The Abbott government has blocked a bid by the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, to visit child asylum seekers sent to Nauru under its ''stop the boats'' policy.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison wrote to Professor Triggs late last month denying her request to visit the island detention centre on the grounds that the commission's jurisdiction did not extend beyond Australia's borders.
Gillian Triggs. Photo: Tara Ward
Professor Triggs had hoped the visit would inform an inquiry into the detention of more than 1000 children in mainland detention centres and on Christmas Island that will release its report in nine months. Around 100 children are detained on Nauru.
The inquiry will investigate the ways in which life in immigration detention affects the health, wellbeing and development of children. It will also examine separation of families across detention facilities and the adequacy care of unaccompanied children in the detention network.
Although a similar inquiry a decade ago resulted in a significant drop in the number of children in detention, Professor Triggs conceded that the political climate was more difficult now than when the report ''A Last Resort?'' was released in April 2004.
She has also expressed frustration at the level of co-operation from the government in giving information on issues, including levels of self-harm in detention, and at the blanket denial that Australia's treatment of children in detention is in breach of international treaty obligations. This was a key finding of the last report.
The inquiry will accept submissions and conduct public hearings, with those who are now Australian citizens encouraged to tell of their experiences as children.
While non-government human rights bodies have been able to visit the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Professor Triggs said it would be more difficult for the government to deflect human rights concerns if they were expressed by the Australian statutory body with a mandate to protect human rights. She conceded that Mr Morrison's decision was consistent with the attitude of the former Labor government, saying she had hoped the minister would exercise his discretion to facilitate a visit, given Australia's responsibility for those it transferred to aid-dependent Nauru.
''The minister is simply refusing to allow me to go as president but, as you'd expect in a democracy, I'm welcome to go as a private citizen,'' Professor Triggs said. ''There would be no point [in that] because I couldn't then use my experience as a private citizen inform my role as the president of the commission.''
Mr Morrison has signalled that he will co-operate with the inquiry and insisted he is continuing to ''engage'' with the commission. ''I met with the Human Rights Commissioner not that long ago and we discussed a whole range of issues and I am happy to keep meeting with them,'' he said.
''She has a job to do, I have got a job to do, you've got a job to do - and we'll all keep doing our jobs and my job is to stop the boats and that's what is happening,'' he told Sydney broadcaster Ray Hadley.