Skip to main content

Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

Click here to return to the Submission Index

Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

ChilOut (Children Out of Immigration



ChilOut was established

in July 2001 by a group of concerned parents and citizens who felt compelled

to advocate and act on behalf of children and their parents living in

Australia's immigration detention centres (IDC).

ChilOut believes

Australia has an obligation to protect its borders and to require asylum

seekers entering Australia to identify themselves and show prima face

case as to why they should be extended protection. We do not believe

that the sovereignty or protection of our borders is advanced by incarcerating

children indefinitely. We strongly advocate children seeking asylum

be placed in the community with their parents until their application

for protection is assessed.

Until such time as

community placement is incorporated into Government policy on the processing

of asylum seekers, ChilOut will also advocate for access to appropriate

services for children and their parents inside Australia's IDCs.

ChilOut supporters

meet monthly with a guest speaker and panel to discuss and better understand

issues around the Australian government's current policy on refugees arriving

informally. Over the past six months attendance at meetings has averaged

approximately 200 people each month, many of them new attendees. Approximately

1400 ChilOut supporters and people interested in the work of ChilOut receive

our weekly email updates.

Many ChilOut supporters

visit detainees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VDC) regularly,

often weekly. As a result, supporters, many of whom are themselves parents,

have developed a collective awareness and very deep understanding of the

personal reality of the lives of detainees and their families. As Australians

and as parents we take for granted the private time we are able to spend

with our children, uninhibited, or the knowledge that we can act effectively

on our child's behalf to access the services he or she needs. This feeling

of responsibility and self-determination in relation to the needs of our

children is one that parents in VDC and other IDCs never have the

opportunity to experience. It is demoralizing and frustrating for detainee

parents. Detainee children are not blind to the hopelessness their parents

suffer, and so in turn suffer with them. [1]

Given this, the content

of ChilOut's submission necessarily extends to parents' ability to parent,

care, protect and provide for their child. [2]

People arriving in

Australia without a valid visa and seeking asylum, are breaking Australian

border protection laws. The question is, do these laws supercede those

of Natural Justice and Australia's obligation to uphold the basic tenets

of human rights as set out by United Nations? [3] ChilOut

responds to this question with an unequivocal "No". ChilOut

believes that it is possible for Australia to assess people as genuine

asylum seekers and still allow sovereignty and humanitarianism to co-exist.

This is a truism because some nation states (e.g. Sweden) have chosen

policies that successfully incorporate both. Furthermore, without respect

for human life, suffering and dignity, sovereignty is meaningless.

The following submission

addresses those areas identified in the Inquiry's Terms of Reference where

ChilOut believes it is able to provide evidence to the Inquiry which will

assist the Commission to better understand the quality of life and experiences

of children living in Australia's IDCs. Evidence was collected primarily

from supporters' discussions with detainees and their own first hand observations

of children and their parents living in VDC [4] but also

where noted at Woomera IDC and Port Headland IDC. References to VDC are

the current arrangements for children as far as ChilOut members are aware

as at April 2002. Some arrangements for children in other IDCs might have

changed over time.

Some of the stories

seemed at first, even to ChilOut members, unbelievable. But ChilOut puts

faith in their truthfulness for two primary reasons. Firstly, members

have faith in the honesty of detainees, with whom they have spoken and

with many of whom members have developed long-standing friendships. Secondly,

stories from various IDCs, particularly since immigration detention has

been privately managed, of sub-standard conditions, a seemingly deliberate

policy of humiliating and demoralizing detainees and instances where detention

is clearly punitive, are repeated too often and are too similar in content

to be invented or coincidental isolated incidences. [5]

ChilOut recognizes

that the task of the Commission in collating a clear picture of conditions

within Australia's IDCs is hampered by a lack of transparency in the operations

of management.[6] It is hoped this submission might lend

weight to the body of evidence that Australia's current policy in relation

to asylum seekers who enter Australia without a valid visa is punitive

in effect and is contrary to laws of Natural Justice, Australia's obligations

under various UN conventions and its own state, territory and Federal

child protection legislation.

ChilOut notes that

most of its practical efforts are targeted at VDC, precisely because it

is very accessible to its supporters in Sydney. As the most visited detention

centre, VDC has been made to be the 'showcase' detention centre by DIMIA.

Detainees consider themselves relatively better off at VDC when compared

to their compatriots at the other IDCs. For this reason detainees in VDC

are also more reluctant to participate in any actions that might risk

their being removed from VDC. This includes at times a reluctance to speak

freely and openly, to give details that might risk their 'case'. ChilOut

is aware that it is likely that those detainees most in need of help are

out of reach, located in remote IDCs and denied the visits and communications

available to detainees in VDC. ChilOut also notes that the increase in

visitor numbers at VDC in recent months (through the actions of ChilOut

and other groups/organisations, and more sympathetic media portrayal of

asylum seekers) has led to an improvement in the morale of detainees (this

is supported by direct feedback given to ChilOut by detainees).

Despite the relative

ease of access to detainees at VDC, the collection of information for

this submission was hampered by the overwhelming environment of security

and regulation that prevails within our detention centres. Visitors to

VDC are not allowed to take in dictaphones or other recording devices,

and obvious signs of note taking and /or interviewing taking place between

detainees and visitors can arouse suspicion and result in the intimidating

presence of Australian Correctional Management (ACM) guards.

ChilOut is of the

opinion that one of the most critical factors of all, in relation to the

treatment of children and adults in detention, is the essential conflict

that exists between service provision (i.e. care of detainees) and profit.

ACM, the private organisation that is contracted to manage Australia's

detention centres, answers primarily to its shareholders. This underlines

all of its activities and would appear to influence the type of care provided

to detainees. The most appropriate form of medical treatment or care is

often not provided if it is shown that less expensive alternatives exist.

