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Children in Detention


Detaining children in makeshift, harsh facilities has become a feature of global political practice. The grounds are common – inadequate or no documentation; irregular or ‘illegal’ arrivals with their parents.  Despite the high minded rhetoric of child protection that surrounds government and civic group initiatives, the mobile child, the refugee minor, is considered a nuisance of policy.

The Global Campaign to End Child Immigration Detention notes that over 100 countries detain children for reasons connected with immigration.  But it also notes various countries which deserve special, if dubious, mention.  Australia, Malaysia, Israel, South Africa, Greece, Mexico and the USA head the list.  And it must be said that of this select company, Australia stands tall, its carceral approach to minors and their parents a classic combination of brutality and outsourced human rights obligations.

The most monstrous feature of the approach of Australia’s minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, is that detaining children is being done for their own good.  Incarceration is better than death; mental and physical corrosion in enclosed spaces alive is far better than being dead at the bottom of a sea floor.  ‘I saw too many children dying at sea not to pursue the policies I am pursuing,’ he claimed before members of the national inquiry into children on immigration detention.  Side stepping instances of sexual assault of children and the continuous violation of children’s rights has become a constant feature of Morrison’s parrying.

As a consequence, children are kept in detention for average periods of up to 349 days, which means that many of the more than 700 children have been detained for longer stretches.  Community detention is distinctly off the cards, having lost appeal under the savage clamp down of the Abbott government.

Morrison is clearly not in the business of making fans among the legal community. Why deal with the law, which is, in fact integral to the idea of processing refugee claims?  He has been particularly aggravated by the stoking of Professor Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission, a legal eagle who has been clawing at his grounds for keeping children in detention with some ferocity.  On Friday, the two locked horns.  Morrison proved petulant and interrupting.  A senior journalist claimed that ‘such a level of disrespect either in Senate estimates or any kind of inquiry’ had rarely been seen.[1]

Morrison insisted that the problem of child detention lay with the previous government – they had let the creatures in to begin with, opening up borders, going soft on the smugglers.  ‘Well, the children didn’t turn up under this government except for 350; 8,400 turned up under the previous government Madam President.’

Triggs suggested that, having been in the law for a good number of years, she knew a prison when she saw one.  Morrison, indignantly, retorted by asking whether she was ‘suggesting that Long Bay jail is the same as a full-fenced alternative place of detention on Phosphate Hill on Christmas Island’.

When cornered, splitting hairs is a good failsafe, at least in the rhetorical sense.  The distinction is certainly right on one level: detention centres offer prospects of indefinite confinement – immigration officials work at a snail’s pace; conventional prison sentences tend to be clearer in their demarcation.  You know when your time is done. Then comes the considerable variations with the camp system.  Some centres offer cooking facilities with minimal movement; some offer a modicum of education and limited education access. The PNG and Nauru facilities, however, are state of the art offshore prisons.  Abuse and denigration are their operating rationales.

Morrison insists that claims for more than 30,000 asylum seekers, among them over 700 children, will not be considered until the temporary visa system is implemented.  This he termed a ‘visa product’, those nasty Temporary Protection Visas which had characterised the immigration system under the Howard government.  ‘The absence of such a visa product at present also removes the possibility of considering alternative options for those currently on Christmas Island or elsewhere in Australia, who arrived post July 19.’

The climate is not favourable for those children behind bars, for whatever Morrison wants to claim, they are, in fact, the prisoners of the global movement of refugees and asylum seekers.  The Defence for Children International has called for a Global Study on Deprivation of Liberty of Children[2] to be adopted by the United Nations.  But such a study, however noble, will remind us about what we already know – that children will continue to be detained, and that such policies of deterrence are futile as long as the grounds for mobility are there.  Cruelty rarely inspires prevention.  It will tell us nothing about how to eliminate that prison culture which so captivates the Morrison creed.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:  

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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