SYDNEY — Australia's policy of indefinitely holding children of asylum seekers in immigration detention camps violates international laws, the government's human rights watchdog found, after an inquiry uncovered hundreds of reports of assaults involving child detainees.
The head of Australia's Human Rights Commission called Thursday for the swift release of children from detention centers and demanded a royal commission — the nation's most powerful form of inquiry — into Australia's longstanding practice of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who travel to Australia by boat.
"What is now required, we think, is a full royal commission into a policy that's been in existence for 23 years that has brought deep damage and despair and misery to thousands of children and their families," Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs said. "Australia is ashamed of this policy and we need a new road to deal with these problems."
The government dismissed the commission's findings, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott dubbing the report "blatantly partisan." Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement that some of the report's recommendations would undermine "the very policies that mean children don't get on boats in the first place."
Asylum seekers who pay people smugglers to take them in rickety boats to Australia from Indonesia are detained in immigration detention camps on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island and on the impoverished Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The policies of refusing to allow those who arrive by boat to ever settle in Australia and to turn some boats back to Indonesia have almost stopped the trafficking of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia to Australia. But human rights groups have accused the government of trading one evil for another, with some child detainees now languishing for years in harsh detention camps.
"The aims of stopping people smugglers and deaths at sea do not justify the cruel and illegal means adopted," Triggs wrote in the report. "Australia is better than this."
The commission's 10-month inquiry found that the prolonged, mandatory detention of children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays, and is in breach of Australia's international human rights obligations.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a party, states that the detention of children should only be a measure of last resort.
Between January 2013 and March 2014, there were 233 assaults involving child detainees and 33 reported sexual assaults — the majority of which involved children. In that same period, 128 detained children tried to harm themselves, engaging in everything from self-cutting to swallowing insect repellent. More than a third of detained children suffer from mental health disorders.
"I don't have any hope," one teenager detained on Christmas Island told the commission. "I feel I will die in detention."
The commission wants the government to ban indefinite detention, close the "harsh and cramped" Christmas Island camp, get children off Nauru and appoint an independent guardian for unaccompanied minors.
The report comes as little surprise, given that the commission held a similar inquiry a decade ago raising the same concerns: that children who spend a long time in detention are at high risk of serious mental harm, that mandatory detention of children violates international laws, that conditions in some camps are deplorably bad — unsanitary, unsafe, and unsuitable for children.
Australia holds about 300 children in its mainland and offshore camps, down from a peak of about 2,000 in 2013. The nearly 120 being held on Nauru are suffering from "extreme levels" of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress, the commission found.
The prime minister dismissed the inquiry as a "blatantly partisan" exercise, questioning why it wasn't held when the previous government, run by the opposing Labor Party, was in power — a time when the number of child detainees reached its peak.
"The Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself," Abbott told Fairfax Radio. "Where was the Human Rights Commission when hundreds of people were drowning at sea?"
Asked if he felt any guilt about the treatment of children in detention, Abbott replied: "None whatsoever."
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