There are many stories told by detainees, of nurses dispensing Panadol

for all sorts of ailments (serious and otherwise), and detainees being

told to drink more water for a similar range of ailments . [7]

Likewise it is apparent

that costly preventative medical tests and procedures are never performed

on detainees. ChilOut often receives requests from detainees for clothes

as those provided by ACM are only of the most basic type. ACM is eager

to accept offers of assistance from charities and organizations for clothing,

gifts, books, entertainment etc. for detainees as such donations essentially

help the 'bottom line' profitability of ACM. In ChilOut's opinion, it

is often only public pressure and the potential glare of publicity that

compels ACM to fully comply with their contractual duties to detainees.

ChilOut is very grateful

to have the opportunity to submit the following to the Inquiry. The stories

used as the basis of this submission are only some examples of the extraordinary

way Australia treats children and their parents arriving without visas.

This submission has been prepared on the understanding that the Commission

will receive many submissions from professionals and other non-government

and community groups.

ChilOut is also deeply

grateful for the Commission's commitment to confidentiality of names and

details of detainees. One of the difficulties ChilOut faced in preparing

this submission, however, is that there are a comparatively small number

of children and parents living at VDC. Even the most cursory reference

has the potential to reveal the identity of a detainee. The fear experienced

by detainees in relation to being identified as speaking out, except in

some extraordinary cases, is very strong. Consequently, in some of the

stories included in this submission, the real names of the detainee/s

in question has/have been changed (respecting their right for anonymity)

but further verification can be provided on request.

If the Commission

does require further details of cases documented below it should not hesitate

to contact Ms Junie Ong, ChilOut Co-ordinator on 0412 397788 or (02) 9365

2659 who will be able to provide further information.


Access to education

that is age appropriate and comprehensive is essential for the intellectual

and social development of a child.[8] A significant proportion

of children in Australia's IDCs will eventually be integrated into the

Australian community. Of these, most will have spent between six and 36

months in detention.

Almost all will be

children for whom English is their second language. These children released

into the community will bear the scars from persecution and suffering

in their homeland, the often-hazardous journey to Australia and incarceration

once they arrive. It is crucial they be given the opportunity to achieve

the academic standards as children living in the community. It should

be noted that under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),

Australia is obligated to provide education for children regardless of

refugee status and the likelihood of a child's application for refugee

status being accepted. [9]

Children interviewed

at VDC of primary school age reported that they receive English, maths

and art lessons. When asked about other key learning areas of the primary

curriculum such as science, they answered in the negative. [10]

[11] No classes are offered in their culture or language.

[12] The importance of children being taught their first

language, particularly grammar, being crucial to them mastering a second

language, is well documented in educational literature.

For young people

of high school age, only English at a very basic level and art were offered.

The consequences for these young people in not having the opportunity

to achieve educational standards of peers living in community, place them

at even greater risk than younger children who might be able to "catch

up". If integrated into the community, young people will not only

be coping with years of missed educational opportunities but also with

the normal difficulties of adolescence, including social development and

exploring issues of sexuality and relationships.

Primary school children

reported some forms of assessment. Whether this is compatible with assessments

used by the departments of education in each state and territory was unable

to be established.

Ideally, if the

CRC was to be implemented, primary school children would be assessed by

the standardized testing available to other children in the state or territory

such as basic skills testing in NSW. For children recently arrived the

test might need to be modified. It or another comparable test would help

teachers direct the work of the children and be a way to verify that a

comprehensive education was being delivered to children living in IDCs.

One 16 year old girl

said that only English had been offered to her. She is articulate and

obviously very capable, but had been in detention for over 18 months with

no immediate hope of release. [13] She had hoped to

attend university, an unlikely outcome for her in later life due to the

limited access to education while at VDC. [14]

Education is not

compulsory for young people over the age of 15. A young man (17 years)

who has now been in various IDCs for two and a half years does not attend

the English classes available to him. He is angry and frustrated and one

gets the distinct impression that this is one of the few acts of resistance

available to him.

Research indicates

that effective learning for children cannot take place in an environment

where the majority of adults are severely depressed and on medication.

Children in IDCs do not live in an environment conducive to learning.

Rather the detention environment is characterised by lethargy and boredom,

depression, anger, conflict and violence. Children in detention lack the

strong family encouragement for education, and the active interest and

participation by parents that is essential if they are to progress.

Under the convention

young people over 16 years should have access to education or training

that prepares them for work. Particularly for those young people who will

eventually live in the Australian community, this is essential if they

are to become active and independent members of that community. For those

who will be repatriated, such training will enable them to return to their

own country or a third country better prepared for the hardships that

attend re/integration. By all accounts work based training is unavailable

for this group. [15]

An interstate supporter

reported that at another IDC a program was "established" through

which children incarcerated in the IDC were able to attend school in the

local community. However, parents reported being told by ACM staff that

if they allowed their children to attend school externally, the children

would be vilified because the Australian community was "racist"

and had been led to believe that most asylum seekers are "criminals".

As a result, parents, understandably, held their children back from attending

the program. This is just one of the many difficulties ACM, a private

company, seems to have in implementing government policy and programs

for asylum seekers. In this particular case the guards by their discouraging

remarks to the parents, failed to encourage/facilitate the parents' educational

ambitions for their children. They stymied a choice that would have not

only had educational benefits for the children but also allowed them to

escape the oppressive atmosphere of an IDC, experience something approaching

'normality' and engage with Australian children facilitating understanding

on both sides. [16]

Library facilities

have improved at VDC as increased attention has been given to the poor

level of services available to detainees. However resources are limited

in both English texts and culturally appropriate material. [17]

The simplest and

most cost effective remedy for most of these inadequacies in VDC's education

programs would be that children attend schools outside the IDC, as recommended

in the CRC. The NSW Teachers Federation also believes that "it is

essential that school age children be able to attend public schools in

the local area. For example, the Chester Hill Intensive English Centre

and Chester Hill High School are literally across the road from the (Villawood)

Detention Centre and there are a number of nearby primary schools. For

those at least 15 years old, one of the nearby TAFE Colleges may be more

appropriate." [18] However, to date such a program

has not been implemented for children at VDC.


