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Australia and Asylum Seeker Children on Nauru

Over recent months, the issue of asylum seeker children being kept indefinitely on Nauru has garnered the attention of the community, media...How has the Australian Government responded to this attention and has their policy position changed?

Over recent months, the issue of asylum seeker children being kept indefinitely on Nauru has garnered the attention of the community, media, and political and social commentators, with a number of professional groups calling for the immediate removal of all remaining children. How has the Australian Government responded to this attention and has their policy position changed?

Recent Press Commentary

The Law Council of Australia, basing its arguments on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, claims that the Convention requires that in all actions relating to children, the best interests of the child be the primary consideration.  As such, the Law Council has argued that if children must be detained on Nauru as part of the immigration process, this action should be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.  In addition, as recently as 20 November, the Australian Bar called for the continued removal of children on Nauru.

Medical groups—including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners—have also publicly called for the Government’s urgent action to transfer asylum seeker children and their families to Australia for medical and psychological treatment.  These calls follow on from the 2014 National Inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission into Children in Detention.

Government’s Policy Position

The Government’s policy position as it relates to asylum seekers has been consistent and strong since the controversial Tampa incident in 2001, where offshore processing became the cornerstone of the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’.

While offshore processing 2.0 has been operating in Nauru since 2012, it has only been in the latter half of 2018 and in the context of recent political instability that the swelling change in sentiment began and is now supported by politicians on both sides of Australian mainstream politics.

The Government has now sought to respond to the increasingly vocal community concerns and address public sentiment while also maintaining its firm approach to the issue and the challenge of people smugglers.

When Prime Minister Morrison assumed his role in August 2018, there were 113 asylum seeker children on Nauru, 46 of whom had been born there.  Based on current reports, there are 17 children still left on Nauru and it is likely that all will be taken to Australia before the end of the year.  To put this into context, this compares to 1,992 children in immigration detention at the end of July 2013.  These reports have been reported upon positively in the media and the community more generally.  While the number of children in immigration detention on Nauru has decreased, the average number of days in immigration detention has increased significantly—in 2013 it was 72 days, whereas it now exceeds 400 days on average. 

Asylum Seekers in Australia and Around the World

As distinct from offshore processing, in 2016-17 Australia accepted more refugees than any year since it began a humanitarian migration program, with more than 24,000 refugees settling in Australia, including the special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  In managing its refugee and humanitarian program, the Australian government has sought to balance maintaining its humanitarian policy, public interest and views, and importantly the integrity of the program.  The management of the program is particularly complex with respect to how to deal with unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers who arrive via people smuggling networks.  It is the focus on maintaining integrity which has led both the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party to stand by the policy that any asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat will never be resettled there.

Australia is by no means alone in facing the difficult issue of how to manage irregular people movements by people fleeing persecution.  At the height of the Syrian crisis in 2015, over 1.3 million Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers sought protection in Europe.  In May and June 2018, the world’s attention was drawn to the United States’ family separation policy, which led to more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

How Fragomen is Taking Action

In the United States, Fragomen partnered with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) on a major pro bono initiative to represent unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings in the United States.  In Australia, Fragomen also partnered with Justice Connect in a pro bono capacity to assist unaccompanied minors seeking to sponsor immediate family members under the ‘split family’ provisions.  Fragomen Australia is now exploring further options to provide legal services to asylum seekers and their families in recognition of the support that is required and in the reflection of its corporate value of giving back.