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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


This submission

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


Authorised by:

Dr Eileen Pittaway

UNSW Centre for Refugee Research

& Linda Bartolomei


About the UNSW

Centre for Refugee Research

Mission Statement

  • 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

    and conferences.

About the Australian

National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW)

Mission Statement

  • 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

reference to:

  • the conditions

    under which children are detained;

  • health, including

    mental health, development and disability;

  • education;
  • culture;
  • guardianship issues;


  • security practices

    in detention.

The impact of detention

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

long-term development.

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.

Children, Families

and Unaccompanied Minors in 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.

Refugee Children

The uprooting,

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.

Preliminary research

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.

Regular visitors

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:

a) Psychosomatic

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

asylum seekers.

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

The emotional

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).

Effective parenting

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,


Parents frequently

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).

Strengthening families

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.

Children's Psychological


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).

Refugees' psychosocial

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).

One psychological

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.

Children's pre-migration

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.


Social issues

"I spent

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).

This environment

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.

Unaccompanied children

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.

Detention Centre


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.

Improving conditions

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


Alternatives to


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

&Mitchell, 2001)

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.



Australia's mandatory

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

    of urgency

  • 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

    Centre Management.

  • 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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Updated 9 January 2003.