Health of Children

Children at VDC who

have been visited in the recent past appear to be in reasonable physical

health. A nurse is available most days. All referrals to the visiting

doctor must be made through this nurse. Concerns have been raised by parents

who, having requested an appointment with the doctor to see their children,

have been screened out by the nurse. This is one of the many examples

of the difficulties faced by parents living in detention with their children.

As noted in the introduction most of these difficulties arise from the

disempowerment of parents and their inability to access the services they

believe their children need. [19]

In 2001, a 14month

old baby arrived at Woomera IDC weighing11 kg. Seven months later she

weighed 10 kg. Childcare professionals say the descriptions of the condition

of some of the children, even if they were not physically ill, can possibly

be ascribed to a condition known as "failure to thrive". [20]

This baby's 10 year old brother wets his bed four to five times a night.

He has dark rings round his eyes that one would not expect to see on a

normal healthy Australian child.

Tooth extractions

occur on a regular basis if more than the most basic of dental procedures

are required. The reason appears to be that ACM considers any other procedure

would be too costly. [21]


Treatment of Pregnant Women and Mothers

One of the greatest

concerns in relation to sub-standard physical health of parents and children

is the treatment of pregnant women in IDCs. Although the following relates

to women in VDC, the validity of these stories is strengthened by very

similar reports from other IDCs. The details of these examples are deeply

disturbing and again raise questions about the appropriateness of government

policy being "contracted out" to a private organisation, which

clearly has no commitment to appropriate training and awareness of cultural

sensitivities - indeed basic human emotional needs.

A lactating mother

asked if a ChilOut supporter could provide her with some food for her

baby. When asked why she reported that the evening meal was at 5pm and

breakfast was at 7am the next morning. A lactating mother needs to eat

regularly, every 2 to 3 hours during the day, in order to produce enough

milk for her baby and to satisfy the overwhelming hunger so many lactating

women experience. This mother had to resort to stealing food from the

dining room to take back to her room. This was an embarrassment to her,

and caused her some stress.



F and S arrived

in Australia at Ashmore reef in March, 2001, after fleeing persecution

in Iran. F, who had been constantly seasick and suffering abdominal

cramps throughout the five-day voyage, was eventually flown by helicopter

to hospital in Darwin. The couple were later transferred to VDC.

Several months

later, after a difficult pregnancy, F gave birth to a baby in a Sydney

hospital. Her husband was not permitted to be with her. F did not speak

English and no-one on the hospital staff spoke her language.

A suicidal young

mother too ill to care for her baby was left in VDC for nine days until

a top State psychiatrist demanded her release. F was rushed to Bankstown

Hospital in a serious condition after Dr Louise Newman examined her

late March, 2002. A prominent paediatric psychiatrist also examined

the baby on the same occasion. [22]

F's baby remained

behind razor wire, being cared for by her father S, and other detainees.

F was suffering from multiple infections including long-standing gynaecological

problems, dehydration, conjunctivitis, an abscess in one breast, and

severe post-natal depression, Dr Newman said. "F had been prescribed

excessive amounts of medication including sedatives, late last week,

which did not address her post-natal depression, while other conditions

worsened,' Dr Newman said. "She cannot care for her baby. She

is so depressed and weak, she has given up. She is suicidal. "The

stress of being in detention, where outbreaks of violence in a bleak

environment contribute to the stress load of being a first-time mother

in a strange land, is too much."

The baby is exposed

to chronic stress and shows early signs of emotional neglect.' Dr Newman

described the baby as having "hyper-vigilant eyes". F herself

said occasionally she was so sad she had forgotten where she had put

her baby down. The baby readily went to strangers and other detainees

and did not appear to seek her mother out in a group of people. The

baby readily accepted affection from other people and had no fear of


A prominent paediatrician

said F and the baby had not established a close bond, due the extraordinary

stress of detention.

On Monday March

17, F said she went to the Villawood medical centre to keep an appointment

with centre physician Dr Regina Greenwood. F says that despite having

a written appointment slip, she was told she did not have an appointment

and she would have to return on Wednesday. F refused to leave and insisted

she did have an appointment. She said a member of the medical staff

told her ``Well, you can wait here until Wednesday.' Humiliated, F

returned to her room in an agitated state and lashed out in anger, breaking

three windows. S said that night a member of the nursing staff had visited

them and had apologized for the abrupt way F had been treated.

S said his wife,

who had been sad and had cried easily for months, stopped eating and

drinking from March 17, accepting only a little tea daily and was constantly

in a very distressed state, crying continually and hyper-ventilating.

She was too weak to breast feed or care for the baby, he said. She stopped

wanting to care for the baby.

F said her weight,

which was 55kg when she arrived in Australia, almost eight months pregnant,

has dropped to 43kg.

Detainees, including

S, repeatedly telephoned their supporters (in the outside community)

to ask for an ambulance to be sent to VIDC because they felt her condition

was so bad. Many supporters then lobbied ACM and DIMIA for action to

be taken on behalf of F. ChilOut supporters that visited F will testify

to her deteriorated condition at this time. As no action was taken by

ACM or DIMIA, ChilOut had to resort to legal intervention to get clearance

from DIMIA to enable an independent medical opinion on F's condition.

The ACM doctor refused to cooperate with the independent medical team.

ChilOut also believes that NSW Ambulance Service records from this time

would show that requests had been made by supporters of F for an ambulance

to take her to hospital. However it is understood that the ambulance

service could not respond because DIMIA/ACM had not authorised such

action to be taken.

Before Dr Newman

intervened, F was taken twice to the VDC medical clinic, once carried

in a chair by detainees because she was too weak to walk. Despite the

visits to the clinic, she did not improve.

A DIMIA spokesman

said F was not improving because "she refused to self-medicate".

