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Minister discusses children in detention.

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Thursday 6 November 2003


JENNY BROCKIE: Senator Vanstone thanks very much for your time. You said last week that holding children in detention was the lesser of two e vils. What then is the greater evil?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Well, I think to give any indication to people smugglers, are criminals who just want to make money by taking money from vulnerable people and making them false promises o f citizenship in other countries. Giving them hope and succour and encouragement is the greater of two evils. But we've made very significant changes from how detention centres used to be run. I mean, when these were first established by the Labor Party, women and children were held in detention and that was it. We've got residential housing projects, about 70% of the kids go to school outside of - who are in detention - go to school outside of detention and when they're in the residential housing projects, of course, they're out of detention.

JENNY BROCKIE: But less than 10% of the children are actually out of detention and the evidence is mounting about the damage that's being done inside these centres, isn't it? We're hearing stories of severe psychological damage, psychological disturbance on the part of these children. I'm just wondering if that is somehow a lesser evil than allowing them all to be processed in the community?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well there's a couple of things about these residential housing projects. They are voluntary, and there are families who have not chosen that. They don't want to be parted from the other partner and so they choose all to stay. I don't know of anybody who's proposing that the Government should take children out of detention centres if their parents don't agree. I don't know of anybody putting that proposition. And there is, of course, the counter-argument that needs to be considered and that is that children are generally considered to be better off with at least one of their parents, at least one of.

JENNY BROCKIE: I haven't been able to find a single health organisation in this country though, which doesn't believe that these children are being harmed by your Government's policy. Now why aren't you listening to those peak health bodies that are saying to you "This is causing damage"?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well look, we are listening to these bodies. We've got residential housing projects in Port Hedland, in Woomera, we're about to open one this month at Baxter - well, it's not at Baxter it's at Port Augusta, but associated with that centre. And that's a very significant step forward.

JENNY BROCKIE: But I'd still make the point, that's less than 10% of the children. There are still 90% of these children inside these centres. Now in May this year, 19 peak health organisations in a submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, this included all the medical colleges in Australia, said that detention of infants and children is having immediate, and is likely to have longer-term effects on their development and their psychological and emotional health and it also warned that it was likely that many of them would develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorders. I'm just still interested in how that is the lesser evil than allowing children into the community to be processed while you still have control over them and are still able to process their claims and their parents' claims for refugee status?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, of course I think that's where the sort of myth comes in. Now, we recognise that, as I think everyone does, that of course detaining children is not ideal, but you then go on to say "Well look, why don't you let these children out where you can process them out in the community?" I don't know that that's necessarily an easy thing to do for the duration of time that some people choose to stay because they don't accept their initial assessment as not being eligible for a protection visa. That's the majority of the people in Baxter at the moment are people who have been judged not to be a refugee and have chosen to stay and challenge that, and for that period of time, you say where you can keep control of these people, it's not an easy task over a long period of time to make sure that people who have been judged not entitled to protection will, when the time comes, be available for removal.

JENNY BROCKIE: Would you like to see more children in the community?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: I would, I think everybody would, and the opening of the project in Port Augusta later this month is something I'm very much looking forward to and, you know, I hope that the balance of children is as high as it can be. We haven't yet gone through the process of sorting out who that will be. There might be a mother with four children, there might be one mother with one child. So we can't say at this point what the adult/child balance will be but of course I would like to see, everyone would like to see, less children in detention.

JENNY BROCKIE: But if you would like to see more children in the community, why then are you appealing this case in the High Court and trying to keep them locked up when the Family Court has said detention of children is illegal? Why is the Government challenging that, appealing that?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, there is a dispute over the Family Court. I mean, the judge in the first instance didn't have that view and I think the Australian Government's entitled to have a view as to what the extent of the Family Court's jurisdiction is and whether we have an entitlement to detain children. That's another question altogether from whether that is our preferable option.

