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Rights Group Criticizes Australia’s Detention of Child Asylum Seekers

FILE - Sri Lankan refugees are seen onboard the Oceanic Viking, an Australian Customs and Fishery Patrol vessel about 14 kilometers out at sea from Kijang, Tanjung Pinang on the Indonesian Island of Bintan.

The Australian Human Rights Commission said the nation's long-term detention of child asylum-seekers harms the detained children and violates international law. The commission has demanded a judicial inquiry into the practice. Australia’s conservative government has rejected the commission’s findings, calling them one-sided.

For ten months, the Australian Human Rights Commission investigated the detention of children at 11 of Australia’s immigration centers. It found a third of young detainees had developed mental illnesses that were so severe they needed psychiatric treatment. Its report - The Forgotten Children - states that other youngsters were the victims of sexual assaults, or self-harm.

The average length of detention for child asylum seekers is more than 400 days. The commission said there is no reasonable explanation for the prolonged detention of minors, and added that there should be a judicial inquiry into what it called a "clear violation of international human rights law.”

Other activists support the commission’s findings.

The head of the campaign group, Children's Rights International, Alastair Nicholson, a former Australian Family Court Chief Justice, said the report is shocking.

“This is, I think, one of the most disgraceful episodes in Australian history, the treatment of children in detention. And this is an objective and clear account of the evidence that really should make us all ashamed of this behavior. How any Australian government could justify this on any basis is beyond me,” said Nicholson.

The number of children held by Australia has fallen sharply since the conservatives came to power in September 2013.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed the commission's report, saying it "should be ashamed of itself" for being so partisan.

Australia automatically detains all asylum seekers while security, identity and health checks are carried out.

Unauthorized arrivals who come by sea are transported to offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as part of an official policy to deter boat people. Those who arrive by sea and are deemed to be genuine refugees will not be allowed to resettle in Australia.

Earlier this week, Australia’s High Court ordered the immigration minister to grant a Pakistani refugee a permanent visa after three years in detention and repeated government efforts to deny him asylum. The court said efforts to deny the man a safe haven in Australia simply because he had arrived by boat were unlawful.

Canberra grants about 14,000 humanitarian visas under various international refugee treaties each year.