However this is not unusual behavior in someone who is severely depressed

and suicidal, and no account seems to have been taken of her mental

state at the time. In an affidavit tendered to the Federal Court of

Australia last December, to appeal their asylum application rejection,

F told of her fears of trying to bring up her child in detention. "It

is dangerous in here. I have witnessed many times men fighting. [My

baby] saw this too. There is no escaping it," she said. "I

worry (the baby) will be damaged growing up behind bars. At night officers

bother us...they barge in, turn on the lights to see and count. They

are loud and verbally abusive...(the baby) has become a child that wakes

from the slightest sound."

F was also fearful

of the behaviour of other children in VDC who "…are very aggressive

and hit and bite each other".

F remains in Hospital,

receiving psychiatric care. After weeks of separation, her baby has

been allowed to join her and the mother and baby's relationship is much

improved, the paediatric psychiatrist said.

Dr Newman said

F was only now receiving the treatment she deserved in the first place.

"She has a long road to recovery. Long-term psychiatric care looks

probable. "...Mandatory detention is state-sanctioned trauma. The

results are drastically obvious."

This story begs

the question: At what point in is the Australian community responsible

for detainees who are so severely damaged by their incarceration?

'L's story

One of the most

extraordinary stories is that of [name deleted] a woman of Indian extraction

from Malaysia. She overstayed her visa and was detained at VDC. While

there, she fell in love with [name deleted], from [place deleted] She

married [him] and soon fell pregnant. Intelligent and articulate, [she]

expressed her concerns for her unborn child and what would happen to

her family. Authorities told her she would be allowed to have her child

in Australia.

Advanced in her

pregnancy at 8 months, [she] was shaken from her sleep at four in the

morning. Half asleep and confused, she was told she was being deported.

Late into her pregnancy, dishevelled, distressed, still in her nightdress

and shoeless, [she] was transported to the airport. [23]

There was no opportunity to farewell her equally distressed husband,

who was placed in Stage 1, considered the worst of the detainment areas

at VDC. [24]

More generally,

breast-feeding mothers were observed, to be under particular pressure.

Apart from the difficulty in finding quiet, private places, they were

often suffering stress and showed signs of depression. Any woman who

has breast-fed understands the importance of being relaxed when breast

feeding. [25] They would also understand the hunger

that arises when breast-feeding. The unavailability of food between

meals and the prohibition of taking food from the dining room makes

this experience for women very difficult.

For new mothers,

detention is a particularly difficult environment. The lack of support,

feelings of self-doubt, frequently undiagnosed and untreated depression,

disempowerment, feelings of failure and uncertainty make normal bonds

of attachment between mother and child very difficult.

Further, the pressure

placed on the relationship between mother and father/ husband and wife

is severe. Fathers are powerless to access support and assistance for

their wives and children and experience very real feelings of worthlessness

and shame.

Women with gynecological

problems are simply not treated unless their condition is obviously

life-threatening. Again, as with dental treatment, it is considered

too costly.


and Social Development of Children

A day in life of

a detainee is very basic. They wake, eat, either attend limited education

available or simply "kill time". Many of the incidents which

provide some insight into issues of appropriate behaviour, social and

moral development occur during the ritual of meal times and around food,

the most basic of needs.

In detention children

are forced into an environment that does not cater for their needs. [26]

Because there are such significant gaps between meals, adults at one centre

asked if children could take food back to their huts. Guards would not

allow this because they said 'parents would only eat the food themselves'.

The result was that children took to "stealing" food from the

kitchen under their clothing. Children living outside IDCs usually graze

through the day. Children in detention either go hungry or use their own

initiative to access the sustenance they need.

A five year old child

was crying from hunger. His/her parents asked guards if they could have

some food for the child. They were refused. Later that night one of the

other detainees witnessed a female guard taking leftover pies from dinner

for a cat who lived at the Centre.

Many guards seem

unaware that as adults in charge of children they need to role-model appropriate

behaviour and language. It is a sad indictment of Australia's detention

policy that by all accounts the first English words children living in

detention learn are obscenities. This is because these are so commonly

used by guards in communicating with each other and with all detainees.

Ironically, at Port

Headland one observer (a detainee) witnessed a child asking for more food

who had not said "please". The guard's response was to shout,

using obscenities. On occasion, when children were given fruit, guards

would throw the fruit at them, as if the children were animals, rather

than hand it to them. On one occasion a guard threw an apple to an adult

detainee. The detainee threw it back again and a fight broke out. A group

of children witnessed this event and began throwing food at the guard.

When children do

want special foods and their parents are unable to access them for their

children, the children become distressed in a way that would seem completely

exaggerated to an outsider. They have so little ability to control any

part of their lives and their parents have little more.

The food on the whole

is of a poor quality and the types of food do not vary for adults and

children; it does not recognize their special dietary needs. [27]

Safe Places

for Children

In many centres,

particularly in the new arrivals areas at Woomera, Curtain and Port Headland,

there are no special places for children, away from adult conversation

and behaviours. [28]

Most children living

in detention are exposed to regular incidents of violence, abusive language,

all aspects of an adult world from which children living in the community

would be shielded. In many of the other IDCs fighting between ACM guards

and detainees and among detainees, suicide and accidents occur daily.

Apart from problems

to do with basic needs such as eating, children's moral and social development

is stunted by their severely limited lack of physical space. One of the

questions children in IDCs ask, which allows us to understand how life

inside VDC restricts their development is "What is behind the fence?"

Many guards do not

recognize the special needs of children in the way that they behave and

speak with children. [29] Children living in detention

are treated in the same way as adults. One example related to ChilOut

supporters was a small girl who was longingly watching an officer eat

an ice cream in front of her. The guard became angry that the child continued

to focus on his ice cream and told her to "Get lost". The child

began to sob.

A 23 page transcript

of an interview with a now released detainee describes how he witnessed

a burly guard kick a 4-year old toddler away from a fence when she was

playing too close to it .[30]


to Inappropriate Language and Behaviour [31]

More serious allegations

concern children being exposed to inappropriate sexually explicit language

and behaviour. A five year old boy witnessed a male guard and a woman

(the observer was unsure as to whether this was another guard or detainee)

kissing and fondling. The child later asked another child to "Suck

my big penis".