JENNY BROCKIE: Just moving on, what is going to happen to the 14 people in this boat off Melville Island at the moment?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, the boat's been secured, the Navy have taken the people into their care, they've got appropriate food and water, there's a medical officer on board the naval vessel to offer any assistance that might be required.

JENNY BROCKIE: Are there any indications yet whether Nauru or Papua New Guinea will take these people? Is what that you want to happen?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: We're not discussing the options that we're looking at in the context of this. Look, I think that's fair enough too. Look, a government has the task of ascertaining what the options are, following through on those options and then making a decision and then, of course, announcing the decision and being accountable to the public, generally through the media, for that decision.

JENNY BROCKIE: Is that because you don't know what to do with them yet?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: No, I just don't think it's sensible. We haven't had a situation - we don't have, for example, media monitoring of what happens in cabinet, there's good reasons for that where you can air all the appropriate options you might want to take. It's considered good government to be able to make those decisions away from media speculation and then, of course, answer, in a public sense, for the decision you make.

JENNY BROCKIE: Senator Vanstone, I just wonder what would happen if a boat made it into Darwin Harbour, as others certainly have in the past. Are we going to excise Darwin from our immigration zone as well? How far does this system go?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, look, a number of media people have been speculating on why do we have a system where we consider the whole mainland and some islands as part of the immigration zone and then we take bits out, and put the proposition that we should actually reverse it and nominate valid entry points for Australia and leave it at that. I have to say I haven't given consideration to that and that's not what we're looking at. What we're saying is these islands to the north of Australia make it a lot easier for people smugglers. What we want to do with these regulations is say to the people smugglers, "Look, I'm sorry, if you want to smuggle people into Australia, you'll have to come to the mainland." We want to make it harder for them. Labor and the Democrats apparently want to not make it harder for them and leave these islands as the sort of place into which people smugglers can come.

JENNY BROCKIE: But given that so many of these people are eventually found to be refugees anyway, doesn't this all look very inhumane on the part of the Government? I mean, we're talking about excising bits of Australia that have been considered parts of Australia for as long as people can remember. Isn't it essentially what you're trying to do is to ensure these people don't have the right to go through our court system?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, we're trying to ensure that people who want to come through the back door, who don't want to come as one of the 12,000 people that come in through our humanitarian program, they don't want to come in in an orderly way, they j ust want to barge in using criminals to assist them to get here, we make it harder for them. Yes, we absolutely do want to make it harder for them. hopefully I haven't cut too much out here....

JENNY BROCKIE: Senator Vanstone, you've decided today to grant a humanitarian visa to Mr Sammaki whose two children are in Bali and whose wife was killed in the Bali bombing. Can you explain what happens now to those children? What is the procedure from now on?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, Mr Sammaki was taken to Adelaide this afternoon, given his visa and given the opportunity this afternoon to get assistance from Immigration officials to fill out the forms to sponsor his children. I don't know whether he's done that this afternoon or whether it's all been a bit much and he'll be doing that tomorrow. But as soon as those applications are lodged, we'll be doing everything we can to facilitate the processing of them very quickly.

JENNY BROCKIE: You seem to have adopted a very different view on this to your predecessor though?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: No, look, I think that's very unfair, actually. I uphold and completely agree with the decisions. Mr Sammaki is not a refugee and he has not been given a protection visa. I support the decisions not to allow his children to come and visit for two reasons. I agree with the original decision maker. I don't think anybody believes that applications wouldn't have been made when they arrived and that the notion of a visit was simply a ruse to make applications when they were here. I think that makes a mockery of the immigration system. But more importantly, or as importantly, I think the trauma of those children being trotted around the world for an intermittent visit with their father - I know people who suggested that meant well. I'm not being disparaging of the people who suggested it. But if you look at it from the children's point of view, I think that would be terribly traumatic and as well intentioned as those ideas were, they weren't good ideas.

JENNY BROCKIE: Senator Vanstone, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for your time.