A new report released today has heaped further criticism on the conditions faced by children asylum seekers on Christmas Island, with the group behind the research calling for a time limit on the detention of children.

The No Place For Children report, released by advocate group ChilOut (Children Out Of Detention), compiles the observations of a number of visits by the group to the families and minors Construction Camp detention centre in April. They say the report highlights the risks of detention to children.

Dianne Hiles, a founding member of ChilOut, says children are being kept in “prison-like conditions” on Christmas Island, despite government assurances to the contrary. Hiles visited Christmas Island in April to observe how children are being detained.

“We keep going back and detaining children as a first resort, the longer we detain them the more damage we are doing,” she told Crikey this morning. “We need to realise the human consequences of these decisions.”

ChilOut makes a number of recommendations in its report, including the introduction of a time limit for the detention of children. They also call for alternative accommodation facilities for minors, the development of a criteria for detaining children and a unified, national code of mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Agencies in the past have noted the importance of co-ordinated activities inside detention centres, particularly for children. During their visit, ChilOut said Serco “appeared to be delivering programs and activities within their contractual framework”, however they also observed a lack of televisions and radios available to detainees. Asylum seekers also had limited access to the internet, they said.

In areas such as food and transport there did not seem to be any problems, No Place For Children notes, however the centre’s remote location could lead to potential food shortages — particularly in severe weather conditions.

The report also says recent court rulings show there is a lack of mandatory reporting for the mistreatment of children kept in immigration detention and a lack of access to a legal framework representing children’s interests.

Questions are also raised about the appropriateness of immigration minister Chris Bowen’s role as legal guardian of children in detention, while the advocates say they have “grave concerns” for the  impact of overcrowded detention centres on children.

ChilOut says the mix of families with large numbers of male teenagers creates tension and a lack of telephones also causes arguments between detainees.

Education opportunities afforded to children detainees are also of concern to the group, with some detainees telling ChilOut they were unable to participate in language classes because they were oversubscribed. “It appears that DIAC [Department of Immigration and Citizenship] is generally meeting its obligation to provide primary education, but not secondary education,” the report notes.

Concerns are raised over the impact prolonged immigration detention can have on the mental health of children: “While criticism has been levelled at the small sample sizes used in research investigating the mental health of child asylum seekers, the consistency of the results is overwhelming.”

The pair were not permitted to observe the North West Point detention centre, which is primarily made up of single adult males and was the subject of a number of protests in March this year. According to the report, DIAC told ChilOut its visit was being restricted to the Construction Camp because “immigration detention is subject to regular scrutiny from external agencies”.

DIAC did not return Crikey‘s request for comment on the ChilOut report by deadline. A DIAC spokesperson did say “we take our duty of care for all people in detention seriously”.

As of June 9 there were 741 children held in immigration detention facilities. Last October the Gillard government promised to move the majority of children into community detention by July this year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey