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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 10307


Ms PLIBERSEK (1:32 PM) —We are here today debating the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002. The length of time this bill has actually taken to make it onto the agenda is curious. This bill was first discussed many months ago. I have been waiting for it to come up for debate again because I have been very eager to hear the shadow minister for immigration introduce the amendments, which she has foreshadowed, about getting children out of detention. It is quite plain that the delay associated with this bill has been due to these very amendments that the shadow minister has foreshadowed.

The government has serious problems in its own ranks with keeping people in line on this issue of children in detention. We saw last week some very moderate announcements—I think rather pathetic announcements—about the changes that the government proposes to make in the area of children in detention. The reason for even these puny changes having been made is that the Prime Minister has found it very hard to keep some of his more compassionate members in line on this issue. We have all heard reports in the media and in the corridors here of people telling the Prime Minister that, if the shadow minister's recommendation that children should be taken out of detention were put, they would be forced to cross the floor and vote for that. That has delayed this legislation and has forced the Prime Minister to act in the small way in which he has, saying that from now on unaccompanied children will not be locked up in desert detention centres and that women and children will be facilitated out of detention centres.

While of course anything is welcome in this area, these measures are incredibly disappointing. I know that those in the Liberal Party who worked for so long to get these small changes were really arguing for a lot more. I presume that they will continue to agitate within the government for greater change because these measures are manifestly inadequate. Certainly, it is important that any unaccompanied children arriving from now on not be held indefinitely in detention centres, as they have been up till now. But we are not seeing a lot of new arrivals at the moment. We still have kids locked up in detention centres, though, and we have to deal with those kids, many of whom have been in detention for many months now. The other part of the policy that is inadequate is that families who have made the traumatic journey to Australia do not deserve to be separated; they deserve to be able to live as a family unit. Indeed, our policy released last week allows family units to stay together—and that is a very important measure.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, our policy is that any unaccompanied children under 14 be placed in the care of foster families as soon as their health checks are complete, and unaccompanied youths between 14 and 18 be released into appropriate community care as soon as their health checks are complete. Unaccompanied children have been a real focus of community concern, and rightly so. The stories about the sorts of psychological and emotional trauma that these children have gone through and the effect that it is having on them have been harrowing. There have been accounts in newspapers about such things as adolescent girls becoming incontinent due to the stress of being in detention while perhaps also caring for younger siblings, and children witnessing others self-harming and, in some cases, harming themselves. All these stories are particularly affecting when we remember that unaccompanied children do not even have their parents to explain to them what is going on, why they are in detention.

There is of course a real contradiction in the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs being responsible for keeping these kids locked up and also being their legal guardian. You have to ask yourself about the ability and the sincerity of a guardian who thinks it is okay to keep kids locked up in Woomera and also thinks it is okay to have kids, unaccompanied minors, on Manus Island and Nauru, for example. The latest figures I have indicate that there are 38 children on Manus Island and 149 children on Nauru as at October this year, and that about 30 of those were unaccompanied minors. Children living in the harsh environment on Manus Island and Nauru is a horrifying thought. It is horrifying to think that there any children living there at all, but to think of unaccompanied minors living there, trying to eke out an existence for themselves, is really very disturbing. Labor have said that those unaccompanied minors would not be detained. To avoid that conflict of interest I mentioned, we have also said that the children's commissioner we are proposing would be the legal guardian of unaccompanied children.

The other thing that I think has been very warmly welcomed in Labor's policy is that high-security detention will be used only very briefly on arrival, and that high-security detention for family groups will not be in the desert hellholes at other camps that we hear about. We are talking about detention facilities based on the alternative detention trial at Woomera where families will be able to live in ordinary homes that will be secured at the perimeter and have security presence.

Children living in those homes will be able to go to school. I think that that is a very important step forward. We know that in some of the detention centres very few of the children are going to school. In fact, even where they have been allowed to go to school, it has often been discouraged by guards who have told children and parents that their children will face racism if they go to the local schools.

The ability for families to cook their own meals, to have some privacy and to have as normal a family life as possible is vital in keeping these children in the best possible condition psychologically and emotionally. Some of the reports that have come out of the detention centres where ACM has been very strict about things like mealtimes might not seem a lot to a casual observer. However, anyone who has young children knows that they do not eat at set meal times and that they want snacks between meals. And if you are breastfeeding, you cannot eat once at seven o'clock in the morning and not again till lunchtime, then have dinner at five o'clock and have nothing else until seven o'clock again the next morning. You have to eat small, regular meals to keep your milk supply up. This has meant that breastfeeding—which is so important for the health of children and vital in an environment where there are other physical strains on children, particularly on young babies, such as the heat in some of these detention centres—has been discouraged because breastfeeding mothers simply cannot get the calories required to produce breast milk. They are not able to have the regular meals that they need to keep their supply up.

Living in an alternative detention style of accommodation where people have control over their own meal times and what they cook and eat is a very important step in maintaining the health of children. It also provides a more home-like environment in which the detention period can be a lot less stressful. Of course, Labor are talking about making the detention very short whenever we can.

