As another 194 asylum seekers head for health and security checks and Immigration Minister Chris Evans continues to hose down speculation that the detention facilities on Christmas Island are close to capacity, concerns are being raised about the number of children on the island.

Evans has said that the island will cope with the recent influx of arrivals “but we also have contingency plans in place if we need more capacity”. But what about the kids on board these boats?

As a surge of people move through southeast Asia trying to escape violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Crikey can confirm that there are around 95 minors (under 18 years of age) currently in community detention on Christmas Island.

A spokesperson for the Immigration Department told Crikey this morning that most of the minors are Afghan. A few minors departed the island last week to be resettled on the mainland but a few more have arrived on the latest two boats, so the numbers, which were officially 95 as of the 18th of June, are hovering at around the same amount.

The children are in community detention, which consists of community-based housing on Christmas Island.

“While people are in community detention, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) ensures they receive appropriate support and their needs are looked after,” said the departmental spokesperson.

Gone are the days of GSL guards looking after kids in hotel rooms.

“Minors in community accommodation on Christmas Island are under the supervision of independent and qualified carers,” said the spokesperson, who are effectively government employed social workers.

“They live in furnished homes, located close to schools, shops and other amenities on Christmas Island.

“The children attend school and have access to sporting facilities and regular excursions.”

But should they be on Christmas Island at all?

In her 2006 study Seeking Asylum Alone, Professor Mary Crock highlighted the fact that Australia’s refugee status determination system was established with adult asylum seekers in mind.

The report makes the point that unaccompanied children face disadvantage in articulating their story and in being heard.

At the first point of contact with authorities, children were often required to articulate their need for protection without either an advisor or an effective guardian. Case studies of children within the asylum process in the past suggested that immigration officials had been poorly trained and lacked the skills to deal with child asylum seekers.

It was hoped that the report would encourage “Australian officials to think seriously about children as refugees in their own right — most particularly when the children are travelling alone.”

A change of government has resulted in a shift in approach towards processing asylum seekers, and the immigration spokesperson reiterated that it’s Government policy that no child be held in an immigration detention centre — there are no minors detained at the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

But in her report, Crock recommended:

Unaccompanied and separated children should never be interdicted and deflected from mainland Australia, either by being returned to their country of origin or sent to an offshore processing centre. Their claims should always be considered under the normal refugee determination procedure.

The spokesperson confirmed that the longest anyone’s been in detention this year, including unaccompanied minors in community care, has been since November/December last year. Said the spokesperson:

All claims for protection are assessed thoroughly and we aim to do this as quickly as possible. If protection is granted, arrangements are made for immediate settlement on the mainland.
People are only placed in community arrangements once the appropriate checks, support and supervision are in place.

According to the spokesperson, the processing of minors’ cases is up to around April.

The length of time taken to process a minor who has come out alone varies from case to case, but if a visa is granted, the minor is then placed into foster care. The child then has an option to lodge an application to bring out their family.