Forgotten children

Many children around the world live in constant fear, as members of ethnic minorities subject to continued persecution. Children may be targeted for use on the front line of civil conflicts as shields or landmine detectors. Many ethnic minorities are denied passports, so they cannot flee. In a desperate bid to protect their children, some parents smuggle them out of the country. A small number arrive on Australian shores and are taken to detention centres.

There are almost 300 unaccompanied refugee minors currently living in Australia. These children, under the age of 18 years, arrived in Australia alone and have been recognised by the Australian government as refugees. Most arrived in Australia without valid travel documents. They have been granted Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and released into the community.

A TPV permits an unaccompanied refugee minor to live in the community, access social welfare services and attend school. A TPV does not provide a home and it does not provide the one thing most necessary for their development and well being—their family.

Of the legal, moral and social concerns raised by Australia’s TPV regime, it is the denial of the right to apply for family reunification that is the most troubling in relation to unaccompanied refugee minors. These children are the most vulnerable refugees. The government is wary of them acting as ‘anchor children’; children who are purposely sent ahead to another country in the hope that the rest of the family will be able to follow.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has identified a steady increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Australia over recent years. DIMIA justifies its refusal to allow unaccompanied refugee minors the right to apply for family reunification suggesting that this will serve ‘as a deterrent to the exploitation of children as smuggled anchors’. The denial of family reunification rights for unaccompanied refugee minors cannot be characterised as either a reasonable or legitimate response to greater migration concerns.

Despite Australia’s sovereign right to control its own borders, to view the issue of family reunification through an immigration lens ignores the fact that Australia’s sovereignty has been voluntarily reduced in scope by its ratification of treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC). Under the CROC, states are obliged to ensure that unaccompanied refugee minors receive protection and humanitarian assistance. States must also deal with applications for family reunification in a positive, humane and expeditious manner. Yet the TPV regime precludes the possibility of an application for reunification altogether. The regime denies unaccompanied refugee children the right to a family life (rights upheld under the CROC). This is despite DIMIA’s acknowledgment that unaccompanied refugee minors are unlikely to have had any choice in their circumstances of arrival in Australia, as they may have been abducted, orphaned or accidentally separated from their parents.

The denial of family reunification rights does nothing to address the political, social and economic realities that force people to abandon their homes and countries in search of safety and security. The introduction of TPVs in 1999 has not slowed the arrival of so-called illegal immigrants, of whom approximately 80 per cent are subsequently found to have legitimate refugee claims. Unless action is taken to remedy ‘push’ factors such as persecution, famine or war, the denial of ‘pull’ factors in Australia such as family reunification rights will fail to stop unaccompanied minors seeking protection in Australia.

The issue of unaccompanied minors must be kept in context. Whilst numbers of unaccompanied minors may be increasing, such children still represent only three to five per cent of the world’s refugee population and approximately three per cent of all refugees in Australia.

Under current migration legislation, unaccompanied refugee minors could be given the opportunity to locate their immediate families and apply to be reunited with them in Australia if Minister Vanstone exercises existing discretion. This may extend to allowing any holder of a TPV to access the permanent visa regime and the associated entitlements to family reunification.

It is within the public interest to ensure that Australia is seen to treat children with humanity, dignity and respect. To refuse to do so is to indicate that Australia not only disregards its obligations under international law but also ignores its moral obligations towards innocent children. It suggests that whilst Australia will care for its own, non-Australian children are somehow less than human and less deserving of their fundamental human rights.

It is imperative that Australia’s migration legislation be amended to permit the application for family reunification as soon as an unaccompanied minor is identified as a refugee. Unaccompanied refugee minors need our support and our voices. Ultimately, they need our humanity.   

Leanne McKay is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.



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