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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 705

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (19:30): I rise tonight to speak about the Australian Human Rights Commission's report The forgotten children: national inquiry into children in immigration detention: 2014. It is a startling and heartbreaking insight into the lives of children in Australia's immigration detention. I think there is no more powerful way to confront one's beliefs about what it means to be a refugee than to read the direct testimony in some of this report from some of those who have lived it.

We cannot shun the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, and we cannot hide from our responsibility to ensure that people are able to live out their fundamental rights to build a home and a life in safety and security, free from persecution. But this report demonstrates that we are failing our responsibility to the most vulnerable. It raises a number of difficult questions for both the Labor Party and the government. It shows how systems need to be improved. It shows that kids need to be taken out of detention as soon as practicable. It highlights human rights breaches and raises a number of very serious issues in its recommendations that Labor will consider. The findings within this report must motivate all of us to work better for the outcomes of children in detention. It is important that we understand the plight of those children as deeply as we possibly can to make sure nothing like this happens again.

This report contains the disturbing truth that more than one-third of children in immigration detention face profound psychological trauma as a result of the conditions in which they are being held. The level of psychological injury that these children experience is comparable to that of a mentally ill person being treated as a hospital outpatient. A civilised government placing children in detention is a deeply distressing situation, near guaranteed to produce mental illness in at least a third of those detained. That is what this report reveals.

These children are often from families who have fled war or political or religious persecution. They are children who have sought to escape torture or other mistreatment by making the dangerous and long journey to our supposedly safe haven—our country. They or their parents have chosen to do all they could to get to Australia in order to find a haven where they could grow up and live a life free from abuse, and where they could enjoy a good life where they will be protected and cared for. Instead, as demonstrated in this Australian Human Rights Commission report, this is effectively a prison system. It is a prison system that replicates the very trauma and mistreatment which children have risked so much to escape. Their treatment by Australia, an authority that they had trusted for assistance and had put their faith in, tears wider the wounds that they have already experienced.

But, sadly, today our Prime Minister attacked the report and the Human Rights Commission, attacking the truth to distract from this government's own responsibility. He blames the previous Labor government, in an attempt to sweep aside damning findings and whitewash the reality. In doing so, he has played politics with the reality and the plight of these children. No government is perfect when it comes to this very difficult issue. But I would like to acknowledge, at least, that when Labor was in government under the Minister for Immigration Tony Burke we did remove all unaccompanied minors from immigration detention.

While it is a difficult issue, playing politics with it is just not the solution for a civilised government. Instead, one would think this government would have said, 'We will look at this report. We will look at the recommendations in this report, into the evidence produced in this report, the testimonies in this report, and we will make an understanding of that, make an assumption of that and give a response to that.' That would be a fairly rational way that this government could have dealt with the launch of this report today. At least say that we will understand more deeply the findings in this report, so that something like what is evidenced in this report does not happen again. We did not hear that, though, from the Prime Minister, and we did not hear that from Senator Eric Abetz today during our own question time.

Children who are here in these detention centres have committed no crime, yet children will suffer mistreatment and damage to their emotional lives and physical wellbeing if they remain in detention, as this report shows, for as long as they have been. The Liberal government must acknowledge that the mental and physical health of innocent children has been compromised by current policies. The government must work to ensure this does not happen in the future. By ignoring the findings in this report, the Liberal government dismisses the protection which it is obliged to give to these children.

Australia's responsibility is not merely to ensure that people are safe from violence and persecution but that they are able to participate in a community that recognises and values them as people with unique and compelling contributions to make so that they can rebuild their lives. Our country owes much to the diversity of its people. Australia's multicultural society would be so much poorer—and I am sure we all agree with that—without the art, the faith, the language, the food, the opinion and the culture of those who have come from every part of the globe. This report shows that we do need to consider and pursue an independent oversight of the Australian government's conduct in our detention facilities, wherever they may be—onshore or offshore. The Immigration Ombudsman could play a role in that, but I have a feeling that this government abolished that role. I leave this chamber with a simple quote from this The forgotten children report: 'Australia is better than this.'