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Friday, 19 July, 2002, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Australian disquiet over child detainees
A tearful boy after he failed to get asylum in Britain
Pictures like this might turn the tide of opinion

Pictures of two traumatised children trying to get asylum in a consulate in Melbourne have prompted sympathy among an Australian public that largely supports its government's hard line on asylum.

The case this week of the young brothers Alamdar and Muntazer Bakhtiyari seems to be tugging at Australia's heart strings.

'No children' sign at Woomera
Public opinion seems to be shifting against detaining migrant children
Views expressed by the public on phone-in programmes and letters pages of newspapers indicate that though Australians do not want to see more illegal migration, they baulk at the thought and the sight of children behind razor wire.

For example, the news that the two boys were sent back to their detention centre before their father had a chance to meet them, dominated talk shows on Friday, with four out of five callers very upset by the government's actions.

Political success

Since the Australian navy turned away about 460 migrants packed onto the MV Tampa freighter last August, not one asylum seeker has landed illegally on Australian soil.

The hard-line policy sees boats intercepted, either to be turned around or for the occupants to be sent to third-party Pacific nations for processing.

It has been a huge political success for Prime Minister John Howard, delivering him a third consecutive election victory late last year.

Australians largely accept the government's argument that to do otherwise would reward the "queue jumpers" who can afford to buy passage from people smugglers rather than go through official refugee programmes.

Concerns for children

And while a common complaint is of embarrassment at the world attention, many hope the situation will resolve itself as the authorities process the claims and appeals of the remaining detainees.

By mid-July, the numbers of asylum seekers in Australia had fallen to 1,129 from 3,271 in September last year.

But there are signs of growing public opposition to the government's continuing policy of mandatory detention of those children and their families who arrived before the Tampa episode.

One commentator said that as the flow of migrants has dried up, so people's fears have declined, giving them room to question the detention policy.

Protester amid razor wire at Woomera
The sight of boys and girls playing behind razor wire has upset many
Incidents such as the attempt by two child escapees from the Woomera detention camp to seek protection at the British consulate in Melbourne have had an impact on the Australian public.

Pictures of the brothers' tearful faces, which led news bulletins, and other tales of children's suffering over recent months have heightened public concerns over the impact of prolonged imprisonment on young lives.

The media have highlighted damning reports on education provision in the camps.

An ongoing inquiry by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission has heard more than 200 submissions from camps across the country, most of them highly critical of the Immigration Department's handling of the children's schooling.

Duty of care

A former psychologist at Woomera said many of the children, now spending their formative years at Woomera, received better education in the poor countries they fled.

Critics point out that, under Australian law, the government has a duty to care for the children and many people have called for them to be at least removed from the camps for daily lessons in local schools.

But, while it acknowledges all children are entitled to education in detention, the Immigration Department says the different ages and abilities of detained children mean it is usually not practical to educate them in the mainstream education system.

On top of education, there have been more general criticisms of the children's care.

Razor wire

Representatives of the United Nations who visited the camps in June placed the issue of the children's detention at the top of their list of concerns after finding evidence of trauma and self-harm.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Prime Minister John Howard policy is to turn illegal migrants away
The issue has also created a rare split between the government and the main opposition Labor Party on asylum.

Though Labor says some form of mandatory detention will always be required, party leader Simon Crean said after the incident at the British Consulate that children should not be held behind razor wire.

Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock says the children are best cared for in their family group, which means remaining with their parents or guardians in the detention camps.

Policy will continue

Not one of the criticisms is likely to lead to a government about-turn on asylum seekers.

Both Mr Howard and Mr Ruddock remain firm in their conviction that their policies are a necessary if unpleasant response to the realities of the 21st century global politics.

However, if there is one issue on which Australians would welcome a softening of policy, it is the ongoing treatment of the migrant children.

Or as one caller to a radio programme put it: "If we've stopped the flood of boatpeople coming in, why do we need the deterrent of locking children up?"


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19 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
18 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
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