Human Rights Watch calls on Australia to end offshore transfer of migrant children

The Australian Government should immediately stop transfers of migrant children – including unaccompanied migrant children and child asylum seekers – to offshore processing sites in Manus Island of Papua New Guinea, and Nauru. On 21 November 2012, Australia transferred 19 people, including four children, to Manus. The asylum seekers, from Sri Lanka and Iran, were the first transfers to Manus since the Australian Government reinstated its offshore processing policy for asylum seekers in August 2012. Under the policy, asylum seekers are transferred outside Australian jurisdiction to facilities on the islands of Nauru and Manus to await processing of their claims.

Australia’s policy violates its obligations to children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects all children in Australia’s jurisdiction, including non-citizen children. The Convention requires assessment of “the best interests of the child” in all actions concerning children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has interpreted this to mean a comprehensive review of a migrant child’s needs for immigration status and basic services by qualified professionals in a friendly and safe atmosphere. Transfer out of Australia’s territory without such a determination fails this test, Human Rights Watch said.

The facilities at Manus and Nauru are expected ultimately to have a combined capacity of 2,100 people. Migrants, including children, may have to spend up to five years in Nauru or Manus. The government has also stated that unaccompanied migrant children - who travel without parents or other caregivers - will be among those transferred.

Children’s health is at risk on these isolated islands, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. Manus has one of the highest rates of malaria anywhere in the region, as well as other mosquito-borne diseases and relentless heat. Studies published in respected medical journals show that children held for prolonged periods in immigration facilities exhibit increased signs of declining mental health, including, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Children fleeing persecution have the right to seek asylum, and Australia’s offshore policies violate that right, Human Rights Watch said. Australia has ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits parties to the convention from penalising refugees on account of their illegal entry or presence. Asylum seekers who enter Australia illegally, including children, need to be given an opportunity to have their refugee claims heard by a competent body before being forcibly returned. Neither Papua New Guinea nor Nauru yet has the capacity to provide appropriate asylum procedures for children, or legal assistance to unaccompanied migrant children.

Under the new regulations, Australia will transfer unaccompanied migrant children out of their jurisdiction without adequate guardianship procedures in place. For the previous 10 years, unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Australia had become wards of the state. Before the child could leave Australia, the minister for immigration and citizenship would have to give consent in writing. The new regulations reverse this. Teenage children without families, far from home, will be left without anyone looking out for their interests.

“Instead of taking a punitive approach to migrant children who arrive by boat, Australia should ensure that its migration policies protect children’s rights,” Farmer said.

Source: Human Rights Watch