Detainees report

that when guards were in full riot gear, their behaviour changes dramatically.

The language used during periods of unrest when riot gear is in use, is

particularly offensive. In one incident at Port Headland IDC, children

witnessed an aggressive interchange between guards and detainees where

the guards were overheard saying to detainees that they would "…put

our batons up your ass". Children, six and seven, were later found

replicating the behaviour and language of the guards.

In another example

of inappropriate language, two children (aged six and seven) were observed

singing a take on the theme song to Titanic, to a female guard as she

walked past, "Every night I see you, I fuck you…" Her response

to them was "Your dicks are too short for my pussy". When the

observer asked why she had spoken to the children in that way she replied

"I had so say something." This is a simple and yet so very poignant

example of the complete lack of understanding this guard had of the appropriate

way to interact with children. Another adult familiar with children might

have looked shocked, feigned offence and/or counseled them on the inappropriateness

of their language. Yet she chose to interact with them as if they were

part of her peer group. This seems to be a very common observation by

detainees in relation to the way in which most ACM staff interact with

children living in IDCs.

One of the children

at VDC, a young girl, suffers from constant nightmares. This experience

has been communicated to ChilOut members by a number of parents of children

living in detention. One young man, 17 years, who has been living in detention

for two years and eight months, was asked "What do you dream about?"

Until a year ago he said he was still dreaming of home. Since then all

of the dreams he remembers are set inside detention centres and are usually

centred on a plot involving conflict and violence.

One detainee told

of a story relayed to him by a detainee transferred from Port Headland,

about an Afghani woman who had been raped by a guard in front of her child.

ChilOut has no further detail on this incident. The detainee reporting

this story to the author of this submission is well known to ChilOut members

and would be considered by all accounts to be a deeply caring and honest



One of the most difficult

aspects of caring for children in detention for parents is that they are

constantly on tenterhooks about their applications for asylum and their

lack of ability to impact on the circumstances in which they and their

children find themselves. Parents in this environment sometimes struggle

not to extend the anger, frustration and shame they feel into their relationship

with their children.

In witnessing bashings

and violence by guards of detainees, parents are poorly equipped with

answers as to what crime the victim of this violence has committed.

The availability

and wide use of anti-depressants in IDCs is of particular concern. One

of the detainees reported that use of anti-depressants (including valium,

arapax, temazipan and Zoloft) extends to some parents. His observations

were that these medications are freely available, prescribed without counseling

or other ongoing support services and/or follow-up. Again, ChilOut has

no other information about this situation but feels it is an issue that

requires investigation.


Relating to Young People

An area not specifically

covered in the briefing papers but one which arose out of general discussions

with detainees was of the opportunities for adolescents to explore in

any way their developing sexuality and relationships. By all accounts

this was simply not possible in an IDC environment. At VDC, young men

and women in the Centre are physically separated by fencing between blocks.

Apart from having a very limited peer group with which to socialize, private

space does not exist. Regular visitors to Villawood will attest that young

men, 15 to 17, seem particularly depressed, angry, sometimes very withdrawn.

Many will have regular thoughts of suicide. One of the possible reasons

for this is their inability to express their needs or have access to normal

social interactions and environment through which they can develop an

understanding and a sense of themselves as individuals.

Within the restricted

space of VDC there is a visible reminder to the children that their already

severely limited freedom might be taken away altogether. At VDC the romantically

named "Juliet Block" is feared by all of the children. It is

the area young people, mainly young men, are sent to for "time out".

This does not only include violence, but verbal abuse and assisting others

who you believe to be at risk due to action by guards. Children at VDC

largely felt that punishment by being isolated in this block is unjust

and disproportionate to their "crime".

The story of two

young brothers, 15 and 16 at the time shows clearly the inhumanity towards

children, young adults and parents. They went to the aid of a friend and

his father during an altercation with ACM guards. As a result they were

both jailed for 17 days, their parents for three months. The parents and

sons were transported to the various jails while the younger members of

the family, a sister 6 years and brother approximately 10 years at the

time were taken on a picnic. When the little ones returned, they were

joyous because they thought their parents and brothers had finally received

visas. They were soon told by another detainee about what had actually

occurred. The brothers were returned to the IDC only to be placed in an

isolation block for another 17 days by ACM guards before being reunited

with their siblings.



There are currently

no unaccompanied minors living at VDC. However ChilOut has taken a special

interest in this group. Unaccompanied minors are the most vulnerable people

living in detention, particularly in relation to their care and protection

and being able to access their legal rights as minors.

The Submission has

already outlined the difficulties faced by parents in accessing services

for their children, caring for them in an environment dominated by tension

and violence and the risks their children face each day. ChilOut is aware

that care and responsibility for unaccompanied children is sometimes taken

on by other adults or families living in the IDC, but to accept this as

sufficient presupposes that these guardians do or are able to fight for

the rights and needs of these children in the same way their parents might.

The following stories

illustrate clearly the vulnerability of these unaccompanied children.

A young girl with

her little brother are unaccompanied minors in Woomera IDC. For many weeks

after their arrival, the young girl would get dressed, dress her little

brother and they would sit outside waiting for immigration officials to

come and interview them so they would be released. No one ever came. They

were two of the unaccompanied children that just get "screened out"

because they do not know to invoke the magic words to seek asylum, they

just became invisible people. No one knows they are there or could be

there indefinitely. When a visiting lawyer reached out to this young girl,

she just melted into her arms sobbing that no one had held her in such

a long time.

The story below was

received from a supporter in Western Australia.

"I have been

supporting a 16 year old [words deleted] boy from Afghanistan who is

in detention at Port Headland detention centre. I am [words deleted]..

from Iran and a mental health worker and was asked to support him, as

he has been profoundly depressed and suicidal over the last few weeks.

He is unaccompanied, and was sent to Australia by his mother and uncle

to escape persecution from the Taliban. He arrived in a boat in [word

deleted] and has been in detention since then. His father was taken

by the Taliban two years ago and last that he knows he was in [word

deleted] prison, but it looks like that he is now dead. He has no contact

with any of his family. The red cross have told him that they can't

help him find his mother and younger brother who are in [words deleted]…Afghanistan.

He believes that all his family are dead (as there was heavy bombing

in that region) and hence is extremely distressed and has become suicidal

seeing no point in living. Each time I speak to him he cries uncontrollably.

He also has developed a stutter (speech impediment) because the traumas

he has suffered and hence does not fit into the prison environment with

the other children. He has gone on a hunger strike since sat but has

contracted with me that he would not harm himself on great insistence

and pleading from me."


ChilOut has developed

the following recommendations based on evidence presented in its submission.

These are not in any way designed to preempt the findings and recommendations

of the Commission. Rather they are a reflection of ChilOut's understanding

of the major issues facing children and parents living in detention, with

suggested strategies to reduce the ultimately inhumane environment used

to detain asylum seekers in this Nation.

1. Education

1.1 All children

(to 15 years) living in immigration detention should have access and

be strongly encouraged to take up free, comprehensive education in the

community. ACM, and State/Territory/Federal Governments should ensure

that children have all the necessary supports in place for this to be

a safe and positive experience. This includes resources in IDCs for

children to complete work away from the classroom. [32]

1.2 Children should

have access to English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching and resources

and classes in their own language.

1.3 Young people

over 15 years be offered education in a community setting and the support

they need to take up this opportunity.

1.4 Young people

should be offered vocational training in the community, for example

access to TAFE programs with the possibility of accessing higher education.

1.5 Library facilities

need to be comprehensive, including texts in the language groups of

children living in the IDC.

2. Physical Health

of Children

2.1 Parents should

be able to arrange appointments with visiting doctors directly.

2.2 If parents

believe their child requires specialist treatment, a doctor independent

of VDC management should attend.

2.3 Dental care

should be comprehensive, focused on prevention and all interventions

should be appropriate and aimed at children and young people retaining


2.4 Families should

be assigned a caseworker trained in supporting parents and their children,

and external to IDC management, who could monitor and advocate as appropriate

on behalf of the family.

3. The Treatment

of Pregnant Women and Mothers

3.1 All pregnant

women living in IDCs should have access to full antenatal care by a

trained midwife (or obstetrician if the pregnancy or birth are likely

to include complications) who visits the IDC if women are uncomfortable

traveling to the hospital. Ideally some effort would be made to establish

a relationship with midwives likely to attend the birth, especially

if a woman is in Australia without her partner.

3.2 If a woman's

partner is in Australia, in the community or in an IDC, he should attend

the antenatal session and birth with his wife/partner.

3.3 Women should

have a female interpreter available on-site during the entire labour

and birth.

3.4 Women who are

pregnant or breast-feeding should have access to food between meals.

3.5 Women who are

pregnant or breast-feeding should have a diet developed in consultation

with health professionals to ensure that they are receiving necessary

levels of nutrition.

3.6 Babies and

their mothers should have access to baby health clinic services either

on site through a visiting program or in the community. Such a program

would assist in identifying any difficulties the mother might be having

with regard to her new role, her own health and mental health and would

ensure that the child is developing as it should.

3.7 Women should

have access to culturally appropriate care, including specialist care,

in relation to their gynecological health. They should have access to

and be encouraged to use these services. Women seeking these services

and refused by IDCs, should have the option of requesting an independent

assessment of their health needs.

4. Moral and Social

Development of Children

4.1 Children have

access to food between meals

4.2 Food for children

should meet all of their nutritional needs and be of a quality that

encourages healthy eating habits. It should be food children enjoy eating.

4.3 All IDC staff

receive training in dealing with children, including use of appropriate

behaviour and language

4.4 IDC staff involved

directly with children receive specialized training in the special needs

of children.

5. Safe Places

for Children

5.1 IDC staff should

be trained in and required to speak appropriately to children and their

parents, when children are present.

5.2 IDC Staff should

be trained in behaviours appropriate around children. They should be

required to adhere to these at all times and regardless of circumstances.

The well-being of children should be a priority.

5.3 IDC staff should

act professionally in front of children in relation to their relationships

with other staff members and/or detainees.

5.4 Children should

under no circumstances be exposed to incidents that involve full riot

gear worn by guards. Ideally they should be in a safe place at all times,

in which case exposure to violence will be minimized.

5.5 Children should

have access to counseling services. Referrals should be made by independent

doctors and/or social workers.

5.6 Children who

do witness acts of violence should have access to counseling services.

6. Parenting

6.1 Parents should

have access to support services which assist them in parenting their

children, including counseling services.

6.2 Parents should

have all possible opportunities to make decisions about the care and

protection and needs of their children.

7 Young Adults

7.1 Young people

should have access to independent counseling services if and when they

need them.

7.2 Young people

should have opportunities to mix with other people their age in a safe

environment that is age appropriate.

7.3 Young people

should never be isolated in anyway from the family, friends and other

detainees. Isolation is not an appropriate form of punishment. Detention

is not intended to be punitive.

8. Unaccompanied


8.1 Special provisions

should be made for unaccompanied children to ensure that they have a

high level of care and protection and receive the level legal representation

to which they are entitled.


Article 3(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter CRC)

states that: "In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken

by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative

authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall

be a primary consideration". This "best interests" rule

means that children have a right to "grow up in a family environment,

in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding" (Preamble

to the CRC).


The CRC recognises that all actions concerning child asylum seekers must

respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents and families

to provide direction to a child in the exercise of her or his rights (Articles

5, 9 and 18 of the CRC). The CRC recognises the family as "the fundamental

group of society" and recognises children's rights in the context

of parental rights and duties. Furthermore, the UNHCR points out that

"the more trauma or stress the parents or care-taker has been subjected

to, the greater the danger that children risk neglect or abuse".

