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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

The Association of Major Charitable

Organizations (SA) Inc


The Association of

Major Charitable Organisations welcomes the opportunity to provide a submission

to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention.

AMCO is a coalition

of community service organizations in South Australia. AMCO has two broad

aims. It is committed to provide increased collaboration between community

service agencies in the planning and delivery of services. AMCO also aims

to provide a united voice on a variety of social and community issues

to the community and to government.

The members of AMCO

are Adelaide Central Mission, Baptist Community Services, St Vincent De

Paul, Centacare, Port Adelaide Central Mission, Mission Australia, Wesley

Uniting Mission, Lutheran Community Care, Anglicare, Red Cross and the

Salvation Army.


In the preparation

of this submission, AMCO has relied heavily upon the advice service providers

to asylum seekers in immigration detention. This submission will not consider

all the Terms of Reference. It will address some of the terms of reference

in passing and will address only numbers three and four in detail, which

are as follows:

3. The adequacy and

effectiveness of the policies, agreements, laws, rules and practices governing

children in immigration detention or child asylum seekers and refugees

residing in the community after a period of detention, with particular

reference to:

  • the conditions

    under which children are detained:

  • health including

    mental health, development and disability;

  • education;
  • culture;
  • guardianship issues;


  • security practises

4. The impact of

detention on the well-being and healthy development of children, including

their long term development.


AMCO recommends that:

1. Children not be

subject to mandatory detention, but housed in the community

2. The best interests

of the child, and the child's long term welfare be the prime consideration

in all decision making

3. Families not be

separated, but accommodated as a family unit in the community

4. the Federal Government

provide timely and appropriate services to asylum seekers awaiting processing

of visa applications equivalent to Australian community expectations for

Australian citizens. These services should refer to cultural and linguistic

need and should include, for example,

  • schooling
  • medical care,


  • mental health


5. that the Federal

Government uphold the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

(1990) and all other international treaties or agreements which apply

directly or indirectly to children and young people and refugees, including


  • International

    Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  • International

    Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

  • Convention on

    the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

  • Convention on

    the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

  • Convention against

    Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment

  • Convention relating

    to the Status of Refugees

6. the Federal Government

adopt the policy of the Labor Party that management of detention centres

return to public ownership and operation

7. that coverage

and assessment of asylum seekers be accurate

8. that the Federal

Government use inclusive language in describing refugees

9. that the Temporary

Protection Visa subclass 785 be abolished

Addressing the Terms of Reference

AMCO is concerned

that the special needs of children have not been considered in the development

of government policy in relation to asylum seekers. The UN Convention

on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory, indicates

that a child seeking refugee status should receive appropriate protection

and humanitarian assistance. The special situation of children however,

has not been incorporated into Australia's legislation or policy in relation

to treatment of asylum seekers. Recent allegations of sexual misconduct

in detention highlight the need to adopt policies and practices that take

account of the specific needs of children.

AMCO is concerned

that the mandatory detention of all asylum seekers including children

is extremely detrimental to the health, well-being and long-term development

of children. The policies, agreements, laws, rules and practices governing

children in detention are inhumane and should be reformed for a number

of reasons. First, the detention environment is an inhospitable environment

in which to raise a child. The environment creates a general feeling of

depression, boredom and lack of motivation for both adults and children.

Second, children in detention do not have sufficient opportunities for

education, recreational activities and access to services to grow to function

as adults. Third, the detention environment is a significant deterrent

to children accessing what little opportunities and services are available

to them.

AMCO recommends that

children in the formative stages of their development should not be kept

in detention. The intentional policies of processing applicants as individuals

rather than as families and of long periods of detention have considerable

impact on families, including children. Removal of children from detention

often means the separation of women and children from their fathers. AMCO

recommends that families should be housed as a unit while their applications

are being processed: children should not be separated from their parents.

The primary evidence

for this submission has been gleaned from a series of interviews conducted

by service providers during visits to the Woomera Immigration Detention

Centre in January and February 2002. These interviews included a focus

on issues relating to children in detention. The service providers interviewed

a number of families with children. Interviews examined daily life in

detail and indicated that families shared common concerns about the general

environment in which their children were growing. The concerns that interviewees

raised reflect sustained criticism of conditions in immigration detention.

AMCO are concerned

that the conditions under which children are detained are extremely detrimental

to the children's physical, social psychological and spiritual health

and well being. The overwhelming statement made by children was their

sense of being imprisoned and craving freedom. Children and families routinely

reported the detention environment was uninhabitable, did not provide

adequate services and the environment made asylum seekers unable to access

what little services were provided. Children reported high levels of boredom,

depression and lack of motivation. Older children were not able to identify

any activity or improvement that would make life more bearable - they

simply wanted to be free.

The following section

will address the responses of categories of children in detail and provide

an assessment of service delivery to those categories.


AMCO is concerned

that the provision of schooling for refugee children does not meet Australia's

international obligations. International agreements, to which Australia

is a signatory, dictate that provision of schooling for asylum seeker

children should be of the same standard available to citizens of the host

country. AMCO recommends that the provision of schooling for asylum seeker

children be equivalent in quantity and quality to opportunities offered

to the children of Australian citizens.

1. Pre Schooling

There is a kindy

in the Main Compound open for free play between 10am- 12pm, and 2-5pm,

with a resident (detainee) school-teacher in charge of the kindy. In November

there is free access to for 1½ hours to toys, and in India, kinder

gym is being introduced. The latter two are recent initiatives.

2. Schooling pre-adolescent

AMCO welcomes the

introduction of offsite schooling for children in Woomera Detention Centre.

The provision of schooling, however, is not equivalent to that offered

to Australian citizens. Offsite schooling for children aged between 5-11

started in January 2002. Children aged 5-11 attend school in Woomera township

for three hours per day, four days per week. At 11 February 2002, 91 children

aged 5-11 were attending school. Prior to that date, schooling was extremely

limited and did not involve children attending offsite. Families interviewed

were very positive about this initiative in offsite education.

Schooling is carried

out by qualified teachers with the assistance of detainee teachers, who

receive some training. Teachers run three or four age specific classes

each half day. Tuition is focused on English as a Second Language, but

teachers provide some mathematics and Australian studies, and organised

play both indoors and outdoors. There are also fortnightly visits to the

swimming pool on Fridays. On alternate fortnights, another activity is


3. Schooling Adolescent

AMCO is greatly concerned

that there is no formal schooling available for teenagers. All adolescents

interviewed expressed extreme distress at not being able to access education

and activities. Teenagers interviewed by the legal team uniformly reported

high levels of boredom, depression and lack of motivation. Involvement

of adolescents in adult activities was rare. Adolescents expressed the

feeling that "there was nothing to do" and that this was of

significant concern to them. Some of them reported that when they first

came to Woomera Detention Centre they were keen to be involved in activities.

As time passed however and if their applications for temporary protection

were rejected, adolescents became too depressed to participate in education

or recreational activities.

AMCO is concerned

that low participation rates of adolescents in activities are directly

related to the management of the detention centre. Adolescent participation

rates in education services, structured recreation and informal recreation

are extremely low. Adolescents may access 2 ½ hours of ESL tuition

per day, four days per week, which includes one hour of computer time.

By April 2002, there were 31 male and 7 female adolescents in the camp,

with 17 computers available for their use for one hour per day. Adolescents

may also access programming available for adults (ESL and computer access).

Other activities for teenagers involve gardening, mural painting. Interviewees

attribute low attendance to depression amongst asylum seekers caused by

the environment and lack of motivation by Australasian Correctional Management

program organizers. The ACM activities officer acknowledges that apart

from the school, participation in activities is very low. She commented

that participation would be very high on intake, but would deteriorate

to very low levels, as a consequence of depression and the time taken

to process visas.

Women in immigration

detention do not have as many opportunities for recreation as men. Women

do not have access to the pool due to insensitivity to different cultural

approaches to gender issues by Australasian Correctional Management. Adolescents

are able to access fortnightly visits to the pool in Woomera, although

the females do not accompany males and will instead participate in activities

arranged for the housing project.

Adult asylum seekers

who speak English are generally critical of provision of education offered

to children and in particular, the opportunities English lessons available

for adults and adolescents and the standard of the lessons. They note

that the level of English comprehension is very low. They suggest that

education opportunities are not equivalent to the hours or standard that

the Australian community would expect for the children of Australian citizens.

Asylum seekers are concerned that they do not see their children progressing

in their education. We understand that following the fires, provision

of education services have been reduced.

4. Social and

sporting activities.

AMCO is extremely

concerned that the detention environment strips asylum seeker children

of their ability to play. Although Australasian Correctional Management

report that children regularly participate in social and sporting activities,

most children interviewed do not refer to these activities at all, let

alone as significant activities. Many children do not comment on either

organised or impromptu sporting and social activity as a feature of their

day. Most adolescent children interviewed reported having no friends in

the camp, and having no social life. They reported spending day after

day doing nothing but moving from meal to meal, lying on their bunks,

an existence which is occasionally interrupted by English lessons.

AMCO is concerned

about the lack of regular, organised sporting opportunities and the impact

of the environment for the development of impromptu sporting activities.

