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It's Been Ten Years Since John Howard Announced That All Children Would Be Released From Immigration Detention

And the Australian government celebrated by booting a group of nuns and priests out of Parliament House.

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Not many people would remember that John Howard was responsible for removing children from detention. But ten years ago, he found himself facing a revolt from a group of his own backbenchers over the policy.

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Howard, famous for his hardline stance on asylum seekers, and his "we will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come" speech was forced to soften his own policy in the wake of a damning report from the Human Rights Commission into children in detention. Sound familiar?

The report, titled "A Last Resort?" was tabled in parliament in 2004 by then leader of the house, Tony Abbott. Human rights commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski called it "one of the worst human rights violations in Australia's post-World War II history."

But instead of dismissing the report and attacking the human rights commissioner, as we are seeing today, a group of government MPs led by Petro Georgiou were concerned about the findings and introduced a private member's bill to remove children from detention.

On 17 June 2005, Howard announced changes to the Migration Act that included the principle that children should only be detained "as a measure of last resort."

His conservative government removed all children, women and families from detention centres and they were released into the community.

"The purpose of this is to enable the detention of families and children to take place in the community, where conditions would be set to meet their individual circumstances," Howard said in 2005.

But it wasn't to last. Since then, both Labor and Liberal governments have been responsible for locking up children in detention centres.

This is despite mountains of evidence from former detainees, medical studies and independent inquiries that found keeping children in detention puts them at risk of abuse, leads to long-term mental and physical damage, causes developmental delays and violates their human rights.

The government's latest statistics show 81 children are currently being held in detention on Nauru, with 138 children held in immigration detention facilities in Australia.

A further 863 children are being held in community detention and 3,257 children are living in the community on bridging visas.

Both major parties continue to bicker over whose government had the most children in detention. The government says numbers peaked with 1,992 children in detention in July 2013 under Labor.

But Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs says the time that children were held in detention increased under the coalition government. This statement is supported by an ABC Fact Check.


There's been renewed pressure on the government from community groups this week. On Q&A on Monday, a former child detainee told the panel "I spent three years of my life in a detention centre in Nauru without my parents as a number, not by name."

#ICYMI Mohammad Ali Baqiri was detained on Nauru as a child. Why are there children in detention still? #QandA

On Wednesday, a group of Christian church leaders arranged a sit-in prayer vigil in the lobby of Parliament House to call for the release of all children on the 10th anniversary of John Howard's promise.

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Salvation Army captain Craig Farrell said “We know from reports by the Human Rights Commission, the UN Committee Against Torture, the Moss Review, and ongoing revelations from doctors and social workers, that offshore detention is “inherently toxic” and is completely unsafe for anyone, but especially children.

We are asking for nothing more than what John Howard did ten years ago today. The simple truth is that children don’t belong in detention.”

70-year-old Brigidine nun Jane Keogh was there too.

"Instead of protecting these precious children, our government and opposition continue to put them in harm’s way," she said.

They were forcibly removed from Parliament by security guards, and sang as they were marched away.


The Christian leaders are part of the Love Makes A Way movement. The group expressed their frustration that nothing has been done by both sides of politics, despite constant community campaigns.

“Every single church denomination, and every single health and medical body in Australia has condemned offshore detention. Still the government and opposition refuse to listen.” Retired Catholic Bishop Pat Power said.

In her report, Gillian Triggs recognised that the Abbott government has made positive steps, by releasing some children into the community. But with the detention of children one of the few policies that has bipartisan support, it's clear that damning human rights reports, international condemnation and concerned citizens signing petitions has not been enough.