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Kids in detention: new AHRC inquiry

By Sev Ozdowski - posted Friday, 7 February 2014

On Monday 3 February the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) announced an inquiry into the human rights of children in immigration detention.

This is not the first inquiry on the subject. Between 2001 and 2004 I, as the then Australian Human Rights Commissioner, conducted an inquiry into the human rights of children in immigration detention. My inquiry resulted in a detailed report of over 1,000 pages in length titled'A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention'.

That report was tabled in Parliament on Budget Day 2004. My Inquiry was announced in November 2001 during the peak of boat arrivals when some 750 children were locked up in immigration detention. The 2004 report found that the mandatory immigration detention of children was fundamentally inconsistent with Australia's international human rights obligations and that detention for long periods created a high risk of serious mental harm.


My inquiry took over two years because it was conducted in public to alert Australians to the fate of children in long term detention, win their hearts and minds and secure children's release.

In fact, following the tabling of the report, the Howard Government released the approximately one hundred children still being detained in June 2004.

This is at least my version of events.

The then Minister for Immigration would possibly argue that the release of the children was directly related to the slowing of new boats arrivals as a result of tough measures introduced by the Howard government. The then Minister would possibly further argue that as the deterrent worked well, the security of Australia's borders had been re-established and thus Australia's international human rights obligations could be met.

Certainly the repetition of my inquiry is the highest form of flattery but its timing is very odd.

The new inquiry was announced only following the returned Liberal government's apparent early success with its new tough anti-people smuggling measures. No boats with asylum seekers have arrived for over forty days.


As of now the problem appears to be under control, it seems likely that sooner rather then later the government will start releasing children from mandatory detention.

The inquiry's timing is particularly odd because when the Labor party was at the peak of its cruelty towards boat arrivals, with boats sinking and the number of children in detention growing rapidly, the AHRC appeared to turn a blind eye.

There are two possible answers to this.

First, the inquiry was instituted not to primarily solve the problem of children in immigration detention but in order to appease the human rights lobby after the long silence of the AHRC under the Labor government.

Second, the AHRC's relationship with the Immigration Department has recently broken down to such an extent that the AHRC special inquiry powers are needed to get access to basic information about the wellbeing of the children being detained.

This second scenario is what the AHRC President Gillian Triggs suggested in an interview with ABC program The World Today on Monday. However, Minister Morrison contradicted this by stating that his department continued to work with AHRC.

Finally a question that needs to be asked is what new facts are likely to be uncovered considering that the AHRC has no jurisdiction over Nauru and the one hundred and sixteen children who are detained there.

If the inquiry is only to consider information provided by the Immigration Department, public submissions from NGO's and former detainees it is not clear how it would be adding anything new to the 2004 report's findings and recommendations.

I can only hope that this new inquiry is not simply a cynical political exercise but that it will move us closer to a permanent end to the mandatory and long term immigration detention of children in Australia.

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About the Author

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM is Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney and was Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (2000-05).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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