Refugee groups are urging the government to go further with its decision to allow children of asylum seekers to be released from detention, with the Greens pushing for the policy to be enshrined in law.
Under the plan, announced by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday, several hundred children and their families will be released from detention by next June, with charities and church groups expected to provide care and accommodation with the help of government funding. According to Immigration Department figures, there are currently 738 children in detention.
Bowen says the policy will be implemented using existing powers under the Migration Act to make “residence determinations”, which allows the minister to place conditions — such as curfews, requirements to live at a certain address and obligations to check in regularly with authorities — on those allowed to live in the community while they await the outcome of applications for asylum. According to the government, no legislation will be introduced or amended under the plan.
But while Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has supported the government’s move as a “welcome first step”, she also says the policy should be legislated: “This requires putting in place legal safeguards to protect children and young people. We can’t simply rely on the goodwill of a compassionate federal minister.”
Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, agrees, telling Crikey more needs to be done to ensure children are never put back into detention.
“The minister has said they are using existing legislation to make this decision. From our point of view the legislation is clearly not strong enough when it can be used or not used at the government’s convenience,” Curr said.
Curr also points to legislation she says clearly states that children should not be placed in detention. According to section four of the Migration Act, amended by the Howard government in 2005, “a minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort”.
“Australia is a country which has signed on to all the international conventions; our domestic legislation should reflect those promises that were made in good faith,” Curr said. “Our domestic legislation should not encompass weasel words which allow the government to choose which agreements they will honour and which they will not.”
David Manne, executive director at the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, says while the announcement is an important step it’s still necessary to lock any reform into law.
“One of the golden threads of our legal system is the legal right to be able to challenge to have one’s deprivation of liberty regulated by law, not discretion,” Manne told Crikey. “There’s no good reason why this shouldn’t apply to asylum seekers.”
Hanson-Young has made it clear the Greens will be moving in the Senate to amend the Migration Act, which will see children and unaccompanied minors exempt from the Act’s mandatory detention clause. In a statement yesterday, she also said that mandatory detention for adult asylum seekers needed to be addressed as well.
“The government is using existing powers put in place by the Howard government some years ago. We know how quickly moves to improve conditions for vulnerable asylum seekers can be reversed. The Greens will continue to pursue amendments to the Migration Act to exempt children and minors from the mandatory provisions, and set a time limit for the detention of adults.”
Curr agrees: “Until mandatory detention legislation is repealed our fight for the human rights of all asylum seekers is not over.”