Children being able to attend the local schools is also very important. Our experience is that the vast majority of people who arrive in Australia in this manner are found to have general claims to refuge. That means that we want to start to make good Australian citizens of these people as soon as we possibly can. That cannot happen without help to learn English. It cannot happen without children being able to go to local schools. It cannot happen without their parents being able to find work as quickly as possible. We have made suggestions that will facilitate all of these things.

I know that there are many students in my electorate who have watched reports on television of children in detention and have read about them in the newspapers. In particular, students at Newtown Primary School have been speaking to me not just this year but also last year about this very issue: how can they encourage the government to make a difference and allow these children to live in the community? They were very concerned about one of their classmates whose family were temporary protection visa holders in regard to the fees that these children were forced to pay to attend the local public school. I was very impressed by the welcoming attitude of the students, the warmth they showed these kids and the support they wanted to show for their cause. I always think that if adults paid a little bit more attention to how children treated each other in these circumstances, we would probably live in a kinder and gentler world. The benefit that children experience from going into a school environment like that is absolutely incomparable.

I mentioned earlier the latest figures I had for the number of children in detention on Manus Island and Nauru. In October 2002, a total of 309 children were in detention in Australia. Anyone who has examined this issue would know that those children are suffering to a greater or lesser extent and that the detention environment is not appropriate for them. On Monday, I received a petition from more than 8,500 citizens calling for children to be released from detention. These members of the community have been following this issue and as concerned Australians—some of them parents, some of them not—they want to send a message to the government that children should not be in detention. Some of the reasons are very apparent when we look at the sort of evidence that came out of the Senate inquiry and has come out through the media. There does not seem to be any quality management strategy for immigration detention centres. It is common in other areas like aged care, disability services and family services to put a quality management strategy in place. There seems to be no evidence of that in detention centres.

ACM repeatedly fails to deliver on the contract they have signed with the government. For example, they contract to ensure that children receive an education and people receive adequate nutrition, and to provide a safe environment. In all of these areas, ACM have repeatedly failed to meet their obligations. Yet we have a government that is getting ready to call for tenders for the management of detention facilities in Australia. ACM, of course, will retender to provide those services. Having failed to meet even the low standards included in the contract this time around, I am at an absolute loss as to how ACM intend to meet what the minister says are going to be higher standards in the next contract round. They have not met the standards that exist now; yet we are saying that in our warmer and fuzzier approach next time, they are somehow going to meet those standards. It beggars belief.

Centres should be returned to public management. Labor have said we will do that on returning to government. There needs to be public scrutiny of what is happening in these places. I do not understand, when we are dealing with traumatised people who have made a long and dangerous journey here, why the government does not contract the management of detention centres out—if it must contract them out—to a community services organisation that can just pay some other organisation to provide the security services? We seem to put the emphasis on jailing people and, as a second thought, think about how we are going to feed them, care for them, teach their children and provide all of the human services necessary. Why don't we think first about looking after the people for whom we are responsible once they arrive here? No matter what we think about the way they arrived—we have heard many people from the government talk about `queue jumpers' and all the other pejoratives that they use—we are responsible for their welfare, particularly in the case of children. Why don't we provide for that welfare and think secondarily about the security, instead of placing that at the centre of how we deal with asylum seekers?

Every few months, there is a story about a child who has been physically or sexually abused in one of these centres. We know that it happens. We know that it has been happening for years. What do we do about it? The minister for immigration is the legal guardian of these children. Yet we had the case on 18 January 2002 where a five-year-old boy detainee in Curtin was allegedly raped by three other detainees. The local doctor was allowed to delay medical examination of the boy for up to a week and the local police apparently said the five-year-old boy had instigated sex with three adult detainees. This is horrifying. What were the outcomes of the obviously unsatisfactory finding by the police? Did DIMIA castigate the police and question their investigation of the case? Did DIMIA contact the officers who investigated the case? We do not know. These centres are managed in a way that is so secretive and so inadequate that questions like this arise constantly. The welfare of the children, whom we as a community are responsible for, is being left in the hands of people who obviously are inadequately policing the standards that they have agreed to.

To conclude, if we accept, as a community, that it is our responsibility to care for children while they are being held in detention, it stuns me that we do not provide even such basic health care as immunisation. The reason that we do not immunise them is because of the cost involved. We are talking about a very small cost to the Australian health budget. Instead of accepting that many of these children will be accepted into Australia as genuine refugees and starting off their health care immediately, we delay it until the last possible moment, hoping that we can get away with not even providing basic health care.

The constant reports of the psychological damage being done to children in detention are disturbing. It is even more disturbing to think that we are not providing the sort of care that they need. Even if the government decides to keep them incarcerated, do we not have a responsibility to start to deal with the damage that we are inflicting on these children? No, there is no measure, ability or desire to do that.

The child protection services in Western Australia found that there are proven cases of maltreatment in centres. What has the minister done to begin to address these problems? If we know that these children have been abused or neglected in detention centres, what are we doing to stop that happening in the future? Is it going to be written into the new contracts that are being negotiated at the moment? We have no information about this. The contracting out means that all of this is enveloped in commercial-in-confidence claims. Thus, I am very pleased that the shadow minister will later have the opportunity to move a substantive amendment to this legislation for getting children out from behind the razor wire. (Time expired)