfare qualifications. This is particularly worrying when children arrive without family members… HREOC was told that that children are appointed ‘minders’ by Australian Customs based on relationships that the children have with crew members on the fishing boat. We also understand that DIMA tries to verify that the child is happy with their minder. However, we were also told that there was nobody onsite with child welfare training and that there was no relationship with the Northern Territory child welfare services (except in the event of a reportable abuse incident). We understand that there is a ‘Child Liaison Officer’ on site. But we were told that that person is simply a detention officer who is appointed as a point person for the children. The officer has no special training in child welfare. In our view this is an inadequate safeguard…

The Human Rights Commissioner reported that he was of the “understanding” that the 13 children were all sent back to Indonesia as at the 1 December 2006 but Crikey understand that this was incorrect as the published Immigration Department detention statistics as at the 15 December 2006 had the 13 children still detained in Australia.

The Immigration Departments detention statistics suggest that as at of the 5 January 2007 there was one (fishing) child still held by the Immigration Department. You can read DIMA’s response to the HREOC report here.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey