The World Today with Eleanor Hall, Friday 28 November 2014, ABC News Radio, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

NICK GRIMM: Pressure is growing on the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to release all children from immigration detention centres immediately.

In a rare foray into domestic politics overnight, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta criticised Australia's detention of child asylum seekers, describing it as harmful and a breach of international law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It comes in a week when a group of prominent Australians launched a social media campaign urging an immediate end to the policy of detaining children.

But the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection says the number of children in detention has been reducing since the Government was elected and there are now almost 50 per cent fewer children across all immigration detention centres.

Further in a statement, the Minister says he will be able to get the remaining children out of detention in Australia when his migration and maritime powers bill, which is currently before the Parliament, is passed.

At the moment, there are more than 700 children in immigration detention facilities in Australia and offshore.

Now that figure appals the former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia, now the chairman of Children's Rights International, Alastair Nicholson.


He says it's within the Minister's power to release all children from detention immediately.

Alastair Nicholson joins me on the line now.

Thanks very much for talking to us, Alastair Nicholson.

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: It's a pleasure.

NICK GRIMM: The challenge from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison seems a pretty clear one: pass my bill if you want children to be released from detention.

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: Well, what the Minister is doing unfortunately is the very thing that the UNHCR has pointed out should not happen and that is to use children as a pawn to achieve a political object and that's precisely what he's doing.

The Minister could release those children tomorrow if he wanted to but what he's saying is he won't do it unless, and it's aimed at the crossbench in particular, unless they cave in and pass what is an appalling piece of legislation at its best that he's advancing in the Parliament.

And it seems to me that it's time that we realised that we are in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we're in breach of international law, and the Minister has been hiding these facts and pretending that in some way he's acting lawfully when he knows full well that he's not.

It's disgraceful behaviour on behalf of the Australian Government and it should be deeply ashamed of itself and it seems to me that it's a very significant thing that the relevant UN officials in Indonesia would be saying the same thing.

I think that the, I certainly hope that the crossbench senators will not fall for this one because it's a tactic that I think is absolutely unacceptable.

NICK GRIMM: Okay, well let's just be clear, the bargaining chip here is the passage of what's known fully as the migration and maritime powers legislation amendment (resolving the asylum legacy caseload) bill.

Now as you understand it, what would that provide the Minister in terms of new powers?

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: Oh, the Minister under this bill, what the bill intends to do, in fact seeks to do, is to in effect amend the treaty which we have adhered to since 1950 to suit himself.

He's trying to amend the definition of refugees so as to make it more difficult to become a refugee.

He's trying to get powers to behave on the sea and high seas in circumstances which are quite unacceptable.

He wants to use rapid assessment techniques to determine whether people are refugees or not and the whole gamut of the bill is deeply offensive.

And of course, he wants to introduce temporary protection visas which is one of the worst features of the bill because it throws people into a limbo.

Now this is something that's been his policy, which is quite a cruel and unnecessary policy, for a long time and he's using, at this stage, the children to try and force that through.

He's got absolutely no excuse keeping any children in detention.

He talks about the fact that he's reduced the number of children in detention but that's just not good enough.

It seems to me that Australians are better than this. We shouldn't have to put up with our Government behaving in this way and treating children in this way.

And of course, if it means releasing their families so be it because the children do need their family's care and it seems to me that again it's time we have a completely rethink of this policy towards asylum seekers.

There are many other solutions that could be adopted and we're just not doing it.

NICK GRIMM: Well, there are 726 children in immigration detention in Australia and Nauru right now.

Now what do you say they're experiencing each and every day they spend in those centres?

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: Well, it depends in which centres they are. Some of the mainland centres are better than Nauru.

All the evidence in relation to Nauru suggest that it's really a gulag where children are in fact harmed and that the psychiatric evidence that's been - and evidence from paediatricians that's already available - suggests that children are suffering severe harm in those conditions and its permanent harm.

The same on Christmas Island where actually there was evidence taken by the Australian human rights commissioner recently which made it clear that children were being seriously harmed there.

Now Mr Morrison has had all that evidence before him. He knows full well what's going on and he doesn't do anything about it and it seems to me that that's an indictment of the way he conducts himself as a minister.

NICK GRIMM: Okay, Alastair Nicholson, thanks very much for talking to us here on The World Today.

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: It's a pleasure, thank you.

NICK GRIMM: And that was the former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia, now chairman of Children's Rights International, Alastair Nicholson.