SYDNEY, Feb 12, 2015 (AFP) - Australia's Human Rights Commission on Thursday demanded a national inquiry into the long-term detention of asylum-seeker children who arrive by boat, detailing physical and mental illnesses, sexual assaults and self-harm.
In a damning report presented in parliament, the government-funded commission said its 10-month investigation of 11 detention centres also identified a significant impact on the development of children.
"There appears to be no rational explanation for the prolonged detention of children," stated the report, "The Forgotten Children".
"The mandatory and prolonged immigration detention of children is in clear violation of international human rights law." Australia has long come under international pressure over the detention of asylum-seekers, particularly in offshore camps on the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island and on Nauru and Manus Island in the Pacific.
The numbers of children in immigration detention peaked at 1,992 in mid-2013 under the former Labor administration, but they have been significantly reduced since the Tony Abbott-led government was elected in September 2013.
The study, which covers 1,233 interviews with children and their parents between January 2013 to March 2014, records 233 assaults involving a child and 33 incidents of reported sexual assault.
Some 128 children harmed themselves while there were 27 cases of voluntary starvation.
Human Rights Commission chief Gillian Triggs said the report provided unprecedented first-hand evidence of the impact that prolonged immigration detention has on a child's mental and physical health.
The average time children are held is one year and two months and Triggs said the findings on mental health disorders in particular were "deeply shocking".
"Thirty-four percent of children detained in Australia and Christmas Island have a mental health disorder of such severity that they require psychiatric support," she said.
"Fewer than two per cent of children in the general community have mental health disorders of this severity. Children are self-harming in detention at very high rates."
The report called for all children and their families in immigration detention to be released into the community and also urged changes to the Migration Act so that any child may only be detained for a strictly limited period.
It recommended that a national inquiry, or royal commission, be established to examine the policy of mandatory detention and to consider remedies for breaches of the country's duty of care to detained children.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government had already provided significant additional resources in the areas of mental health, community, and employment support, but more would be done.
"The first thing I'm doing is making sure that where it is possible, we can release families into the community," he told ABC radio. "We've reduced the number already."