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Minister discusses the UN Special Envoy's report on the treatment of children in immigration detention centres.

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Radio National, Radio National Breakfast

Interview on the treatment of children in detention, 1 August 2002

Compere: Vivian Schenker

Item: There has been increased pressure on the government over the treatment of children in detention. Federal immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says the standards they have developed are appropriate standards in dealing with refugees.

Compare: Critics of the Howard Government's detention policy have been armed with more ammunition in their fight for humane treatment of asylum seekers with this scathing report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

As we've been hearing this morning, the report's found conditions in the Woomera detention centre are inhumane and degrading. But the Federal Government's rejected the UN's findings that Australia is breaching its human rights obligations, describing the report as being fundamentally flawed.

Cathy Van Extel is with us again from Canberra. Now Cathy does the Government accept any of the report?

Cathy Van Extel: Well we'll find out in a moment from the Immigration Minister, but certainly the Government's immediate response has been to discredit the report on a number of fronts - ranging from pointing out what it says are factual inaccuracies to the basic fundamental differences of opinion about our treatment of asylum seekers under international law.

Significantly though the report is singling out the plight of children - which is an issue that the Government is arguably most vulnerable to criticism. Certainly the ALP has identified the handling of children in detention centres as politically safe territory to differentiate itself from the Government, and we've seen increased pressure on the Government about their handling of children - just most recently with the publicity surrounding the two young brothers who had escaped from Woomera and then sought, unsuccessfully, asylum with the British Government.

To talk to us a little bit more about some of the issues that are raised in this report, we're joined by the Federal Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. Thank you for your time today.

Philip Ruddock: Pleasure Cathy.

Cathy Van Extel: Now we have heard your criticisms of the report ad nauseam this morning. Is there anything that you're willing to take on board ort at least look at?

Philip Ruddock: Well I suppose if I had to observe as to whether or not there was anything in the report that was positive, it was the recognition that the detention standards that we've developed are at appropriate detention standards for ensuring humane treatment of detainees.

Cathy Van Extel: Well the bottom line of the report is though that it is inhumane, that our system isn't dealing appropriately under our obligations of international law, that it is a matter of serious concern. In those criticisms is there anything that you're willing to take on board?

Philip Ruddock: Well look I'd just make the point that if you listened to what Justice Bhagwati said on one of your brother programs last night, I mean he made it very clear that his views were formed because he didn't like seeing children detained.

And the only solution he had was to release them. And the obvious outcome of that is that people who want to achieve a migration outcome in Australia, if they were not lawfully entitled to one, would in effect simply take the view all you've got to do is bring children with you, then you have achieved your outcome. Now I mean …

Cathy Van Extel: Well his argument is that there should be alternative ways to deal with the family unit, as well as the unaccompanied minors, that it doesn't have to be behind razor wire.

Philip Ruddock: Well, I mean, alternative ways have to ensure that you have people available for processing and available for removal. And there is no demonstrated alternative way in which people, who are at the stage where those in Woomera are now - that is where all their claims have been considered and found wanting and are being held for removal - would remain available if you were simply to allow them to be at large.

The experience of course is there internationally to be seen. I mean in the United Kingdom they now speak of hundreds of thousands of rejected asylum seekers. They hope this year to get the numbers of rejected asylum seekers removed in the United Kingdom up to 30,000 from amongst the 90,000 that they have each year available, and that's not been achievable. Ninety percent of rejected asylum seekers in France are unable to be located, and you have similar figures for the United States of America.

Cathy Van Extel: Well what we have though is the observation of a former Chief Justice of India who says that there should be an approach that Australia can take to deal better with the children that we do have.

Philip Ruddock: Well I simply make the point that what he is critical of is detention. [indistinct] he was at Woomera for very little time, and he observed …

Cathy Van Extel: He's a, he's an expert observer, how long does he need in Woomera?

Philip Ruddock: Well he's not an expert observer if he observes that ACM guards are armed - which he asserted in his report - when they're not. When he observed that detention arrangements for the education of children was inadequate - wholly inadequate - when he didn't even visit the school. I mean the fact …

Cathy Van Extel: Well, just, just to pick up on the issue of the ACM guards, they do hold batons though don't they?

Philip Ruddock: I'm sorry, they do?

Cathy Van Extel: They are armed with batons aren't they?

Philip Ruddock: They are not armed. I mean he …

Cathy Van Extel: They do carry batons.

Philip Ruddock: No he said they were armed with guns, and they're not, and I mean it goes to the nature of the work that he undertook. He came with preconceived views. He'd been talking - he said himself - to lawyers and advocates. He spent all his time while he was here talking to lawyers and advocates. He had one day to visit Woomera, and he's come to flawed conclusions. Now that's the bottom line Cathy.

Cathy Van Extel: Well the bottom line is that his argument - as particularly in relation to the children - is that - and this is his understanding of the human rights obligations - that we are breaching them.

Philip Ruddock: Well let me just make it very clear, there is no human rights obligation not to detain children, and what your obligation in relation to children is, is to act in their best interests, and our view is that children should not be separated from their parents in order to have them outside of a detention environment unless there is a voluntary acquiescence - which we have in the alternative detention model - whereby children are able to be with their mother while the father remains detained. Or, if there is a State authority that recommends, in terms of the immediate needs of the children that they should be separated from their parents - and there's been no State authority, competent State authority, that has been prepared to make that recommendation.

So the judgement has always been that it is better to maintain a family unit intact, and we are not [indistinct] unwind detention arrangements which have been a very important mechanism for ensuring that people are available for processing and available for removal, and thereby a very important deterrent in preventing people from getting into boats which we know can be life taking.

Cathy Van Extel: Mr Ruddock just looking at some of the recommendations that are included in the report, there's a suggestion that there should be a follow-up visit by a UN representative next year. Will Australia agree to that?

Philip Ruddock: Oh we'd have a look at that at an appropriate time, but let me make the point that we have, quite prepared to allow visits to occur, and properly

structured, in consultation with us, we'd obviously look at it.

Cathy Van Extel: Mr Ruddock thank you for your time this morning.

Philip Ruddock: Thank you.

Compare: Federal Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock speaking with Cathy Van Extel in Canberra.

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See: Index of Transcripts

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URL: Last update: 01 August 2002 at 14:53 AEST