Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
the Asylum Seekers Centre
ASYLUM SEEKERS CENTER - WHO WE ARE
OF THIS SUBMISSION
THE DETENTION EXPERIENCE FOR CHILDREN
ALTERNATIVES TO DETENTION
Detention Centres are contradictory to the human rights of the child.
The Immigration Detention experience is extremely harmful to children
and has effects of traumatisation and re-traumatisation during the Detention
experience and continuing after release. Concerning alternatives to
Detention, the present options are also not geared towards the best
interest of the child. This submission puts forth ASC case material
displaying the effects of Detention on children and also debates the
success of the current alternatives to detention through the view of
professional social workers employed at ASC. Through this submission
the ASC wishes to highlight how human rights of children are being abused
and neglected in Australia, a country that is signatory to the Human
SEEKERS CENTER - WHO WE ARE
The Asylum Seekers
Centre is a non-government, community based organisation set up to assist
refugee applicants (asylum seekers) who are living in the community
in Australia while waiting for the government to decide on their cases.
The Centre functions as a house of hospitality and a service and referral
base for asylum seekers. Three trained Social Workers, one Registered
Nurse/Midwife and 16 English Teachers and other volunteers staff it.
In our first eight
years of operation, we have assisted over 2,100 asylum seekers. Each
month we currently interview approximately 20-25 new asylum seekers.
People who use
our services may be accompanied by their children and in a few cases
are children themselves (under 18 years of age). They fall into two
- Those who
have arrived in Australia with valid documentation.
in this category seen by the ASC have a Bridging visa (BV).
This allows residence in the community until refugee status is determined.
This can take anywhere between 3 months to 3 years, but if refugee
status is granted these people are given permanent residency. During
the waiting period there is no entitlement to Centrelink benefits
and adults and children are charged international student fees for
any type of study. Depending on whether on not the application for
refugee status was made before or after 45 days in Australia, the
person may be allowed to earn an income from work and be covered
by Medicare while waiting for the determination of their case. Those
not allowed Medicare cover and permission to work are those who
applied for refugee status more than 45 days after arrival.
- Those who
have arrived in Australia without valid documentation.
by the ASC in this category have been granted refugee status under
a 785 Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) after a period in
detention. Only in very few, unique cases, this waiting period
is spent living in the community. The TPV allows the person to live
in the community for 3 years. At the end of this period their refugee
case is re-accessed. They can access Special Benefit from Centrelink
and Medicare. They have permission to work. Children can go to school,
however adults cannot study without paying international student
In both categories
there is no right to family reunion with spouses and children
Comments on the
experience of children in this submission are generally made on the
basis of standard case records and the professional opinions of the
social workers involved with families. However, in preparation for this
submission three families were specifically re-interviewed regarding
the time their children spent in Immigration Detention Centres. The
families were chosen because they had been in recent contact with the
ASC and had a number of children. They were asked a series of questions
concerning the environment and services of the Detention Centres in
which they lived, how it affected their children and whether the experience
continues to affect them. In total these families contained 10 children.[words
deleted] Most were one year younger at the time they were in detention.
has two sections:
The detention experience for children
In each area it
will be particularly concerned with:
How are the "best
interests of the child" considered
Health and nutrition
Psychological and social well-being
Because the ASC
is primarily concerned with asylum seekers in the community, the emphasis
is on alternatives to detention for children (Terms
of Reference 2) and the adequacy of the present system for child
asylum seekers and refugees residing in the community after a period
of detention (Terms of Reference 3 and 6).
EXPERIENCE FOR CHILDREN
This section is
based on the interviews with three families included in Appendix A.
of the best interests of the child.
It is self evident
in the material below on psychological and social wellbeing that if
the primary consideration were the best interests of the child, none
of the children in these interviews would have been placed in detention.
They were there because the primary consideration was the detention
of their parents. Even so, Case Study 1 (C1) shows that where it was
possible to detain a woman and children in geographic proximity to the
children's father, the authorities choose not to act on this consideration.
They detained a mother and three daughters at [word deleted] where it
was impossible for their father to visit to support his wife or help
the children. This was the cause of marked additional trauma for the
and Social Wellbeing
continuing psychological disturbance. This is described by two
of the three families. In one family (C2) children aged [words deleted]continue
to suffer nightmares and fear of going to sleep attributed to their
traumatisation during 10 months in [word deleted]. In another, a [word
deleted]high school student (C3) says he is still depressed, angry and
fearful post detention. He is afraid of repercussions if he speaks out
about his experience. In the third family, the parents are anxious about
long term effects but do not report current stress symptoms.
to violence, suicide, riots. All the children were exposed to
extraordinary adult suffering and violence in the detention centre.