Sporting matches are occasionally organized by management, but do not

form regular activity. Impromptu ball games are available at any time.

A soccer pitch and a volleyball pitch are currently under construction.

In the main compound there are two TV's with videos, in other compounds

there is a TV in each living unit and videos are available. The use of

these services is low.

5. Religion

Children in detention

suffer religious discrimination from other children, which is a replication

of the discrimination they faced in their home countries, which caused

their parents to flee. The exposure of children to the religious tensions

of their home countries has a significant detrimental impact on general

and religious development.

Many of the children

interviewed over this period were Sabian Mundaian and reported ongoing

discrimination in the centre from non-Sabian children. This was a significant

issue for all children of this faith. The co-location of Sabians and Muslims

in one hut caused significant distress.

6. Living conditions

Children in immigration

detention suffer the same privation as adults in daily matters such as

hygiene, food and facilities. AMCO is concerned that conditions in the

centre continue to be cramped, although less so than last year as the

numbers of asylum seekers in detention have dropped from about 900 to

about 300 when the interviews were conducted. The state of toilets and

showers and access to them is a common cause of complaint. There is no


7. Mental Health

AMCO is concerned

that the detention environment is not conducive to good mental health

in adults or children. Parents of pre adolescent children consistently

reported behaviour such as bed wetting, night terrors and crying. Most

adolescent children reported significant levels of depression. Many adolescents

report that they do not feel safe. Female adolescents from the Sabian

Mundaian religion report feeling afraid of sexual assault. Many adolescents

were concerned about the depression experienced by their whole family.

They expressed a sense of loss particularly regarding educational opportunities.

Adolescent children all feel a deep sense of injustice that they are imprisoned.

They expressed anger and resentment toward those who have been released,

such as the frequent plea: "Why are they free and I am in jail".

AMCO is concerned

that mental health services are insufficient to meet the needs of asylum

seekers in detention both adults and children and will not be successful

in the detention environment. Psychologists report that the mental health

issues that asylum seekers present are not the responsibility of the individual

concerned. They are related to the structural environment of detention

and are the responsibility of government. Counselling and access to a

psychologist is available in detention in Woomera by appointment. One

adolescent girl reported that she made an appointment to see the psychologist

at a point of crisis, but had to wait two weeks by which time she had

forgotten nature of the crisis.

The effect of recent

events (rioting, hunger strike, self harm) on children are traumatizing

in any context, let alone an already depressed environment. Last year

after the use of water cannons during riots, with many detainees observing

others being subdued by guards, all families subsequently interviewed

over several months reported that children started to suffer increased

night terrors, bed-wetting and other overt signs of distress.

8. Children with

a disability

AMCO joins National

Ethnic Disability Alliance in opposition to the detention of children

with a disability. As of the 5th of February there were 16 or (4.2 % )

of children with a disability residing in detention centres at Port Hedland

and Woomera. Types of disability include cerebral palsy, hearing impairment,

vision impairment, acute dwarfism, trauma, Perthes disease, cardiac, asthmatic

and genetic disabilities.

9. Summary

AMCO is extremely

distressed by independent evidence of the conditions of children in immigration

detention. The widespread despondency, depression, lack of motivation

and sense of loss of asylum seeker children is of great concern. The fact

that children feel that they are imprisoned, that they have no activities

with which to occupy themselves and that older children routinely spend

their day doing nothing at all is evidence that the Federal Government,

through its system of privately run immigration detention facilities,

has failed to provide for the lives of refugee children. In our opinion,

the Federal Government's defence that it provides sufficient services

for children in detention is a deceit.

The depressed behaviour

of asylum seekers in general and children in particular, is directly related

to the management of the centre and the general environment in detention.

Depression in detention is not an individual but a public responsibility.

AMCO is concerned about depression in all individuals at any life stage,

but particularly concerned for children who are in the formative stages

of development.

Asylum seeker children

should not be detained. Whilst significantly greater access to education,

activities, social opportunities, and the opportunity to engage in normal

family life is desperately needed, it is unlikely that increased services

to the standard found in the community can be provided in detention. The

detention environment prevents the successful delivery of services to

asylum seeker children. The only solution that meets Australia's international

obligations is that children should not be detained at all.

AMCO welcomes recent

increases in educational opportunities, particularly the practice of offsite

education for children aged 5-11. AMCO remains concerned however that

educational opportunities are not available to children of all age groups

and the provision of services is not equivalent to Australian community

expectations for Australian citizens. The quality and duration of education

is insufficient for the Australian government to meet its international

obligations and national objectives of harmonious community integration

of refugees.


Updated 9 January 2003.