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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

the Department of the Premier

and Cabinet - Division of Multicultural Affairs - South Australia


This submission provides

information relevant to the treatment of children in detention for the

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's national inquiry into

the situation of children in immigration detention.

The submission covers

a range of relevant issues, including international covenants on the rights

of children, the emotional health and well-being of children in detention,

educational and recreational opportunities of child detainees, unaccompanied

humanitarian minors, alternatives to detention, as well as the post-detention

needs of asylum seekers. The submission concludes with a number of recommendations

for HREOC to consider.

At present (early

May 2002), there are approximately 1000 unauthorised boat arrivals in

immigration detention centres in Australia and approximately 1700 in off-shore

processing centres (Nauru, Cocos Islands and elsewhere). In the Woomera

Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in South Australia, there

are 220 detainees, of whom 44 are children. An additional 17 women and

children are in an alternative detention trial in the Woomera township

(referred to in the Alternative Detention section).


International Covenants

on Children in Immigration Detention

The United Nations

High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Guidelines on Applicable Criteria

and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers (February

1999) indicate that the detention of asylum seekers is undesirable and

- in many instances - contrary to the principles of international law.

Specific guidelines on various matters are highlighted, including Guideline

2 (the general principle that asylum seekers should not be detained),

Guideline 3 (the exceptional grounds for detention), and Guideline

6 (relating to the detention of persons under the age of 18 years).

According to Guideline 6, children who are asylum seekers should

"not be detained".

Although the UNHCR

guidelines and international human rights conventions do not constitute

domestic law, they should affect decision-making and are central to the

functioning of a democratic society. In ratifying the United Nations

Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia has indicated its

support for the rights of children and for children to have access to

resources that provide them with the best possible developmental outcomes.

The Convention

stipulates that:

  • States take all

    measures appropriate to ensure that children are protected from all

    forms of discrimination or punishment (Article 2);

  • The best interests

    of the child shall be a primary consideration (Article 3);

  • Children should

    not be separated from their parents against their will (Article 9);

  • Child asylum

    seekers are to be protected from violence (Articles 19 & 34) and

    given the opportunity for recovery from the effects of neglect, exploitation,

    abuse, torture and armed conflict (Article 39);

  • All child asylum

    seekers, whether accompanied or not, should receive appropriate protection,

    assistance and education (Article 22);

  • Child asylum

    seekers are to be provided with a standard of living adequate for their

    physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development (Article 27);

  • The detention

    of all child asylum seekers ought to be used only as a measure of last

    resort and for the shortest possible period (Article 37).

The conditions for

children in immigration detention in Australia are not congruent with

the rights stipulated in the UN Convention and the UNHCR Guidelines.

Emotional Health and Well

Being of Children in Detention

Children in immigration

detention are a vulnerable group in view of their ages, stages of development,

health, well-being and social support needs.

Any children moving

from one culture to another are likely to face adjustment problems, particularly

if the new environment is different from their parents' own culture and

country of origin. However, child asylum seekers are likely to face additional

factors that compound their adjustment difficulties, including abuse,

trauma or armed conflict that they may have witnessed and/or suffered

themselves, inadequate living standards, and difficult circumstances that

they may have encountered during their voyage to Australia.

The emotional health,

as well as physical and intellectual development of children, require

environments that are safe, nurturing and socially and intellectually

stimulating, and conducive to advancing social and emotional development.

Physical environments that restrict free movement, and contain limited

opportunities for education and social interaction, are likely to have

adverse impact on the emotional health and well-being of children and

youth. Child asylum seekers in detention are expected to co-exist with

adults who are strangers to them and many of whom have not been granted

asylum and face removal from Australia. When child asylum seekers remain

in detention centres for extended periods, these situations are exacerbated.

Recent events in

the Woomera detention centre demonstrate that detention facilities are

dangerous places for children. Since there is no separate accommodation

for families, children of all ages have been exposed to adult violence

and conflict within the centre, frequently witnessing powerlessness and

despair, in some instances from their own parents.

Educational and Recreational

Opportunities for Children

According to the

UNHCR guidelines and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all child

asylum seekers have a right to the same educational opportunities as all

other children in Australia.

At present, education

services to children inside detention centres are the responsibility of

the Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) with guidelines provided

by the Commonwealth Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous

Affairs (DIMIA). Education services, in terms of curriculum, formal instruction

and other services to children inside detention centres are unlikely to

constitute a comprehensive and formal schooling program that is equal

to that provided to Australian children. In addition, vocational education

and training specifically for senior secondary school-age children in

detention have not been adequately addressed.

Formal communication

between the SA Department of Education, Training and Employment, ACM and

DIMIA could facilitate access to the State school system for children

in detention and would help ensure that education services to children

in detention centres are equal to those provided to other children in

Australia, consistent with UN guidelines and the Convention on the

Rights of the Child. Such discussions have recently commenced.

Unaccompanied Humanitarian


As a result of intervention

by the State's child protection officers, unaccompanied minors have been

removed from the Woomera detention centre and placed into foster home

care. This was undertaken following an agreement between SA welfare authorities

and DIMIA in December 2001, based on the Federal-State child protection

Memorandum of Understanding.

Another two Memoranda

of Understanding - about the care for unaccompanied minors and alternative

detention arrangements - are still to be finalised.

Emotional Health and Well-being

of Families

Family care can be

promoted through the development of appropriate primary health care education.

An additional focus on the provision of support services, including interpreter

services, is also needed to help detainees manage emotional problems,

including stress, anger, grief and depression. In particular, such support

services are of enormous importance in view of research that suggests

refugees generally experience very high rates of emotional and psychological

problems (Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry, Statement


A new Memorandum

of Understanding is being sought by the SA Department of Human Services

about the provision of health services in the Woomera Immmigration Reception

and Processing Centre, in particular with respect to mental health, public

health and communicable diseases.

In addition, improved

health care for pregnant women requires heightened attention. Pregnancy

monitoring and care, including culturally appropriate and sensitive care

and food are of paramount importance.

Alternative Detention

An alternative detention

trial, called the Residential Housing Project, has been in progress for

several months. The trial involves the relocation of selected women and

their children from the Woomera detention centre to the Woomera township

- whilst their husbands remain in the detention centre. There are 17 persons

(5 women and 10 children) participating in the trial at present, and the

trial is yet to be evaluated.

Unaccompanied child

asylum seekers removed from the Woomera detention centre have been placed

in foster homes. Under the provisions of the Federal Migration Act, foster

families' homes are deemed to be alternative places of detention, with

guardians designated 'directed persons'. The Family and Youth Service

(FAYS) of the SA Department of Human Services has responsibility for this


Federal-State discussions

have commenced regarding schooling for child detainees. The Woomera Immigration

Reception and Processing Centre's management (ACM) has requested consideration

by SA authorities of a possible teaching trial involving junior primary

school-aged detainees. Such a trial would enable child detainees to attend

the Woomera Area School, and negotiations have been initiated regarding

the cost of this activity to the State Department of Education, Training

and Employment.

Transition to community life

A majority of asylum

seekers are granted protection visas and, therefore, children and families

need to be well-prepared for leaving detention facilities. In cases where

parents and children have been apart, counselling is helpful in the re-unification

of families and their transition into the community. In addition to family

re-unification, post-detention life skills programs that focus on employment,

schooling and education for children, accommodation and financial management

are vital to the successful settlement of humanitarian immigrants to Australia.


The conditions for

children in detention in Australia need to concur with the United Nations

Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNHCR guidelines. In

this regard, it is recommended that:

  • Consideration

    be given to children and their parents being placed in alternative,

    community based accommodation and environments that are safe and provide

    them with adequate educational and social interaction;

  • Australian State,

    Territory and Federal authorities establish agreements to ensure the

    best interests of child asylum seekers are upheld in terms of the delivery

    of health and welfare services, and that schooling and developmental

    opportunities are available to all;

  • Pregnant women

    be given access to high quality antenatal and perinatal care and services;

  • Children and families

    be well-prepared for leaving detention facilities through adequate counselling

    and post-detention life skills support, which are essential to successful



Updated 9 January 2003.