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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 9612

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (13:03): I rise today to speak on children currently held in Australia's immigration detention facilities. As I stand here, the latest numbers of children held in detention here in Australia is 112.

Last week in this place, the Senate voted to amend a piece of legislation that would release children within 30 days, ensuring that those children and their families could live safely in the community. The test is now for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: will he agree with the Senate and allow these children to live in the community while their claims for refugee protection are assessed; or will he continue to keep them locked up in prisons in Australia and Nauru? There are another 200 children or thereabouts locked up in detention on Nauru.

It is important to release children in Australia today into the community so they can have proper access to schooling. One of the most important ways of ensuring that these children can integrate into our community is to allow them to have a normal school life. At the moment, out of the 112 children who are locked up by this government in Australia, a number of them are allowed to go to school but only after weeks and months of pressure from advocates to ensure they get access to regular schooling.

The children who attend school, who are in immigration detention, suffer from serious stigmatisation. It often takes weeks, if not months, to get children into school and, because of the ping-pong nature of how the government treats families in detention, they are often moved from detention centre to detention centre—from Nauru to Australia; from Australia back to Nauru; and within Australia—from Melbourne to Brisbane to Darwin. It is very hard for children in those circumstances to become part of a school community.

One of the saddest things, when you talk to families and children in detention facilities about going to school, is that security guards have to take them to the school gate and classroom. In Australia, security guards in Serco uniforms—the private contractors—accompany them to school. When they get dropped off at the schoolyard, all the other children wonder: why is this student who is in grade 3 with me being accompanied by two guards? What have these children done that is wrong?' You can see how the bullying and stigmatisation of being taken to and from school every day accompanied by guards would play very heavily on the minds of these already vulnerable and fragile children.

The children who get to go to school have their school bags searched on their way back into detention. Heaven forbid they may have smuggled some crayons or an extra muesli bar into the detention centre. One 10-year-old girl who lives in the Melbourne detention centre comes home from school in tears each day, her mother has told us. She tells her mum that no children will play with her in the schoolyard, as they think she comes from a prison. The sad truth of that, of course, is that she does—immigration detention centres are prisons for these children.

Many children are bullied. Other children accuse them of being criminals. They are also picked on for their clothing, which is the generic clothing handed out by the private contractor, Serco. It is often not very well suited and often ill-fitting. One teenager currently in detention in Darwin now refuses to go to school because the bullying in the schoolyard as a result of his being a child asylum seeker became so bad. Sadly, that young boy has started to self-harm.

Parents talk of how kids are often hungry after they get home. After they have been picked up by the security guards, brought back to detention and had their bags searched, they get back to their room in the detention centre and there is no kitchen in which their parents can provide meals. They have to wait along with everybody else to line up for mealtime—just like a prison.

Many of these children that I am talking about today have been in detention for two or three years. This is a lifetime for a child. Many of the children received no schooling when they were first detained on Christmas Island, despite the minister's duty to enrol them in school. They have been ping-ponged across the country, flown back and forth from Australia to Nauru. Many of these children have missed out on months and months of education.

The biggest concern right now that these children have is that in two weeks there will be school holidays. For children across the rest of Australia—like my daughter who is in grade 3 and who is eight years old—it is an exciting time having the summer holidays to spend time at the beach and with your friends and family and to be free from the school structure. It is not so for these 112 children currently in detention. These children have 12 days left of school. Those 12 precious days, despite the stigmatisation and despite the bullying, are the only time these children are allowed out of this prison. With the approaching school holidays, those children are filled with dread that, while other children are out playing, while their schoolmates will be spending time at the beach, they will be locked up behind bars for the entire six-week holiday period.

There used to be a designated persons program where those who were designated volunteers could take children and their families from a detention centre on regular visits outside. Sister Brigid Arthur, who is a Catholic nun, is one of the women who used to do this on a regular basis. For a number of years she was one of the few designated persons approved by the immigration department to take people detained from the centre outside for an hour or two. Sometimes she would even get half a day. During the school holidays she would prioritise the children—a trip to the zoo, at visit to the playground or maybe just home for a home-cooked meal. But six months ago, when the Australian Border Force Act started, the designated persons program was suspended without further notice. Now these children have no-one to escort them out, even for a couple of hours a week. They look with dread at the school holidays, when they are going to be locked in this prison for months over the summer break.

Mr Turnbull could change this if he wanted to. At the very least, he could reinstate the designated persons program. But he could do much more than that. He could accept the will of the Senate, as expressed last week. He could release these children and their families from living in this prison hell. He could ensure that they have the opportunity to live in the community safely, to be integrated and to be supported. He could to ensure that these children, for the first time in two or three years, actually get to be children and have the childhoods that so many of us have fond memories of over the summer break. There is a day-and-a-half left of parliament this week and this sitting year. I urge the Prime Minister to not keep these children under lock and key any longer and to ensure that these children have the opportunity to spend the Christmas school holidays being children. Allow them to be set free.