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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Inese Petersons

from evidence given to Justice

Bhagawati, Special Envoy,

High Commission for Human Rights

Introduction: Effects of detention

on Detainees and the Learning Process.

As a former teacher

at the Woomera IRPC, I was able to witness at first hand, the conditions

of detention and the resulting outcomes for Asylum Seekers.

The detrimental emotional,

psychological and physical effects of detention on detainees, have already

been described, debated and published by credible members of the relevant


There have also been

numerous documentaries, newspaper articles, interviews [both TV and radio]

and letters from current and former detainees that have graphically described

their experiences both before, during and after detention.

From a teacher's

perspective, I found that the trauma, both past and present experienced

by the detainees and compounded by the conditions and treatment while

in detention, often resulted in severe depression, extreme anxiety, hopelessness

or dysfunctional behaviour, to name a few. Being in these states or witnessing

them on a daily basis was definitely not conducive to learning. Learners

require a suitable learning environment, both physically and mentally,

to achieve positive, lasting and productive learning outcomes.

Even if the human

and physical resources had been adequate to present a proper education

program to the detainees in Woomera, going to classes there was always

a haphazard affair, at best, a distraction from their daily trauma.

Proposals: Alternative Options

for a "Better Detention" fostering Optimum Learning Outcomes.

My proposals are

based on the understanding that Mandatory Detention will not be abolished

in the near future. The three following alternatives seek to provide a

more acceptable "detention" that fosters optimum learning outcomes

for detainees. The educational needs of the detainees would best be served

by appropriate resources and specially trained teachers, in an environment

and atmosphere conducive to learning.

First Option.

Have a purpose built

school complex in the Centre staffed, resourced, organised and functioning

as close as possible to a "normal" school, incorporating the

specific and special needs of students. Language acquisition, cultural

studies and practical life-skills would form the basis of the education

program. Given the nature of learning in such an environment, subject

content and contextually relevant teaching becomes a crucial priority.

A basic "survival kit" for future Visa holders.

[This option was

once proposed at Woomera in early June 2001 but was never actioned]

Second Option: Transport Students

to Local Schools.

Transport all students

[children and adults] to attend the local school/s. This would necessitate

some major organisation and consultation with DETE, School Council/s,

Community and other stake-holders - but not an impossible task. Facilities

already available and staffing and resources could be allocated according

to student needs. Allows all students to be initiated into a formal schooling

process. Excellent learning opportunities for cross-cultural awareness.

[Some junior students

are already being bused to a previously closed school. Commendable attempt

to formalise teaching/learning, but the children are isolated from other

school children and associated interactions. No similar provision for

any adult student.]

Third Option: Woomera Township

as "Detention" Centre?

This proposal is,

I think, by far the best and would, I believe, have the most positive

and broadest learning outcomes for Asylum Seekers.

Woomera township

is in the unique position to "alleviate" most of the current

concerns and issues surrounding the mandatory detention of Asylum Seekers.

  • Already has existing

    housing and infrastructure. Federal property.

  • Remote and secure:

    Can be re-established as a restricted facility/zone.

  • Asylum Seekers

    allowed "freedom" with dignity.

  • Cost effective

    and cost cutting.

  • Business and employment


  • Immediate coordinated

    and effective assistance towards assimilation.

  • Education based

    on needs. Theirs and ours.

  • Better "detention"

    - better outcomes.

Existing Facilities and Infrastructure.

As Woomera is already

"owned" by the Government and has the necessary infrastructure

to service approximately 7000 people, why not revert/convert Woomera township

and area to a restricted facility?

Personnel for any

current or future Woomera Rocket Range projects, could be rehoused in

purpose built accommodation in the IRPC, which has the infrastructure

to cater for 2000 people. They would be assured of privacy and security

close to their working environment.

Current residents

could be encouraged to accept the proposals by sensitive consultation

and collaborative planning. Positive Government support would be essential.

This is not to suggest

that Woomera becomes the "detention capital" of Australia, but

given the small number of asylum seekers that come to Australia anyway,

one facility the size of Woomera would be enough to house them while they

go through all the initial clearance processing. Processing should be

of minimal duration, after which the detainees are released into the community.

If most of the funding that has been/will be allocated to other detention

services/measures both on and off-shore was to be concentrated in Woomera,

many of the current perceived "problems" could be alleviated.

Security: Restricted Facility/Zone.

Woomera township

and environs has previously been a restricted zone. The Rocket Range still

is. It is probable that the currently restricted area could be extended

and made secure. This would eliminate the need to detain Asylum Seekers

in a central facility, locked up in separate compounds, surrounded by

maximum security fencing, surmounted by razor wire. The organisation and

delivery of all security measures could be done by federal or state officers.

This would create an excellent PR opportunity, to introduce and familiarise

the prospective Visa holders to Australian law and law-enforcement. It

would also eliminate the need for the current Centre's correctional services

management, its ethos and practises.

"Freedom" with Dignity.

The detainees could

be accommodated in Woomera's currently empty houses and units, be given

a Government benefit and be assisted by appropriate personnel and professionals

to acquire the necessary life-skills, to become accustomed to life and

living in an Australian community. They could be given freedom of movement

within Woomera and the immediate surrounding area. The ability to be partially

self-determining and "free" would hopefully alleviate many of

the more debilitating mental, emotional and physical problems, thereby

allowing the detainees some time to recuperate and direct their energies

and thoughts towards education and learning life-skills, essential adjuncts

to assimilation. This effectively allows the Asylum Seekers to live and

adjust to the Australian way of life with privacy, dignity, autonomy and

purpose while their applications are being processed.

Cost Effective and Cost Cutting.

It could be envisaged

that, with immediate practical help and practice, the detainees could

become financially "self-supporting". That is, they learn to

budget and learn to live on their disposable income, as every other Australian

does. This scenario would be more cost effective and cheaper than the

current per person daily rate cost of detention. This has immediate and

future economic benefits. The money immediately flows into the township

and future Visa holders probably would become more financially astute.

Most importantly, financial acumen does not establish or encourage a reliance

or dependency on welfare.

Increased Business and Employment


Woomera could once

again become a viable township, providing employment and business opportunities

for many. As the current mainland detention centres and the off-shore

facilities are all indirectly foreign owned, Woomera would provide and

ensure direct economic benefit to the region. Detainees and service providers

alike would be injecting funds into the community, guaranteeing that the

economic bonus and profits stay in Woomera, hence South Australia, and

not go interstate, off-shore or overseas. An economic revival for the

region has to be considered as a positive and desirable achievement.

Towards Assimilation.

The more provisions

that can be made towards the "normal" education, assistance,

training and familiarising of Asylum Seekers with the Australian language,

culture and life-skills for integration and successful living, while they

are in "detention", the less likely they will have problems

adjusting and being accepted, when they are granted a Visa.

Education Based on Needs.

As the lack of English

is one of the major obstacles to the assimilation of Visa holders in our

society, early intervention and intensive language acquisition programs,

are crucial for the success of their survival and settlement in the community.

Having access to education on a regular basis in a formal setting, Woomera

Area School and TAFE Campus, would enable the proper delivery of programs

specifically designed and delivered to meet the needs of all the students,

children and adults alike. It would also foster an appreciation of our

education system, teaching and learning methodologies, schooling expectations

and provide the foundations for appropriate learning practices and behaviour.

An investment in education always provides dividends.

"Better Detention"

- Better Outcomes.

Given that it does

not appear that Mandatory Detention and the application and delivery of

that detention will change in the immediate future, I am proposing that

the third alternative "detention" option is the best under the

current policy. Not only does it remove Asylum Seekers from the punitive,

debilitating, dehumanising and demoralising incarceration that they are

currently subjected to, but more importantly, it also engenders an atmosphere

of understanding and acceptance, by both Asylum Seekers and Australians.


The fact is that

Asylum Seekers are here, now, and they will probably continue to come,

despite our worst efforts to dissuade them. Currently they are a "captive

" audience and every endeavour should be made to help them in every

possible way while they are being detained. Why further traumatise and

alienate these particularly vulnerable and helpless people when at least

85% of them will be granted a Visa? These are our possible future citizens.

It makes no sense. There has to be a better way!

Yours Sincerely,

Inese Petersons.

Teacher: SA Reg. No. 584108


Updated 9 January 2003.