The same document cautions that care needs to be taken to ensure that

parents are able to nurture their child and that if the parent seems powerless

in detention, "then the child's greater developmental need is for

the parent to receive help" (UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care,


3. Treaties

that have been ratified by Australia, such as the Convention on the Rights

of the Child, are binding on Australia in international law. Such treaties'

implementation in Australia are monitored by United Nations treaty bodies,

such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child or the Human Rights Committee.

However, the fact that Australia has ratified a treaty does not automatically

incorporate it into Australian domestic law. Only when treaty provisions

are incorporated into Australian law do they create enforceable rights

in Australia. However, courts should interpret a law to be consistent

with the provisions of a treaty that Australia has ratified. Other international

documents referred to in this submission such as United Nations Rules,

General Comments by treaty bodies, United Nations High Commissioner for

Refugees guidelines, United Nations General Assembly Declarations and

publications by United Nations agencies are not binding on Australia as

a matter of international law. They are, however, persuasive in interpreting

treaties and contain goals and aspirations reflecting globally accepted

standards of common decency.

4. ChilOut's

submission is focused on children detained at VDC. By all accounts, VDC

seems to be Australia's least inhumane IDC environment. However ChilOut

members in contact with children and parents in other Australian IDCs

regularly email regarding their care and treatment. The stories have been

incorporated into this submission where appropriate and the relevant IDCs


5. In

speaking with former refugees in Australia's IDC or processing centres

as they were referred to prior to privatisation, there is a marked difference

in the treatment of asylum seekers. It would seem that previously the

focus was very much on processing. Since the Federal Government's current

policy's preoccupation with visible deterrence, the nature of treatment

of all detainees by IDC staff has changed.

6. This

lack of transparency in the management of IDCs is in contravention of

Article 3(3) of the CRC which states that: "Parties shall ensure

that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care

or protection of children shall conform with the standards established

by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health,

in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision".

This article requires Australia to set standards and to ensure these standards

are met in all institutions, services and facilities through appropriate

monitoring (see also R. Hodgkin and P. Newell, 1998, Implementation Handbook

for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations Children's

Fund, New York, p45). ChilOut understands that Australia has already introduced

standards for its detention facilities in the form of Immigration Detention

Standards (IDS) outlined in the current (1998) contract and the new 2002

contract. However while DIMIA sometimes undertakes internal reviews of

the private contractor's implementation of these standards it is apparent

that DIMIA is not independent enough. IMIA would appear to have the same

interests as ACM (or whoever shall win the new tender) in minimizing complaints

about IDCs. There is no financial or other incentive to bring complaints

out into the open and no independent body to ensure they are remedied.

At present there is no independent body in Australia charged with monitoring

IDCs with the power to compel changes to detention practices where they

are warranted. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the

Commonwealth Ombudsman as well as Parliamentary committees and Ministerial

advisory groups can inspect detention facilities with prior Ministerial

approval, but cannot compel changes to detention practices. They would

appear to be toothless, token watchdogs while DIMIA in contrast is judge

and jury in assessing its own performance and compelling itself to remedy

any breaches it might find of its own standards.

7. This

is depicted in one of the drawings by children at Woomera IDC (available

on request).

8. Article

29(1) of the CRC opens by stating that "the education of the child

shall be directed" to the "development of the child's personality,

talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential".

The same article stipulates that child asylum seekers must attend primary

school. Primary education should include as a minimum literacy and numeracy

(CRC, General Comment 1, Para 9). In its General Comment on the aims of

education, the Committee on the Rights of the Child states that every

child has a right to an education "designed to provide the child

with life skills, to strengthen the child's capacity to enjoy the full

range of human rights and to promote a culture which is infused by appropriate

human rights values". In paragraph 2 it says, education must be "child-centred,

child-friendly and empowering".

9. The

CRC guarantees the right to education for all children in Australia regardless

of nationality or immigration status and regardless of how the child arrived

in the country. It provides that all asylum seeking children, even those

who have had their applications for refugee status rejected, are entitled

to similar education as other children in Australia. Accepting educational

standards for asylum seekers which are below that of Australian children

would seem to be discriminatory as outlined in the CRC, Concluding Observations

of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Belgium, UN Doc RC/C/15/Add.38,

20 June 1995, Para 9. Also see Concluding Observations of the Committee

on the Rights of the Child: Denmark, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.33, 15 Feb 1995,

Para 14.

10. This

breaches Article 29 of the CRC, education must include literacy, numeracy,

and human rights, democracy and peace education especially for children

fleeing from conflict.

11. Primary

school children living in the community in NSW are taught seven key learning

areas: English, Maths, Personal Development and Health (including sport

and PE), Creative Arts (including drama), Human Society and Its Environment,

Science and Religious Education (scripture in public schools is not compulsory

but must be offered if teachers are available).

12. This

contravenes Article 30 of the CRC, and UNHCR Guidelines on Protection

and Care, Chs4 and 9, which maintain that at least part of the child asylum

seekers' education be in their mother tongue to preserve their cultural


13. The

young woman referred to here is an excellent example of the outcome of

Australia's detention policy. As a minor, she did not choose to come to

Australia and will now be returned to her country of origin, her chances

of rebuilding her life in that country are severely damaged by her limited

access to education during her time in Australia's IDCs. Not only does

Australia have a responsibility under various conventions to provide her

with appropriate access education, as a matter of conscious and of policy

which does not effectively make people who we return to their homelands

to become economic refugees and so continue the cycle.

14. This

contradicts Article 28 of the CRC which states that 'different forms of

secondary education' (including vocational education) must be available

and accessible to every child. It also contradicts Article 30 of the CRC,

and UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, Chs4 and 9, which maintain

that at least part of the child asylum seekers' education be in their

mother tongue to preserve their cultural identity.

15. "Practical

knowledge and skills relevant to economic opportunities should be provided

for older children" (Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch 9). Certainly

higher education is not offered in any form. In not providing this training

Australia is in breach of the CRC. Article 28 (1)point (d) stipulates

that all signatory states will: "Make educational and vocational

information and guidance available and accessible to all children".

It also breaches article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Economic,

Social and Cultural Rights which states that signatories shall take steps

to "include technical and vocational guidance and training programs,

policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural

development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding

fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual".

16. UN

Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, general comment 13,

Para 2 (6) (a).

17. Rule

41 of the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived

of their Liberty provides: "Every detention facility should provide

access to a library that is adequately stocked with both instructional

and recreational books and periodicals suitable for the juveniles, who

should be encouraged and enabled to make full use of it." Furthermore,

under article 28(1)(a) of the CRC from the time of their arrival in Australia,

the child asylum seeker's primary education must be free, including the

provision of necessary books to participate in primary schooling. A similar

provision is also stipulated in the UNICEF Implementation Handbook, p387.

18. Pers

comm. Phil Bradley, Assistant General Secretary of the NSW Teachers Federation.

19. As

in footnote (1), the CRC repeatedly emphasises that States party to the

Convention, such as Australia, shall respect the responsibilities and

duties of parents. See for example Article 5 and Article 18, CRC. On the

particular matter of parents trying to access health care for their children,

IDC staff should be supporting parents in line with the General Comment

14 of the Committee On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, Para 22 on

the need to "ensur[e] access to child-friendly information about

preventive and health-promoting behaviour and support to families and

communities in implementing these practices."

20. International

consensus on standard measurements of a child's health and nutritional

status is by assessing the individual child's growth against standard

weight-for-height, height-for-age and weight-for-age charts such as those

produced by the World Health Organisation, taking into account cultural

and geographic differences in child development. See World Health Organisation,

WHO Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition,,

8 August 2001

21. According

to Rule 49, United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived

of their Liberty, and Rule 22(3), Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment

of Prisoners, Australia should ensure that preventive and remedial dental

health care is available to all child asylum seekers reducing the need

for extractions.

22. In

many of the cases reported by ChilOut supporters, conditions that begin

as issues of physical health ultimately become ones of mental health in

the forms of depression, poor attachment by infants, reoccurring thoughts

of suicide etc.

23. It

is common practice to deport detainees in the early hours of the morning,

when other detainees are asleep and access to legal advice, support and

translation services is severely limited.

24. In

its haste to deport [the woman] the government appears to have contravened

most conventions covering pregnant women which stipulate that appropriate

measures must be taken to ensure their well being (including their emotional

well being) such as Article 24 (2)(d) of the CRC and Article 12 of the

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

On the importance of maintaining a pregnant woman's emotional well being

see UNHCR, Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch4. For an Australian reference

see "The Health of Young Australians" report, endorsed by the

Australian Health Ministers Conference in 1995.

25. Article

24 (2) (d) of the CRC enjoins Australia to provide appropriate post-natal

health care for mothers including support for breastfeeding. UNHCR Guidelines

on Protection and Care, Ch5 states that breastfeeding should be promoted

as "this method of nutrition provides complete, hygienic food for

the healthy growth and development of infants", and includes an obligation

to "promote the stimulation of lactation of mothers..." The

apparent lack of support in Australian IDCs for breastfeeding mothers

contravenes these guidelines. One breastfeeding mother approached visiting

ChilOut members requesting food because of her extreme hunger. ACM's prohibition

of food been taken from that IDC's dining area even for snacks in the

14 hour gap between dinner and breakfast would have contributed to this

woman experienced by this woman.

26. According

to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Guidelines

on Protection and Care, Ch 5 the cultural acceptability, palatability

and digestibility of the food provided to refugee children must be considered,

in addition to its nutritional quality.

27. According

to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Guidelines

on Protection and Care, CH 5 the cultural acceptability, palatability

and digestibility of the food provided to refugee children must be considered,

in addition to its nutritional quality.

28. Article

37 of the CRC states that "every child deprived of liberty shall

be separated from adults" although of course still maintaining "contact

with his or her family..." While UNHCR Guidelines do not specify

that children and their families must be separated from single adult detainees

they do imply that they be free to remove themselves if they so wish.

For example the UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, ch5 provide that

children and families must have sufficient space to allow them a minimum

degree of privacy in order to maintain some semblance of family life.

Detention facilities should be designed with a view to ensuring families'

and children's personal security. Also the lack of spaces specific to

children also contravenes Article 31(1) of the CRC that stipulates that

age-appropriate play and recreational spaces and activities be provided

for children.

29. There

appears to be very little direction given in international conventions

on appropriate training for staff guarding children in detention. This

may be because of the expectation that children will be kept in detention

as a last resort and for the shortest possible time (two expectations

that Australia clearly ignores). However it is clear from the evidence

presented in this submission that staff in Australian IDCs are woefully

ill-equipped to look after children. The alleged continuing degrading

treatment of children by IDC guards means that Australia fails to meet

minimum international standards on humane detention of children which

prohibit the ill-treatment of children. Article 37 of the CRC provides

that: " No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman

or degrading treatment or punishments" The prohibition of torture

or ill-treatment is also found in article 7 of the ICCPR and in articles

1 and 2 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or

Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). It contravenes repeated injunctions

to put child asylum seekers well being ahead of any other consideration

including the cost of training staff. The Committee on the Rights of the

Child, Guidelines for Periodic Reports, Para 35, stipulates that the "best

interests" of the child be put before "budgetary allocations".

The one place training is mentioned is in UNHCR guidelines on Unaccompanied

Children (Para 5.7) which state that the appointed guardian of unaccompanied

minors "should have the necessary expertise in the field of child-caring

so as to ensure that interests of the child are safeguarded...".

However as far as ChilOut is aware, the official guardian of unaccompanied

minors in Australian IDCs, the Minister for Immigration, lacks any formal

qualifications in the field of childcare.

30. Available

on request.

31. Because

Australia has decided to detain children, it is directly responsible under

Article 19(1) of the CRC to ensure that it takes "all appropriate

legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect

the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse,

neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including

sexual abuse". Article 34 of the Convention requires Australia to

"protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual


32. For

example it would not be appropriate for children to travel to school in

a vehicle with uniformed guards.


Updated 9 January 2003.