Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott lambasted the country's Human Rights Commission (HRC) today for a report tabled in Parliament Wednesday on the condition of 330 children Australia is holding in indefinite detention but who are claiming refugee status, saying the commission should be "ashamed of itself."
The report, named "The Forgotten Children," examines the conditions of children who are held on Christmas Island, Nauru, and mainland Australia as part of the country's mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers who arrive in the country, often by boat.
In compiling the report, the HRC — a government organization independent of Australia's parliament — uncovered that between January 2013 and March 2014 children held by Australia were subjected to 233 assaults. According to the report, there were 33 incidents of reported sexual assault in detention centers — the majority of which occurred against children. In addition, the report states that there have been 128 incidents of "actual self harm" by children, and 171 incidents of threatened self-harm.
The Australian government received the report in October 2014 and only tabled it in Parliament on Wednesday night, making it public at the last possible moment that is allowed under legislation.
At the official launch of the report on Thursday HRC President Gillian Triggs said she hopes that the primary recommendation that all children be released within four weeks will be heeded.
"When our report was written last October, these children had been detained for an average of 14 months. Today their detention has lengthened to 17 months," she said. "It is our hope that the remaining 330 children will be released with their families as soon as it is safe to do."
Asked in Parliament on Thursday whether he felt any guilt over the findings, Abbott replied, "none whatsoever."
"Frankly this is a blatantly partisan politicized exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself," Abbott said during an interview with 3AW radio, and wondered why a report hadn't been conducted during the opposition Labor party's time in government. "The most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats. We have stopped the boats."
"I reckon that the Human Rights Commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison," Abbott said, referring to the man who was immigration minister during the HRC investigation. "[They should be] saying 'Well done mate because your actions have been very good for the human rights and the human flourishing of thousands of people.'"
Morrison, who was immigration minister until a December reshuffle that saw him land as social services minister, also dismissed the findings.
"I don't think we should go to the point of calling it evidence," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's AM program.
In one of the few passages to mention political parties, the actual report placed the blame evenly:
"As the medical evidence has mounted over the last eight months of the Inquiry, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the policy of both Labor and Coalition governments. Both the Hon Chris Bowen MP, as a former minister for immigration, and the Hon Scott Morrison MP, the current minister for immigration, agreed on oath before the inquiry that holding children in detention does not deter either asylum seekers or people smugglers. No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has been offered."
Malcolm Fraser, Australia's oldest living prime minister, who was a member of Tony Abbott's own Liberal Party, was unequivocal in his assessment of the government's action of the report.
The report notes that Australia is the only country in the world where asylum seekers are mandatorily detained as a first action.
"While other countries detain children for matters related to immigration, including Greece, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, and the US," it states, "detention in these countries is not mandatory and does not occur as a matter of course."
"Both domestic and international human rights law are clear when it comes to the detention of children. The detention of a child must only be a measure of last resort," it states.
The detained children, who come from over 20 countries, mostly entered the country by boat with their families, or unattended. Claiming asylum, they are then detained by Australian immigration indefinitely until their claims are processed. The majority of the children were from Iran, with many others were from Myanmar's Rohingya minority, as well as from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Iraq.
The report details testimony collected by the inquiry from numerous children in detention.
"I am tired of life. I cannot wait much longer," read the testimony from one 13-year-old boy held in Blaydin detention center near the northern city of Darwin. "I'm just a kid, I haven't done anything wrong. They are putting me in a jail. We can't talk with Australian people."
One 14-year-old who was held on Christmas Island reported: "everyone slept 24 hours, eating, sleeping, like that. In my life before, bad things happened. I had no one who wanted to talk about that. I couldn't sleep and the doctor gave me tablets. Most of the people had those tablets. They made me sleepy."
"Children should not be in detention because there is nothing to do, just eat, sleep," he wrote to the inquiry. "No school, no sport, nothing, no idea about what will happen... One day I tried to go to gym but they said I am too young for gym. It was very hot. We just slept."
The authors of the report were extremely concerned about how institutionalized children could become in detention.
"Pediatrician Professor Elliott noted that on Christmas Island 'detainees refer to themselves by their 'boat number' in written and oral communication," the report stated. "More than 30 percent of children on Christmas Island signed their drawings with their boat ID before presenting them to Inquiry staff."
Even with these concerning conditions, the report states the immigration department or detention facility management was doctoring the environment when investigators visited facilities.
"The inquiry team noticed that new toys were bought on the day of the inquiry visit to the Darwin detention centers," it states. "New X-Boxes were also set up in Melbourne Detention Center for the inquiry visit. Children and their parents reported that these had never been used."
Released on Thursday to coincide with the report, advocacy group GetUp! produced a video message from four doctors who provided information to the inquiry.
Dr. Sarah Mares, a childhood psychologist, said in the video she had come across children so ridden with anxiety they had "bitten their nails right down to the knuckle."
The HRC made 16 recommendations in total, including that a royal commission be established to investigate the situation. A royal commission, which has extensive powers, requires that evidence be given under oath and under penalty of perjury charges. It can recommend criminal charges against individuals.
"I am going to do the leader of the opposition this favor," Abbott said in Parliament today. "I'm going to do him in this favor — there won't be a royal commission into children in detention, because if there were, it would condemn [Labor]."
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell