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Submission to National Inquiry
into Children in Immigration Detention from
the University of NSW Centre
for Refugee Research and The Australian National Committee on Refugee
draws substantially on research papers by Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei
which are currently pending publication. The content of this submission
may not be reproduced or quoted without the written permission of these
Dr Eileen Pittaway
UNSW Centre for Refugee Research
& Linda Bartolomei
the UNSW Centre for Refugee Research
the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW)
Families and Unaccompanied Minors in Detention
About the UNSW
- To provide an
international and interdisciplinary centre to initiate programs of enquiry
relevant to refugee issues.
- To conduct research
into the social, economic, legal, political, health and medical impacts
of refugee intakes in countries of resettlement such as Australia as
well as countries of first asylum with whom Australia is likely to have
links based on trade and foreign relations.
- To apply research
to the provision of foreign and humanitarian aid for peoples displaced
within their own countries as a result of armed conflict as well as
for exile and refugee communities internationally.
- To develop and
extend a human rights framework for the analysis of all aspects of the
refugee experience, and to evaluate the effectiveness of current human
rights instruments for refugee populations.
- To produce research
which will benefit the Australian community by maximising the capacity
of refugees to become productive members of society.
- To benefit refugees,
displaced persons and humanitarian immigrants through the provision
of research to guide government policies and services.
- To develop and
maintain a country information database about human rights violations
around the world that is relevant to establishing refugee status.
- To disseminate
outcomes through a web page, publications and a program of symposiums
About the Australian
- ANCORW is a lobbying,
advocacy and research group which works with and for refugee women and
their families in order to bring about change in the refugee system
and to enhance their ability to rebuild their lives.
- ANCORW regards
refugee issues as human rights issues. Empowerment and the full achievement
of all human rights for refugee women and their children is equally
as important as protection.
- At the national
level, ANCORW, lobbies for changes in domestic law, social policy and
for improved service provision.
- At an International
level, ANCORW lobbies at the United Nations for changes in International
law , United Nations Declarations.
- ANCORW is committed
to undertaking research into issues which adversely affect the lives
of refugee women and their dependant children and to use this research
to lobby for change.
- ANCORW is committed
to empower refugee women to have control over their own lives and to
advocate on their own behalf through the provision of advocacy training
and by providing opportunities for refugee women to participate in national
and international forums.
HREOC Terms of
Reference for this Inquiry
The provisions made
by Australia to implement its international human rights obligations regarding
child asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors.
The mandatory detention
of child asylum seekers and other children arriving in Australia without
visas, and alternatives to their detention.
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
- the conditions
under which children are detained;
- health, including
mental health, development and disability;
- guardianship issues;
- security practices
The impact of detention
on the well-being and healthy development of children, including their
The additional measures
and safeguards which may be required in detention facilities to protect
the human rights and best interests of all detained children.
The additional measures
and safeguards which may be required to protect the human rights and best
interests of child asylum seekers and refugees residing in the community
after a period of detention.
In order to discus
and address the effects of detention on asylum seeking children and families
in Australia it is important to briefly describe the types of situations
that they have escaped from and the types of pre arrival experiences which
shape their need for asylum. This provides a context from which we can
understand the reactions of asylum-seekers, when they find that instead
of reaching a place of safety and security, where their claims are tested
in a supportive and healing environment, they are placed in prison-like
detention centres in which their human rights are denied and any chance
of normal family functioning is stripped away from them.
The problem faced
in writing about the situation of children and families in detention in
Australia is that of gaining access to do the research necessary to build
an academically rigorous argument. Access to Detention Centres is restricted,
and tightly controlled. People working in the Centres, including full
time staff and visiting personnel, such as lawyers and psychologists and
even volunteers, are bound by confidentiality. The majority of those asylum
seekers who were found to have valid claims for asylum and have been released
into the community on three year temporary protection visas are afraid
to make public statements about conditions in the centres because they
believe that if they do, the Government will revoke their visas. We are
therefore forced to work much more than usual with anecdotal evidence
and case studies given by a wide range of staff and former detainees,
but on strict conditions of confidentiality. The stories are so consistent,
and there are such similarities in cases from each detention centre that
they must be taken seriously. The weight of evidence gathered indicates
that it is imperative that action be taken now to end Australia's practice
of mandatory detention of all asylum seekers.
Refugees in detention
current policy and practice
The right to seek
and enjoy protection from persecution is a fundamental right enshrined
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The responsibilities of
countries to provide protection are set out in the 1951 Convention Relating
to the Status of Refugees. These include an obligation on the part of
states which are signatories to this convention to ensure that those who
are seeking asylum from persecution are not sent back or refouled to a
country in which they would be at risk of serious human rights violations.
In addition to this obligation, signatory states are obliged to honour
their commitments to international human rights standards. These include
commitments to ensure the human rights of asylum seekers within their
borders are not violated whilst asylum claims are processed. These rights
are addressed in a number of conventions including the International convention
on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), The Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention
on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Australia has signed and ratified these
conventions, although only the commitments made under the CRC have been
substantially incorporated into Australian domestic law.
Despite these international
obligations Australia along with an increasing number of countries in
the developed world, has sought in recent years to avoid its international
obligations to asylum seekers through the development of harsh and discriminatory
domestic laws and practices. The practice of detaining all those who arrive
without documentation, including families and children, often for prolonged
periods is common in many developed countries including America, Canada,
the United Kingdom and a number of European countries. This practice directly
contravenes international standards of refugee protection which deem that
the detention be used only in exceptional circumstances and for the shortest
possible period (Excom Conclusion 44, in Amnesty, 1998). The detention
of children in any circumstances other than as a matter of last resort
contravenes the CRC. It is only in Australia that all asylum seekers who
arrive without documentation are mandatorily and arbitrarily detained.
Thus in Australia asylum seekers, including children, may remain in detention
for months and sometimes years.
disruption and insecurity inherent in refugee situations can harm children's
physical, intellectual, psychological, cultural and social development.
These factors are severely compounded when, in addition, children suffer
or witness the torture or murder of family members or other forms of abuse
or violence. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable.
(UNHCR, 1994, p. 38).
It is estimated that
about 40% of the approximately 12 thousand people who enter Australia
annually as part of the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Intake are children
and young people. Many of these children have suffered from severe hardships,
they have had their sense of safety violated, suffered physical abuse,
neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse and exploitation, some have been forced
to fight as child soldiers and most have witnessed torture and/or been
tortured themselves. They have watched fathers, brothers and uncles being
killed, or have seen them 'disappear'. Many watched as their mothers,
sisters, aunts were tortured and raped. Children suffer from nightmares
because they remember bombing, fear and living on the run. Refugee children
and young people have to cope with a range of traumatic incidents and
human rights violations in the process of their cognitive, emotional,
social and physical development. Their often traumatised mothers have
to respond to the needs of their children as well as their own needs to
heal and develop coping strategies which will help them support their
children. The fact that refugee children and young people are often dependent
on adults who are themselves traumatised, and unable to meet the developmental
needs of their children, makes them particularly vulnerable to mental
health problems (Baker, 1994).
The past decade has
seen important shifts in opinion reflected in the literature about working
with refugee children who have survived torture and trauma. One of the
most important of these relates to the 'resilience' of children (Pittaway
& Breen, 1999). Until quite recently it was believed that children
did not fully experience the negative impact of torture and trauma. It
is now recognised that children as young as three experience problems
in their psychosocial development if they are not given some extra assistance
and support. The notion of resilience now relates more to the ability
of refugee children and young people to resume their normal development
if they are given early assistance and support to build their protective
capacities. Early intervention has been recognised as essential to the
prevention of later mental health problems.
The traumas experienced
by refugee children can cause a range of symptoms including anger, hostility,
nightmares, and severe dysfunctional behaviour and delayed development.
If they are not addressed, the results are long lasting and debilitating
and are often compounded by the unwillingness of refugees from some ethnic
backgrounds to seek or accept treatment for what they regard as mental
illness. The attached stigma breeds shame and humiliation.
into the effects of detention on refugee children was conducted by the
Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) and the Centre
for Refugee Research UNSW (CRR) in 2000. This research combined a comprehensive
review of the relevant international literature with in depth case study
interviews conducted with key service providers and current and former
detainees. A major concern identified in the literature review and confirmed
by several of the key service providers were the negative mental health
effects on individuals of living in a confined 'community' in an atmosphere
of unrelieved tension and stress, where there is a large mix of cultures,
ages and sexes.
to Australia's detention centres reported harrowing stories of the conditions
in which asylum seekers, including children, are detained. These included
the use of solitary confinement to punish children for minor misdemeanours,
such as being cheeky to guards; of the incessant screaming of disturbed
and distressed detainees; of the constant noise of loud speaker announcements;
of the vacant empty expressions of the children which masks their trauma
and distress; and of personal accounts of violence and sexual abuse (Pittaway
& Bartolomei, 2001).
The negative impacts
of detention are further exacerbated by a lack of appropriate facilities
and poorly trained staff who are frequently insensitive, unsympathetic
or aggressive. Detainees reported difficulty in sleeping and eating. Many,
including children, report experiencing regular nightmares which prevent
them from sleeping. This combined with routine awakening by guards using
flashlights during random night patrols, leads to fear associated with
sleep. The practice of mixing different ethnic groups within the same
sleeping quarters has led to some detainees fearing harassment of injury
from members of those ethnic groups which persecuted them in their countries
of origin, and also contributes to insomnia (Rogalla & Highfield,
Some impacts of
Detention on the health of detainees
The life experience
of asylum seekers and the level of their coping mechanisms prior to the
traumatic experiences which caused them to seek asylum will of course
influence their reactions to trauma and detention. Whilst this must be
taken into account, the common symptoms associated with successive exposure
to traumatic and life-threatening situation are:
symptoms: anxiety, stress, restlessness, insomnia and problems with
b) Physical symptoms: somatic complaints, poor health status, self-perception
of health impairment, poor nutrition, experience of low to moderate
pain and low energy.
c) Sociopsychological level: lack of interest in social tasks, difficulty
in performing daily activities, breakdown of family units and familial
roles (Silove & Becker, cited in Crock, 1993, p. 85 ).
To date, for reasons
described in the introduction, only limited work has been done on the
mental health impacts on asylum seekers held in detention. What has been
done indicates that the majority of inmates in Australia detention centres
exhibit signs of traumatic stress and anxiety and that they are exacerbated
both by the fact of incarceration and the conditions in the detention
centres. A recent research report by Silove, Steel and Watter (2000) states
that the "potentially deleterious effect of detention on the mental
health of asylum seekers has been raised repeatedly" (p. 608).
They identify indicators of this which include high rates of attempted
suicide and hunger strikes. They cite a study by Thompson et al (1988,
cited in Silove, Steel & Watter, 2000) conducted with 25 detained
Tamils, which found that they displayed twice the level of war related
trauma when compared with compatriot asylum seekers and refugees living
in the community. Whilst they urge constraint in drawing definitive conclusions
from these studies given the difficulties in accessing facilities and
sampling, there is a convergence with the anecdotal evidence provided
by human rights groups and involved health professionals which indicates
that detention is a powerful contributor to psychological distress in
Features that emerge
across studies on the psychological and psychosocial effects of incarceration
in Australian Detention Centres suggest that both adults and children
present as depressed and anxious. Their responses to events and circumstances
are characterised by sadness, lack of energy and disinterest. They are
frightened for their personal safety and worried about their families
back home (Silove & Becker, cited in Crock, 1993, p. 85). More recent
works undertaken by Zachary Steel and Professor Derrick Silove (Steel
& Silove, 2001) and Kevin O'Sullivan and Dr Aamer Sultan, further
evidence of the degree to which detention compounds refugee trauma (Sultan
& O'Sullivan, 2001).
Some of the Impacts
of Detention on Families
wellbeing of children is influenced by the protection and care they receive
from their families and communities. Adults often suffer greatly in refugee
situations; and this can influence their ability to provide for their
children. Sometimes parental distress results in child abuse, abandonment,
family strife and other forms of family disintegration (UNHCR, 1994, p.
Children do not develop
in isolation: effective family functioning is critical in providing the
sense of self-esteem, security and identity that is necessary for the
child to successfully develop and adapt to the social environment. Fundamental
to children's developmental needs is a family environment that promotes
positive and effective communication, where feelings are expressed, and
where the opportunity to discuss issues is available.
A detention centre
is not an environment conducive to normal family functioning. There are
numerous stressors which affect the family dynamics whilst in detention
which contribute to the breakdown of family units. It is common for husbands
and wives to be separated. There is no current capacity within the Detention
Centres in Australia to separate families from the general population
(Rayner, 2001), so that families, women, children, young people and adult
males are placed together in common areas. This limits both the privacy
and the protection of vulnerable and traumatised women, children and young
people, and exacerbates feelings of insecurity and mistrust. "Child
detainees live behind razor wire, surrounded by uniforms, identification
badges, roll calls and searches" (Rayner, 2001).
cannot occur in an environment where family and parent child routines
such as setting bedtime, normal family mealtimes, and family outings are
not possible and where parents' ability to provide a safe and supportive
environment critical to children's development is removed. Parents report
feeling a lack of control over everyday situations. Life is run by rules
and regimentation, even the children's food is prepared by strangers:
this erodes family structure when traditional patterns of food preparation,
eating and parental role modelling are replaced by the life of the institution
(Rogalla & Highfield, 2001). Children must queue for food with the
adults, be scanned for concealed metal cutlery, and eat what is prepared.
The eating times dictated by the Detention Centre staff often do not fit
with the needs of small children. Loss of control of the type food available
and the timing of feeding their children causes distress to mothers, especially
when lack of access to food and cooking facilities means they are unable
to provide for their children in the ways in which they are accustomed
to do so. Small problems can become more significant than if they were
within a normal community situation (Rogalla & Highfield, 2001; Pittaway
& Bartolomei, 2001).
This causes high
levels of stress for both parents and children. Research indicates that
children as young as one are able to detect and react to parental distress
and that their mental health may be adversely affected (Allodi, 1980;
Sheering et al, 1995; & Sack, cited in JSTSI, 1995). Although it is
common for parents to shield their children from the reality of their
situation, for example, by choosing not to tell them about the possibility
of having to return to where they came from, children are often aware
of what is going on around them and are anxious about their situation.
Children react strongly to being detained and often do not understand
why their parents are unable to get the family out of detention. There
are reports of children asking their parents what they have done wrong
and why they are being 'locked up' and 'punished'. They become frustrated
and suspicious of people granted their visas ahead of them and can not
understand why their parents are not protecting them (Pittaway & Maksimovic,
feel shame about the situation their family is in. The feeling of shame
amongst detainees intensifies the severity and instability of family relationships
within detention. It is common for men to have strong feelings of shame
in front of their own children and wives, not only that they have lost
control and power over their current situation but because they often
feel responsible for the family's predicament. Their parental roles are
affected as they can no longer provide for and protect their families.
This seems to be especially strong when detainees themselves are well
educated and once held important occupations. Multiple stressors, such
as conflict, violence, marital and familial role breakdown and severe
psychological pressure are likely to produce 'dysfunctional' families.
Detention centres appear to be a breeding ground for these stress factors
(Pittaway & Maksimovic, 2000).
has become the catch cry of the current Australian government. Yet whilst
on the one hand we are developing and supporting programs to achieve this
goal in the wider community, at the same time we are detaining refugee
families to the detriment of family members and effective family functioning.
The importance of the family unit as the primary and sacrosanct social
unit is one of the lynch pins of our commitments under both the 1951 Refugee
Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This includes
the right of family reunion, a right currently denied to many in detention
and to all who are granted Temporary Protection Visas.
In the course
of 2000 a small proportion of detention officer staff were treating detainees
including children as if they were criminals; [that] intimidation and
verbal abuse occurred and detainees were not sufficiently aware of their
right to complain to the Ombudsman (Flood, 2001, p 23).
well-being is as important as their physical health. The ability of traumatised
refugee children to cope with the traumatic experiences of war related
and displacement experiences is greatly enhanced by a supportive family
and community milieu, one in which parents can continue to project a sense
of stability, permanence and competence to their children. Unless parents
are supported to deal with their own trauma and grief they will struggle
to provide appropriate support to their children (Ahearn & Athey,
1991; Ajdukovic & Marina, 1993).
factor unique to children is that they are still developing. Their personalities
are being formed and social and coping skills are being learnt on a daily
basis. The children are socially and culturally isolated, often held in
remote locations away from Australian communities. Instead of fostering
positive development, the experience of detention is more likely to produce
antisocial and aggressive behaviour in children. Many children who are
detained undergo behavioural changes caused by the stressful living conditions
in the detention centre, and their unknown future. Such changes may include
loss of appetite, insomnia, crying, withdrawal and increased dependency.
The child may, in addition, sense the tension and stress its parents feel
as a result of the parents uncertainty about the future, boredom, and
lack of support in caring for their children whilst in detention (Abbott
evidence, cited in Joint Standing Committee report into Children of Imprisoned
parents, 1997). These combined factors lead to delayed and dysfunctional
psychosocial and emotional development in the children.
experiences combined with the time spent in detention does not equip them
with the skills and support required to integrate into and live a 'normal'
life in the Australian community on release, or to reintegrate back into
their country of origin if their application for asylum is rejected. Children
are left with little hope when people from their own countries have perpetrated
atrocities upon their families and community and in their country of asylum
their human rights are denied to them.
It is common that
when children of refugees and asylum seekers arrive in Australia their
nutritional health standards are extremely poor. Childhood malnutrition
inhibits mental and physical development and increases vulnerability to
infections (UNHCR, 1994, p. 58). It is of great concern that three of
the key service providers indicated that children within detention react
to the stressful conditions by refusing to eat or being unable to hold
their food down.
nearly four years in Australian detention. Two women tried to commit suicide.
There are no words to describe what it is really like in there. I spent
four years without real schooling and without social life I couldn't
believe that this was Australia. Now that I've got to know Australians,
I realise they are not like the government. A lot of them do not know
what the Australian government does to people I'm twenty-one and
still doing the HSC" (Vinson & Lester, 1998).
Children are affected
by not only what happens to them but by what they are deprived off, for
example missing out on developmental essentials such as play and school
(UNHCR, 1994, pp. 38-39). Opportunities for children to socialise with
peers and the benefits from having an intimate friend of their own age
with whom to share their ideas and experiences are as important as formal
education. Feeling accepted by the peer group and being able to share
school experiences and intimate confidences with one or more close friends
are crucial to happiness in middle childhood and helps shape the child's
social development (Peterson, 1996, p. 260).
The small number
of children within detention at any one time and the variation in the
age, culture and language groups often inhibits children from forming
social relationships with children of a similar age. They often become
suspicious of people who are not fellow detainees and become distant with
those who try to work with them. This, combined with the lack of recreational
space for children in detention centres, often results in the children
associating with young adults, and as mentioned above, leads to children
observing and participating in discussions surrounding 'Visa' and 'release'.
These terms subsequently become part of their vocabulary, which they find
difficult to terminate when they enter their new communities. It was noted
that due to the poor facilities, lack of environmental stimulation and
isolation, many children enter their community and school not only with
an inadequate level of education for their age but not knowing the term
for certain objects and expressions (Pittaway & Maksimovic, 2000).
also encourages situations in which children as young as 12 take an active
role in political activities, such as hunger strikes and sewing their
lips together, as they are forced into a premature adulthood by the suffering
and desperation of their parents and peers. These experiences will negatively
influence their development and their attitudes to society and figures
of authority in the future.
Increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors, that is children who
are not accompanied by a custodial adult, are beginning to arrive in Australia,
claiming asylum in their own right. Minors are defined in international
law as people under eighteen years of age. Some of those reaching Australia
are as young as twelve years old and these children need special care
and attention. Families will often send minors to seek asylum in order
to escape conscription as child soldiers. Other reasons are to escape
targeting by authorities, punishment for political activity or to seek
a place of safety for a family which is in danger. Often when they leave
their families they are not aware that they will finish their journey
in Australia. Fleeing is an act of desperation.
On arrival in Australia
they do not enjoy the protection of either parents or guardians. They
become wards of the Minister for Immigration and this constitutes a clear
conflict of interest. It means that the person who is responsible for
ensuring that the best interests of the child are met is also responsible
for administering the asylum policy which will determine their fate. This
is of particular concern when it is openly stated by the Minister that
our asylum policy has deterrence as its major focus. In Australia, unaccompanied
minors are held in detention for months, sometimes for years. They are
released either singly or in small groups and left very much to fend for
themselves, with the ad hoc support of community based organisations.
have special needs. They have often survived traumatic experience in their
country of origin, frightening and dangerous journeys, and extreme disappointment
when they discover that instead of a place of welcome and safety, Australia
treats then with fear and suspicion. Emotionally, they are vulnerable
as a result of torture or trauma, they may have experienced prior to their
migration, where they may have witnessed the rape or killings of family
members. On their arrival to Australia, they are incarcerated within an
environment where they may witness rioting, water cannons and violence.
Children cannot feel safe in an environment where they are surrounded
by stressed adults, and where violence can erupt at any time. On arrival
they often require assistance tracing family and contacting their communities.
They need to establish whether their parents are alive or dead. They need
to let their parents and family know that they are safe if this can be
done without putting their families in danger from authorities because
they have aided their escape. Delays in fulfilling these tasks can compound
feelings of fear and anxiety in that these young people are already experiencing.
It is part of our obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention
of the Rights of the Child that we offer these children an environment
of safety and security whether they are allowed to stay in Australia or
not. Detention Centres do not provide this opportunity.
Since 1997 the management
of Australia's Detention Centres has been contracted to Australasian Correctional
Services Pty Ltd (ACS). DIMA has determined the standard of care that
the ACS must provide in order to meet the Government's duty of care obligations
through Immigration Detention standards. According to DIMA these standards
are designed to ensure that the needs of the detainees are met in a culturally
appropriate way, while at the same time providing safe and secure detention
(DIMA Fact Sheet 82). According to numerous reports from those entering
Detention Centres in a professional capacity as well as reports from ex
detainees, however, the ACS policies and practices do not even approximate
an acceptable level of care.
This is particularly
the case in relation to a lack of effective staff training in working
with a population that is extremely likely to be traumatised and to have
experienced torture. There is a complete lack of transparency in the benchmarking
and performance components of the tender in relation to government established
standards for care. These policy standards, while available for public
review on the Internet, are broad and non-specific, and allow for extensive
interpretation in their processes. There is no review process, which records
the ACS's achieving and monitoring of these standards.
This brief overview
of some aspects of the refugee experience provides a context for examining
the potential sequalae of developed countries arbitrarily detaining asylum
seekers in inhuman conditions for unspecified periods of time.
As discussed above, refugee children and their families are often extremely
vulnerable, and can need intensive support to enable them to address and
deal with their pre-arrival experiences before they are able to resettle
successfully in a country like Australia. Instead of providing this support,
as a developed and humane society, Australia is placing asylum seekers,
both adults and children, into isolated, prison-like detention centres,
regardless of its international humanitarian obligations.
in Detention Centres
While it is obvious
that as long as Australia's asylum policy insists on the mandatory and
often long term detention it is critical that conditions within the centres
conform to our obligations under international law, we do not agree with
these solutions, as they implicitly accept the continuity of detention
as an established policy. This tacit acceptance condones human rights
abuses perpetuated in the name of humanitarian law and practice. These
abuses are enshrined in Australia's current detention policy and practice.
The available research
and anecdotal evidence from a wide range of informed and reliable sources
clearly demonstrates that prolonged periods in detention can only serve
to exacerbate the trauma of refugees. A range of groups in Australia have
proposed alternative models to detention. The current evidence, with respect
to the negative and compounding impact that detention has on already traumatised
refugees, points to the urgency with which these alternatives must be
There are better,
more economically viable and more humane ways of responsibly handling
onshore asylum-seekers. Other countries such as Sweden and New Zealand
have various approaches to asylum policy and practices. These countries
treat asylum seekers humanely and respect their dignity. Asylum seekers
are given information and services to help them process their applications
and begin the slow process of healing and resettlement. In Sweden, no
child under 18 years is held in detention for more than 3 days - in extreme
circumstances this can be extended to 6 days (Mitchell, 2001). Unaccompanied
minors are taken directly to a supervised group home run by the Migration
Board and Child Social Services where they undergo medical and psychological
assessment and are allocated a caseworker who will help them with their
asylum application and settlement procedures. The majority of asylum seekers
are not held in detention centres, but are offered support to live within
the community until their application is decided. They are not sent to
geographically isolated areas. Counsellors and case workers who explain
each step of the process with the asylum seeker are assigned to each asylum
seeker, and their role also includes providing support if the claim for
asylum is not accepted. Their alternatives are discussed with them, and
they are escorted on to the next stage of their journey. (Maxwell, 1993
On releasing Women
and Children only
There are calls for
the release of all women and children, to be allowed to live in the local
community under house detention, with visiting rights to family members,
in particular fathers who are still held in detention. This is not an
ideal situation. Research into the long term recovery of children who
survived the holocaust identifies that children who remained with both
parents, even in horrendous situations, recovered from the experience
better than children who were separated from their parents for what was
perceived as their own good. There is a danger that a focus on the needs
of children in detention independent of the needs of the family might
lead to a situation whereby children are separated from their parents
and placed with foster parents or in institutions outside the detention
centre. This would be detrimental to the future development of the children
and to the capability and functioning of the family units.
The trial of removing
women and children from the detention centres which began at Woomera last
year, while better for the women and children in some respects, is still
a deeply flawed model. It splits families who are already traumatised.
Many families would prefer to be together in adversity than living separately.
The women and children are still under 24 hour surveillance, they can
only leave their place of residence in the escort of a guard, and visiting
times at the detention centre are limited. The major problem is that Woomera
is in the desert, many kilometres from the ethnic communities who could
provide much needed emotional support and assistance to the women and
children. It is very different from the Swedish system upon which it is
supposed to modelled. In Sweden only those people who may have a criminal
record or some other strong reason as to why they should not be released
into the community are detained. If males in a family unit are detained,
women and children are allowed to live freely in the community; detention
centres are in urban areas near to supportive ethnic communities; and
during the day time there is open access at the detention centre for families
to visit their husbands, fathers and other family members. It is based
on the principle of balancing the sovereign right to border control and
protection of one's national interest, with the right of people to seek
asylum and the principle of family unity and integrity.
detention policy fails to meet the very basic humanitarian needs of the
individuals it incarcerates. The implications are particularly severe
for children and the family unit as a whole, their mental and physical
health and their long term prognosis for successful resettlement or integration
back into their host country. We therefore recommend that:
- The practice of
mandatory detention cease immediately, on the grounds that it is detrimental
to the mental and physical health of all detainees and in particular
children, and it contravenes their human rights under a number of the
conventions to which Australia is a signatory
- The TPV system
be either dismantled or substantially revised to incorporate the potential
for permanent residency and access to all settlement services, and this
must be backdated to cover those people currently with TVP status
- The principle
of family reunification be reintroduced as a component of any TPV system,
and backdated to cover those people currently with TVP status
- New, humanitarian
and effective models of on arrival reception to be introduced as a matter
- The processing
of asylum claims be completed as quickly as possible after arrival and
action taken to integrate accepted refugees into the community. This
is contingent upon the principle that speed of processing is not at
the cost of thorough evaluation of all asylum claims.
- Those people who
are deemed not to be refugees receive assistance and support to return
to their country of origin, recognising that the act of seeking asylum
is an act of desperation and even if people are found not to refugees
under the application of law, that they have often still suffered form
grave privations, which was the push factor for them to seek asylum
in the first place.
It is essential that
more effective and humanitarian services be provided for those who seek
asylum and who are granted protection in Australia. With this in mind,
it is recommended that:
- further rigorous
academic research be undertaken in order to systematically establish
what impact the length of time spent and the conditions in detention
has on successful resettlement into the new community. This will involve
the full co-operation of the Department of Immigration and the Detention
- research be undertaken
to assess the effects on already traumatised people of being incarcerated
in the country in which they sought safe haven, and the steps which
need to be taken to address this issue.
- further research
be undertaken into the particular needs of children who have been held
in detention and the provision of effective services for this group
- research be undertaken
into models of culturally appropriate "best practice" for
families who have survived torture and trauma. This would include ways
in which to address issues of family and sexual violence. There are
numerous reports from refugee groups that the western model of counselling
and therapy does not meet the needs of many of the refugees, who feel
ashamed by what they see as an implied stigma of "madness"
- Research be undertaken
into the effects of TPVs which also has long term implications for the
successful resettlement of refugee families into the Australian community.
In the past, Australia
has had a proud tradition of honouring its Human Rights commitments. Investment
into research, into policy and service provision which lead to more effective
service provision for refugee children and children of asylum seekers
is both an obligation under Australia's commitments to human rights and
an investment in Australia's future.
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