Monday, October 18, 2010

PM's child refugee strategy hailed

By Karlis Salna, AAP
October 18, 2010, 8:56 pm

Support for a federal government decision to move hundreds of children and families from detention centres into the community has flooded in from human rights advocates.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) was among those to welcome Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement on Monday, but said the scheme should be expanded to include all families with children and unaccompanied minors.

The AHRC also said the detainees should be moved as quickly as possible, especially given many youngsters had already been in detention for a number of months.

That call was echoed by other groups, including the Refugee Council of Australia (RCA) and Catholic social justice organisation the Edmund Rice Centre (ERC), which say the government's time-frame is too long.

Under the scheme, several hundred children and families will be moved into community-based accommodation by June 2011, although all unauthorised arrivals will continue to be mandatorily detained when they first arrive while identity and security checks are carried out.

The government would partner with non-government organisations and community groups to house the asylum seekers and would cover the cost, which is yet to be revealed.

"... They are a special case and we would hope that their processing might be expedited to ensure they remained in detention for as little time as possible," ERC Director Phil Glendenning said.

The government's two-pronged announcement also drew criticism from those groups opposed to mandatory detention.

Ms Gillard's plan also includes a major expansion of facilities on the mainland with the commissioning of two new detention centres, at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia, to cater for up to 1900 asylum seekers.

Amnesty International (AI) expressed disappointment, saying that part of the initiative represented a missed opportunity for the government to move away from "the failed policy of mandatory detention".

"As AI has highlighted time and again, Australia is the only country to mandatorily detain asylum seekers in this way," AI's refugee coordinator Graham Thom said.

"By reaffirming its commitment to the policy, the government is failing to acknowledge that this system is not working."

Dr Thom said that if the government was serious about protecting the best interests of families and children, it should immediately move to legislate against detaining children.

The AHRC agreed, with its president, Catherine Branson QC, saying detaining children should only be a last resort.

"And ... if they are detained it is for the shortest appropriate period of time," she said.

But Ms Branson added that it was pleasing to see the government adopting an alternative approach by moving the vulnerable into the community.

"The commission has been raising concerns over the past 12 months that this alternative system was not being used for vulnerable groups in detention," she said.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, said the detention of any asylum seeker was inherently undesirable once health, identity and security checks were completed.

"Experience shows that prolonged detention can have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of people who have often already suffered from torture or trauma before arriving in this country," UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle said.

"This is particularly the case for children, and so we welcome the decision."

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