SYDNEY — The Australian government has decided to send children seeking asylum to a remote outback detention camp. The move to incarcerate children and their families has been condemned by health professionals and refugee groups.
A steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat has caused overcrowding in Australia’s immigration detention network. To ease pressure on the system, the Labor government says unaccompanied minors and families with children will be detained at the Curtin immigration center, about 40 kilometers from the West Australian port of Derby.
The remote camp has been used to hold only single adult males who arrived by boat seeking asylum. Officials say that women and children will be incarcerated there for "the shortest time possible."
It is a promise that has been welcomed by professor Louise Newman, from Australia’s College of Psychiatrists, who is a member of the government's new Immigration Health Advisory Group. But she is worried about young asylum seekers being held at Curtin.
“We still have major concerns about children going to isolated and very remote processing centers," Newman said. "It would obviously be preferable if any families and children and unaccompanied minors could be housed in metropolitan areas.”
As Canberra prepares to send children to the facility, mental health personnel warn the decision could cause irreparable damage to young asylum seekers.
The facility has had a difficult history. It was opened by Australia’s former conservative government in 1999; but was shut three years later following serious disturbances, incidents of self-harm among inmates and a mass escape.
At the time, human rights campaigners described Curtin as the “most brutal” of Australia's immigration camps.
Australia automatically detains all asylum seekers while their claims are processed. Children are often held in community facilities or in low-security units within detention centers.
Figures supplied by the Refugee Council of Australia say that between October 2012 and February of this year, the average length of time spent by adults and children in detention increased from 74 days to 141 days.
The council says that the number of children held behind the razor wire is higher than ever. At the end of February, 1062 children were in "closed detention facilities."
In recent years, Australia has granted about 13,000 refugee visas, mostly to asylum seekers from Iraq, Burma and Afghanistan.