Take the case of 18-year-old Brisbane student Machemeh as an example. By age 10, she had endured more family trauma than some will in a lifetime.
Machemeh and her brothers were left at the crossroads, becoming unaccompanied minors (UAM) separated from their mother in a Guinea refugee camp. Their mother fled to war-torn Liberia in search of her husband, while the children were taken on by an Australian social service organisation.
Best-practice care of children like Machemeh is widely contested. All-encompassing solutions often seem unlikely and out of reach.
Legal experts hailing from Australian universities and various refugee casework services came together in December last year to discuss the contentious topic at a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) symposium.
Emily Darling, a solicitor and lecturer in immigration and refugee law at QUT, says the aim of the symposium was to share knowledge and obtain different perspectives with a view of working together in the future.
Best-practice care of UAM is an issue tied up in human rights, morals and ethics – one that the legal profession is struggling to untie.
“One of the biggest challenges for immigration lawyers assisting UAM is the constantly changing nature of refugee policy,” Darling says. “It is difficult to advise the children in relation to their immigration status and bringing family members to Australia when there are so many changes to the applicable law and policy – it only breeds uncertainty and anxiety in an already vulnerable group.”
Recent government figures claim there are over 6100 people in immigration detention facilities offshore, including 900 children. Of these figures, most are there for over six months and almost 350 have been confined for between one and two years.
The United Nations has condemned Australia’s policy on refugees arrived by boat, Operation Sovereign Borders, for this reason saying indefinite detention is providing the opposite treatment of what UAM require.
The Australian Human Rights Commission will this year hold an inquiry into UAM in detention.
Under Operation Sovereign Borders, which is shrouded in a veil of secrecy, the Federal Government has a policy of sending asylum seekers arrived by boat away from Australia within 48 hours, to either Manus Island or Nauru where the asylum seekers are mandatorily detained. Some boats are also being turned back to Indonesia.
Director of the Curtin University Centre of Human Rights Education Mary Anne Kenny highlights the long-lasting mental health effects inflicted by detention for extended periods of time.
"In these environments, they are exposed to many people in distress, which obviously makes integration into the community thereafter quite difficult.”
Both Darling and Kenny agree that Australia could be dealing with the UAM situation more effectively.
“Australia isn’t meeting its international law responsibilities to asylum seeker and refugee children,” Darling says. “Many children are separated permanently from their family through restrictive rules that discriminate according to mode of arrival.”
Kenny says it isn’t possible for UAM to seek review while in detention, which positions Australia “quite poorly” in terms of other developed nations.
“Support isn’t always sufficient, they live below the poverty line and they aren’t eligible for the full range of Centrelink benefits.”
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