The Australian Government has sent asylum seekers - including women and children - caught trying to get to Australia by boat to off-shore detention centres.
Chief Executive Norman Gillespie says the detention of children should only be used as a last resort and is calling on the Australian government to release children into the community.
The call comes as the UN celebrates 25 years since it introduced the UN Convention on the rights of the child .
Mr Gillespie says governments are not moving fast enough to improve conditions for children in deprived situations.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Norman Gillespie, UNICEF Australia Chief Executive
GILLESPIE: Look it's more important than ever, you're absolutely right. It is the most ratified Convention in all the United Nations Conventions and yet, more observed in the breach than the enactment. But that doesn't mean that we have to give up, we have to use this 25th. anniversary to say look, we have achieved a lot, but there's just so much more to do. You, governments are the people who can make a difference and you are the ones who have signed up to this. Now we need to hold you very accountable for the great gaps between what you're signing up to and what actually is happening.
COUTTS: Well, I'm wondering what form that accountability might take, because the Convention is quite specific in what it requires as the signatories and the child must be given the means for normal development, both materially and spiritually, which isn't happening according to this confidential report that came out today on Nauru. So what action could or should be taken against the signatories who flout these rules?
GILLESPIE: Well, there is a system in place where every 5 years, the signatory governments have to make a report to the UN on just how they have been following the Convention, so it gives you an opportunity periodically to actually fight where they are falling short and we certainly have had a very powerful lobby in Australia of getting everyone together, that all child agencies to get in the Child's Rights Task Force to stand behind what we're saying the government need to do. We don't need to be shrill, we need to offer solutions to this, we need to actually say, let's use our experience to help you in changing what are appalling inequities that are occurring. But first and foremost, we are witnessing what we consider a gross abuse of rights for children, which is immigration detention. It's a very, very serious issue that people around the world in international development are looking to Australia and saying what is going on here? What is this about? So I think that voice is starting to strengthen, I think people, you need to get the public largely aware and engaged, to actually then get government to listen.
COUTTS: But they're not even meeting the minimum standards from all accounts?
GILLESPIE: It seems they are not.
COUTTS: So how can this continue?
GILLESPIE: Well, it mustn't continue, and I think they are very aware and I think there is an intent to improve things. It is very difficult when these incidents are happening offshore and that's one of the problems. But from our understanding they want to get this right, but they need to make a very accelerated improvement in these conditions.
COUTTS: Talk is cheap when it comes to children being witnessed to or knowing about 28 hanging attempts in Nauru, for instance, and this confidential report that came out recently or today, says that barely screening for communicable diseases in children, none under 11, children at significant risk of sexual abuse and more pregnant detainees are depressed and the list goes on and on and on. So the issue is now, these children need help now. So what are you recommending?
GILLESPIE: Well, we're actually doing. We've actually contacted the Immigration Department, we are working a number of the larger agencies to actually put in place actual codes of what standards have to be applicable, what screenings are done in a very practical sense, because those things do not exist. These things were set up without ? These proper screening criteria being in place, so we're now working towards that and that will be something that hopefully we'll have practical outcome as well. But these are like children that are facing the situation, say coming out of Syria, the conflict. The things that children should not see. The things that children not experience and we know now through our 60 years of experience of the profound affect that has on children, but we have techniques to be able to get these profoundly stressed children back to some sense of themselves and in touch again with their own emotions. This is the experience you must bring to bare, this is the access we must get.
COUTTS: In these kinds of deprived situations, the children don't even have toys, so there's no normal play or education for them. What are you recommending?
GILLESPIE: Well, it is about child friendly spaces, it is about schooling, it is about early childhood development. It's all of those things that we expect that says in the Convention. Every child has a right to an education and that we just keep repeating until those facilities are put in place. We're very disturbed about any idea that Cambodia or other very poor countries with a great deal of inequity already is we're shirking are responsibilities and sending children into those environments. But those things do need to be dealt with. There has been enormous progress worldwide. We have got immunisation, we have got access, and a number of children, a huge number of children are living today that would not have been living 25 years ago. There used to 34-thousand children a day die by preventable causes. Today, that's down to 18-thousand a day. It's still, of course, we can't stop until it's zero, but we must recognise that it may be looked like two steps forward and one step back, but we are making progress on a global scale.
What's different today is that we think, that we had thought these things are far away from us, but they're actually on our doorstep. Here, we're seeing more and more inequality and what UNICEF is calling for is saying by all means, let's celebrate that this Convention was actually brought into being in 1989, but now, let's re-focus all of our efforts on new ways of tackling these issues, being more innovative, using technology, for instance, which is helping us a great deal. SMS technology to register births, to remind mothers of immunisation, to alert us quickly to incidents so that we can respond much more quickly than we ever could before. So, it's not all bad news, but certainly what we're seeing and hearing in these reports coming around, I think is we have feared and we have to really increase our voice and our leverage to have governments notice that these things are totally unacceptable today.
COUTTS: What are you recommending? Are you asking the Australian government to have the children removed from these detention centres?
GILLESPIE: We've made it very clear that the Convention is very clear on this point, that detention, forms of the detention are absolutely the last resort. So we're absolutely asking these children should not be in these conditions, that there are alternatives, there is community care. We are absolutely keep on saying that same thing, but while we're saying that, we are actually trying to get in there and offer some practical assistance in what should be occurring in terms of bringing standards of care, particularly for vulnerable children in these situations.
If you have a camp, then these must be the absolute basic requirements.
COUTTS: It is the 25th. anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and you've mentioned the progress with immunisation and health issues generally. But I'm just wondering, what do you value as the most significant achievement during that time?
GILLESPIE: Well, I think it is very much child mortality, the Under 5 child mortality was at an horrendous rate and galvanising civil society, university society, governments and others and private philanthropists to start working together on tackling these issues in a very substantive way has been certainly a trend. So you have the Gates Foundation working with UNICEF and Rotary and others to actually make sure polio is eliminated. And again, we see how vulnerable that is to outbreaks still.
We have made tremendous progress there. What we're seeing though is as developing countries are gaining in the GDP, that doesn't mean everybody is actually benefiting and this inequality is really driving a wedge in many, many societies. So what we're calling upon, is that we actually take the Convention to focus on the most vulnerable, the most difficult, the hardest to get to children, because we think that will make the greatest results. And that means using innovation to get those remote societies and to tackle the most difficult issues and there are many, many difficult issues.
But we've seen, for instance, in China, where there's this mass migration into the great cities that are being formed from the rural bringing all sorts of issues, but there, UNICEF is able to demonstrate what a child-friendly school needs to be and the standard that need to happen and they do a pilot and then the government take that up and spend billions-of-dollars to actually start rolling that out across provinces.
So we have to take hope that we are showing the way, we are giving the right models and some governments are taking that up. They just are not doing it fast enough.