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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 07:58 GMT
Australia boat children inquiry
Australian refugee detention centre
Some child refugees have no family with them
Australia's Human Rights Commission has launched a major investigation into the conditions of hundreds of children held in refugee detention centres.

The move follows complaints from detainees and human rights groups that children are being roughly treated by guards and denied schooling.


We cannot steal their childhood away from them. I really believe detention is bad for children

Human rights commissioner Sev Ozdowski
More than 500 children are currently being detained, mostly in remote areas - and about 50 have no family members with them.

The head of the commission, Sev Ozdowski, said he would examine whether Australia was breaching its international obligations on the rights of children.

"The only power I have is to shame the government, to report publicly," he said.

Mr Ozdowski said there had been claims that unaccompanied children as young as eight were being interned along with adults in detention centres.

Some of the children have been in custody for more than a year.

Allegations

Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the Australian Government for its policy of detaining all asylum-seekers until their applications for refugee status are processed.

"We cannot steal their childhood away from them," said Mr Ozdowski.

"I really believe detention is bad for children."

A Chinese immigrant in a detention centre
To release the children would encourage others, says Australia
He said there had been a stream of unsubstantiated allegations that excessive force had been used on children during riots at detention centres.

Many of the unaccompanied youngsters are 16 and 17-year-old males from Afghanistan's Hazara minority who fled their homeland to escape Taleban persecution.

Australia's ruling conservative coalition government was re-elected on 10 November after voters supported its blanket refusal to allow boat people to claim asylum.

Co-operation

More than 9,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East or Afghanistan, have arrived in Australia in the past two years, largely by boat via Indonesia.

The investigation coincides with talks in Canberra between Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda and his Australian counterpart Alexander Downer on a joint approach to combating people-smuggling.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the government would co-operate with the inquiry but said it was unlikely to cover new ground, with four inquiries already held into immigration detention centres in the past 18 months.

Refugee camp at Nauru
Refugees are now being taken to islands in the South Pacific
"The issues that will be addressed won't be new ones, but there will be people who have a particular view and aren't satisfied with the response that has been taken, who will want to press those issues again," he told Australia's ABC Radio.

Mr Ruddock said that by releasing the children, asylum seekers might be encouraged to send children to Australia alone in an attempt to gain entry later themselves.

The inquiry will measure the federal government's stance against the requirements of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia has agreed to apply to all those aged under 18.

The convention states that detention should only be used as a last resort and only for the shortest possible time. It also urges that children be kept with family members.

Mr Ozdowski hopes to complete his report by the end of 2002.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia 'not desperate' on asylum
05 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's detention camps criticised
31 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's asylum policy
13 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Sinking island urged to accept migrants
09 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum seekers 'torch ship'
08 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia shows refugee video
23 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lands another refugee deal
10 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Papua accepts boat people
09 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Pacific islanders flee rising seas
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