In C1 we have a picture of a mother and three young girls cowering in
their bedroom while a riot, set off by the suicide of one detainee,
runs unchecked outside - the guards having left the premises. In C2
we have four young children reported as seeing a man stab himself, another
self mutilating, others on hunger strike or threatening to jump from
roofs or drink detergent. They were in [an IDC] during riots and fires.
In C3 we have a picture of a[word deleted] high-school student, physically
underdeveloped, locked in [an IDC] with people he recognized were going
crazy. At the same time he was without adequate medical help for
his father who was having panic attacks needing oxygen. As the mother
in C1 said, these experiences just prolonged the horrible feeling
they were fleeing from to begin with.
to learn. All the families said that their children were not
really able to take advantage of whatever education was on offer. Their
psychological state affected their ability to lean. Boredom was also
mentioned by all families as a debilitating state brought on by the
environment. All families mentioned this. The general experience
was of over crowding, dirty bathrooms and toilets and considerable fear
that they would catch diseases while in detention because many adults
had diseases. There is no indication of special facilities for children
which might protect them from exposure to these risks.
- physical and psychological. One of the first experiences of
detention was having health checks. Neither of the families in C1 or
C2 received any information on the results of these checks. These families
reported that their children were very frequently sick. They had common
experiences in waiting in long queues for the doctor and finding that
the available treatment was advice to drink water and take Panadol.
Doctors frequently viewed the children's condition as psychological
in origin. However, these families reported virtually no help of a supportive
nature to help them with parenting young, stressed children either in
the detention environment or after that experience.
The lack of availability
of psychological help is particularly marked in C3. In that case [referred
to above concerning a high school student] [words deleted] [the boy]
and his [older]brother were trying to care for a father in a very distressed
psychological state with panic attacks requiring oxygen. We asked
to see a psychologist every day. It took eleven days before we were
able to see one, the interviewer was told. That this situation was
acute seems confirmed by the fact that the three were released within
48 hours of the psychological assessment. Why did it take so long to
be seen by a professional?
of the Child under BV and TPV
Both the Bridging
Visa (BV) and the 785 Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) may be seen as
alternatives to detention in the sense that they involve waiting periods
while full refugee status is determined. During this waiting period,
Australian Government policy denies parents and their children the normal
benefits of permanent residence in Australia and it denies the right
to family reunion of spouses and children.
argues that many of the restrictions placed on parents with children
on BVs or TPVs are against the best interests of the children concerned.
Such restrictions should not form part of alternatives to detention
which may be proposed by the HREOC Inquiry.
Health and Nutrition
For all parents
with children on BVs there is no safety net to ensure that children
have adequate nutrition and health care if the parents use up their
available funds and/ or are unemployed. This is because they all have
no access to Centrelink benefits. For those who applied for refugee
status more than 45 days after their arrival in Australia, a situation
of more extreme financial hardship is highly likely to occur because,
in addition, they have no permission to work and no right to Medicare
Two cases from
the ASC records illustrate the danger to children.
- Case 1.
This is a family on BV and consequently without the right to Centrelink
benefits. The father did not have permission to work due to late application
for refugee status and the pregnant mother was unemployed and looking
for work. (She had only recently been granted permission to work.)
The ASC organised a home visit by a volunteer. On the first visit
there was no food in the house at all, so that the children had to
go to school without lunch. The ASC visitor purchased food for the
family, with the comment that "if this was a normal family with
permanent residence, this type of thing would be considered neglect
- Case 2.
This family consists of with a young mother with [several young] children.
The father did not have permission to work due to late application
for refugee status. He breached this BV condition, was found out,
and punished by detention. Mother and children are living in a tiny
room in the house of an acquaintance, with no income and no support.
Families who are
unable to feed their children adequately are clearly likely to have
additional health problems among their children. When they have the
kind of BV which prevents them accessing Medicare, it is clear that
the children are at additional risk.
Poor living standards,
which arise from BV restrictions , can also cause health issues. Without
adequate income for rent many families known to the ASC live sleeping
together squashed into a single bedroom at a friend's house. Often children
sleep on the floor because their parents cannot afford to purchase beds.
Children on BVs
do not have an adequate safety net to ensure that they have adequate
nutrition and health care. A response to this situation cobbled together
by voluntary NGO emergency food and medical assistance is clearly inadequate.
Moreover, the voluntary charitable organisations are overstretched and
asylum seekers are not always aware of this source of help.
of Fees. Children on BV have to pay international school fees,
$4,000 per child, per year. They can apply for an exemption of fees;
however, the process is somewhat confusing and can be very time consuming.
The main problem is that the majority of parents do not know there is
this option. They approach the school, are told the amount they must
pay and leave, extremely stressed because they cannot afford it. The
Centre has seen children who have been without schooling due to this
problem for over 10 months. When children are enrolled in school, often
parents cannot afford to pay for uniforms, shoes and books.
Fees are also a
barrier to many families in accessing good childcare so that a parent
can work. In many cases children are being left alone or with inappropriate
carers because there is no other option for the parents. Children miss
out of school often because of this.
to learn. Parents in inadequate housing, with children sleeping
on the floor in overcrowded rooms, without sufficient income to feed
children adequately, tell us that their children are unable to concentrate
at school. This seems highly likely.
at school. Children of asylum seeker parents can feel unaccepted
at school. Sometimes this arises because parents cannot afford to pay
for uniforms, shoes and books. Children may also feel stigmatised because
of the attitude to the Australia public to asylum seekers and those
who have been in detention. An example of this is the concern of the
[high school age student mentioned above]
and Social Wellbeing
the Parent's situation. Asylum seeker and refugee parents have
multiple sources of stress. Nearly always there is the pre-flight background
of fear and trauma (sometimes torture and almost always major personal
loss) which continues to affect psychological wellbeing. Such traumas
may have been exacerbated by the experience of flight and detention
in Australia. Access to the overstretched, post trauma counseling services
of organizations like STARTTS is also limited. There are further difficulties
in learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture and often losses
related to the non-transferability of previous employment and professional
skills to Australia. In addition, there are stresses which arise directly
from the conditions of BVs and TPVs. Holders of such visas exist in
a state of limbo and insecurity about their future in Australia, exacerbated
in many cases by financial, employment, re-education and housing difficulties.
Children of Asylum
seeker and refugee parents are almost inevitable likely to suffer from
the stress and difficulties of their parents. Some of the stresses on
children, however, could be avoided if the Australian Visa conditions
were framed with the interests of the child in mind. Particular causes
of stress in the experience of the ASC are:
from family. This occurs when one parent is in detention and
the remainder of the family is in the community. It also occurs as a
result of the embargo on family reunion entry to Australia for holders
of BVs and TPVs. Of particular concern are situations in which the Immigration
Department chooses to separate families after they have come to Australia.
The ASC is aware of this happening in a number of its cases. The example
above of the detention of a father on a BV because he had worked, is
a typical case. In this case the mother reported that her [word deleted]
young children cried all the time. Another case is that reported here
in Part A
poverty. The negative effects of the poverty of many parents
on BVs have been discussed under health and education above. It is also
true that some children are additionally stressed by awareness of their
parent's stress or by the effects of the parents anxious stressed behavior
on all their family relationships
responsibilities placed on children because of the poverty of parents.
The ASC is aware of children being left alone or in the care of other
relatively young children because the parent cannot afford childcare
and the family will starve unless the parent works. Children miss school
for this reason also.
Children are used
inappropriately as interpreters. A caseworker at the ASC sees a family
where the mother uses [a primary school aged] boy to interpret at medical
appointments where the subject matter can be quite disturbing for him.
However, the mother sees no other option available to her. The boy has
missed out on school in order to attend appointments with mother.
the community. To the extent that this is exacerbated by the
Governments policy is an avoidable cause of psychological stress in
of the child. This submission has produced case material from a
small sample of cases to demonstrate parents' reasonable concerns about
the deleterious effects of detention on the psychological and social
wellbeing of their children. It also argues that in the view of the
ASC's professional social workers the best interests of children cannot
be served by the life style imposed under the current system of BVs
and TPVs. In any recommendations about alternatives to detention the
identified harmful consequences to children of life under these visas
should be avoided.
Health and nutrition.
There are reasonable concerns of parents for the health of their children
while in detention. The risks to nutrition and health care post-detention
are a direct reflection of the conditions under which parents on BVs
live. The basic right to support one's children by employment, as well
as the safety net of Medicare, is denied to asylum seekers who enter
Australia legally but do not ask for refugee status within 45 days.
Even those who do act more expeditiously are also denied access to the
Centrelink safety net. The ASC has experience of the deleterious effects
of this form of poverty and insecurity on children and advocates that
such conditions are not replicated in any alternatives to detention,
which may be recommended by HREOC.
and social well being. This is an area of extreme and reasonable
concern for parents of children in detention exposed to trauma, suffering,
violence, suicide, and riots. It manifests itself in post detention
psychological disturbance in children. The insecurity and extreme financial
hardship of some parents, especially on BVs, is also likely to affect
the psychological wellbeing and social and educational development of
children. Again the ASC advocates that such conditions are not replicated
in any alternatives to detention, which may be recommended by HREOC.
Updated 9 January 2003.