Australia's treatment of child asylum-seekers is 'state-sanctioned abuse': Church leaders

A child among a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent back by Australia looks on before entering the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle on July 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A child among a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers sent back by Australia looks on before entering the magistrate's court in the southern port district of Galle on July 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - The Australian government on Wednesday rejected a report from church leaders describing its treatment of child asylum-seekers as "state-sanctioned abuse", saying such claims were "offensive".

The report by a coalition of leaders from Christian churches criticises how unaccompanied asylum-seeker children are kept in immigration detention.

"These children are held like animals in conditions that are inhumane, interrogated without support or representation, shipped around the country and offshore in the middle of the night, and denied basic rights, including education," Anglican dean Peter Catt, who chaired the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, said.

"Given that the government continues to ignore irrefutable independent evidence from health and legal experts about the plight of these children we have no hesitation in labelling this what it is - state-sanctioned child abuse."

Dean Catt said Immigration Minister Scott Morrison should relinquish his role as the guardian of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children, saying it was a "sick joke" that he was "also their jailer".

Asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat have long been held in detention while their claims for refugee status are assessed.

Under the hardline immigration policy introduced in mid-2013, these asylum-seekers are now sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

They are also barred from being resettled in Australia even if their refugee claims are found to be valid.

Mr Morrison's spokesman said the allegations from the taskforce, which includes members from Anglican, Catholic, Salvation Army, Uniting Church and other denominations, were "shocking and offensive".

"And the minister rejects these categorically," she said in a statement.

"The government takes the protection of children very seriously and is committed to ensuring they are protected from exploitation and abuse.

"Allegations of state-sanctioned child abuse are an insult to all both in and outside of government who care for these young people."

The government was reducing the number of children in detention, she said.

The latest immigration department figures show 193 children are held on Nauru. A further 699 are kept on Christmas Island or in other places on mainland Australia.

The levels of detention at these sites are down from a record number of almost 2,000 children, which was reached in June 2013.

The church leaders called for a royal commission into the treatment of children at Nauru, saying evidence showed they were "experiencing terrible physical and mental suffering".

The report came a week after Australia's human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs said conditions at the Christmas Island camp had "significantly deteriorated", and that there was an unprecedented rate of self-harm among children.

Ms Triggs and leading paediatrician Elizabeth Elliott visited the facility earlier this month as part of a national inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum in Australia.

During a previous visit by the commission this year, children held at Christmas Island told the inquiry "this place is hell", "help me get out of here" and "there's no school, nowhere to play and nothing to do".

The inquiry - which is investigating how immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children - said health experts found those being detained were showing signs of developmental delay and regression such as bed-wetting.

Mr Morrison announced last month the children would be provided with full-time education under a Catholic-run centre, following concerns of a lack of schooling opportunities.

Reports have also said that up to a dozen mothers on Christmas Island had attempted suicide this month, believing their babies would have a better chance of being settled in Australia if they were orphans.