Immigration detention and children: separating fact from fiction

A message from Michael Pezzullo - Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Consistent with the law of the land, and under direction of the government of the day, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection operates a policy of keeping children in detention only as a last resort, and releasing those children that might be in detention as soon as reasonably practicable.

This is a very contentious area of public policy and administration. Sometimes emotions rise and facts gets distorted. For the reputation of my Department and its officers, it is crucial that I set the record straight: the Department and its uniformed operational arm, the Australian Border Force, does not operate beyond the law, nor is it an immoral ‘rogue agency’.

Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a “public numbing and indifference” similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong – and yet they continue to be made in some quarters.*

In the same vein, any contention that prolonged immigration detention represents "reckless indifference and calculated cruelty," in order to deter future boat arrivals, do not pass even the most basic fact check. The number of children in detention would not be falling if that were the case.

The resources devoted to providing medical and support services, and the commitment of doctors, service providers and departmental staff to the welfare of those individuals, undercuts emotive and inflammatory claims to the contrary.

The Department’s operations are underpinned by the law of the land. In this regard, the High Court of Australia has upheld the legal foundations for both ‘turn back’ and ‘take back’ maritime operations (in a case brought down in January 2015) as well as regional processing arrangements (in the case known as M68, brought down in January 2016).

While policy can be debated, there should be no place for falsehood, rumour and unfounded speculation. People smugglers are constantly poised to jump on any relevant mistruth in order to convince prospective asylum seekers to pay them to get to Australia.

That is also why official statements on this issue have to be precise and unambiguous as to the essential objective of government policy. The maritime path to Australia is closed; and people subject to regional processing will not be allowed to settle in Australia.

What is often overlooked in so called commentary on this issue (and even, regrettably, in some media reporting) are the facts. Significant progress has been made over the past year to move children and their families from detention into the community. As I write, there are now 58 children who arrived by boat in held detention, down from a peak of almost 2000 back in 2013.

Much recent commentary has centred on a group of asylum seekers temporarily in Australia for medical treatment. A large number of this group are family members accompanying those in need of treatment. Consistent with policy and law, they will be returned to Nauru or Papua New Guinea at the conclusion of their treatment. The policy of the Government is that these persons will not be allowed to settle in Australia. No child will be returned to a place of harm, and we will exercise appropriate discretion and compassion in making decisions on a case-by-case basis, without fanfare.

Those returning to Nauru will return to a full open centre arrangement for all transferees and settled refugees. All are free to come and go from the accommodation centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Within the Department we have taken significant steps to enhance oversight, advice and scrutiny being applied to the care of those in detention, including children. The Department’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr John Brayley, provides me and the Commissioner of the ABF with impartial professional medical advice on health matters.

We have also increased our engagement with independent oversight bodies including the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

Consistent with advice provided to me by the Department’s Chief Medical Officer, all transferees and refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea receive appropriate mental health care. The Department’s service provider’s support these Governments to provide health services, including mental health care, broadly commensurate with Australian community standards.

Recognition of an individual's mental health needs is particularly pertinent because many individuals in detention arrive with pre-existing mental health issues and may have experienced traumatic events in their country of origin or on their attempted journey to Australia.

For this reason the Department and its service providers support individuals with a range of specialist care options including mental health assessments and individualised care plans. The Department provides access to mental health nurses, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists to individuals transferred to Australia for medical care.

The Nauru and Manus RPCs both have mental health care staff onsite, including mental health nurses, counsellors, torture and trauma counsellors, psychologists and a psychiatrist. There are also additional mental health care staff based at the Nauru Settlement clinic.

Since December 2014 significant improvements have also been made to infrastructure, education and health and welfare services in Nauru.

Around $37 million has been spent upgrading medical facilities in Nauru, which has a population of about 10,000 people. This includes, at the Republic of Nauru Hospital, a new surgical inpatient ward and medical building as well as the installation of a CT scanner which is also available to transferees, refugees and local Nauruans.

This is supplemented by improved neonatal and obstetric services and the establishment of visiting specialist consultation and surgical services to transferees.

The Australian government has also provided additional settlement accommodation in hard-walled buildings, expanded the Nauru Primary School, built a new Community Resource Centre and upgraded the island’s water supply. To support education, we have provided expatriate professional development and teacher support services (a total of 11 teachers) in Nauru schools and five school counsellors.

I must also address ongoing and consistent claims that those expressing opinions on immigration detention are “risking jail by speaking out”. While often repeated, this claim is also wrong and unsupported by any facts.

The secrecy and disclosure provisions in Part 6 of the Australian Border Force (ABF) Act are not unique. These types of provisions are similar to those which apply to partner agencies and a wide range of other Commonwealth agencies with responsibilities for the management of confidential or protected information. They do not prevent, for example, medical professionals from seeking the best clinical outcomes for their patients.

In the midst of this debate, the Department will continue to focus on the fair, dignified and humane treatment of people in our care. We make decisions compassionately, consistent with Australian law. We will continue to reduce the number of children in detention as soon as practicable, within the law, as we have done in recent years.

Ultimately, the Department shares the same goal as its critics – to have no children at all in immigration detention, consistent with the law of the land


*To allege that the Nazi regime promoted indifference towards its abuses is bad history.  It is also an outrageous slur by association when such behaviour is compared to immigration detention. The Nazi regime promoted racial hatred. Far from seeking to numb an indifferent public, it sought to vilify and persecute Jews and others, before engaging in the systematic and evil genocide of the Holocaust. It is deeply repugnant and historically false to bracket immigration detention and these atrocities and crimes against humanity in the same sentence. Regrettably this occurs in so-called commentary and reporting on immigration detention.  It is offensive – both to the staff of the Department and the ABF, and to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.

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