Speaking up for young asylum-seekers

15 August 2006

Halfway through an interview with Mary Crock, her phone rings. An interruption by a fellow legal brain from the Faculty of Law? No, it's her personal trainer, she says.

"I've been helping her with her immigration application. She's from England, and she's about to marry a good Aussie bloke," she explains.

Mary Crock
Mary Crock

Associate Professor Crock likes looking after young people. It drives much of her professional and personal life. She is the author of a new report comprehensively examining the experiences of unaccompanied child refugees in Australia. Seeking Asylum Alone highlights the adverse impact that Australia's asylum-seeker policies have on children. It reveals that lone children have been held for more than four years in immigration detention centres both in Australia and Nauru.

Among the people who worked on the report was Professor Crock's adoptive Afghani son, Riz. "I can't help it. I tend to adopt these kids," she says.

'These kids' were responsible for Professor Crock's exit from legal practice 15 years ago. She became an academic "because of the children in detention," she explains. Mandatory immigration detention was introduced in Australia in 1989, and Professor Crock cut her teeth on cases involving Cambodian refugees. She helped sponsor a 14-year-old Cambodian girl, who ended up doing a law degree and now works for the Victorian government solicitor.

Prior to academia, Professor Crock worked as a migration lawyer for 20 years, an area she got into by accident as her first degree was in fine arts and French. After completing a law degree at Melbourne she worked in a large law firm and as a judge's associate. She then completed a doctorate on migration law at Melbourne while helping to establish and run what is now known as the Refugee and Immigration Law Centre in Victoria.

Professor Crock is married to Ron McCallum, the University's Dean of Law. "We are very lucky to be working in the same institution. We're very much a team." The teamwork, however, is not without its bumps. "We recently bought a tandem which is the source of considerable hilarity in our house. We're not very good. I try to make Ron do all the hard work going up the hills, he says my steering is terrible."

Professor Crock was 26 when she met her husband, "an impressive man ten years older than me who just happened to be blind." There's a degree of irony in this. Her father is a renowned ophthalmologist, and she grew up in a family devoted to saving sight. However, her father's profession meant she was used to being around people with vision impairments. "He always treated his patients as people first: blindness was a problem to be fixed. This is how he taught us - Dad always brought his work home."

In this respect, Professor Crock seems to following in his footsteps. "I've never been one to separate work and family. Children learn what they live." When her three children were small, she sometimes took them into the detention centres on visits. "The centres were not as harsh in those days - there was no razor wire and people moved around more freely," she says.

Professor Crock hopes that her latest research will get people thinking about children as immigrants rather than as "collateral damage". The immigration department has ordered multiple copies of the report. "And every dissident senator has a copy." If Australia adopted Britain's policy, all unaccompanied children arriving without visas would go straight into a child protection system, she explains.

"Instead, we've got an overworked minister who has discretion on each individual case. We've still got immigration detention for too many. Temporary protection is particularly crippling for solo children. I've heard of young people released from Woomera with little more than a bus fare. But let's not get political," she says.

Seeking Asylum Alone: Australia. A study of Australian law, policy and practice regarding unaccompanied and separated children by Mary Crock is published by Federation Press and is available at Co-op Bookshops, Gleebooks, Abbeys Bookshop and other independent book sellers.

Contact: Kate Rossmanith

Phone: 02 9351 3168