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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

the Asylum Seekers Centre


INTRODUCTION

THE

ASYLUM SEEKERS CENTER - WHO WE ARE

OUR

DATA BASE

FOCUS

OF THIS SUBMISSION

A.

THE DETENTION EXPERIENCE FOR CHILDREN

B.

ALTERNATIVES TO DETENTION

CONCLUSION


INTRODUCTION

Australia's Immigration

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

Rights Convention.

THE ASYLUM

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.

OUR DATA

BASE

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

categories:

  • Those who

    have arrived in Australia with valid documentation.

    Most people

    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.

    Those seen

    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

    fees.

In both categories

there is no right to family reunion with spouses and children

outside Australia.

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.

FOCUS OF

THIS SUBMISSION

This submission

has two sections:

A.

The detention experience for children

B. Alternatives to detention

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).

A. THE DETENTION

EXPERIENCE FOR CHILDREN

This section is

based on the interviews with three families included in Appendix A.

Consideration

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

family.

Psychological

and Social Wellbeing

Post-detention,

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.

Exposure

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.

Agitation/boredom/inability

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

detention experience.

Health

Unhealthy

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.

Health care

- 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?

B. ALTERNATIVES

TO DETENTION

Best Interests

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.

This submission

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

benefits.

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

    by DOCS.

  • 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.

Education

The Barrier

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.

Inability

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.

Acceptance

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]

Psychological

and Social Wellbeing

Stress from

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:

Separation

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

Stress from

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

Inappropriate

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.

Stigma in

the community. To the extent that this is exacerbated by the

Governments policy is an avoidable cause of psychological stress in

children.

CONCLUSION

Best interests

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.

Psychological

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.

Last

Updated 9 January 2003.