Philip Ruddock
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
Parliament House, Suite MF 40
Canberra ACT 2600
Australia

Dear Minister Ruddock:

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about reports that Australia is detaining child asylum seekers in poor conditions for long periods of time and that, to protest their confinement, children have attempted suicide and participated in hunger strikes by sewing their mouths closed. Recent press reports allege that children are being detained with adults for up to two years in desert detention centers that are unclean, extremely hot, and lack ventilation or adequate outdoor recreation space. There are also reports that adults have sexually assaulted detained children.

If the above reports are true, Australia's practices are illegal under international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Australia on December 17, 1990, requires Australia to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to all children seeking refugee status, with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. Detention should be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time." The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) policy, as stated in its Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care and its Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers, is that children who are asylum seekers "should not be detained." UNHCR's Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in dealing with Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum emphasize that unaccompanied children in particular "should not be kept in detention." The Guidelines on Protection and Care also specify that "the refugee status determination or decision-making on the child's best interests must be made quickly, and with the appropriate special attention and procedures."

We ask you to investigate the detention of refugee children - especially reports of children's attempting suicide, sewing their mouths closed, and being sexually assaulted - and, if the reports are found to be true, to describe the government's response and steps taken to see that this does not happen again. We also ask you to provide us with more information about the conditions under which child asylum seekers are detained, their access to education, and procedures for processing their asylum applications. Finally, we urge you to immediately cease detaining unaccompanied children and to find appropriate solutions for them, such as residential homes, foster care, or being released into the care of family members already in the country.

Yours sincerely,

Lois Whitman
Executive Director
Children's Rights Division
Human Rights Watch