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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

the Uniting Church in Australia


Prepared by National

Social Responsibility and Justice and UnitingCare Australia on behalf

of the Uniting Church in Australia

3 May 2002


Executive Summary

The Uniting Church

in Australia welcomes the opportunity to discuss a number of issues relating

to children in immigration detention.

This submission addresses

some of the issues and questions raised in the background papers prepared

by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and in relation

to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and

its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention). The conclusions drawn

in this submission arise out of the experiences of staff and members of

the Uniting Church in Australia. We do acknowledge that the evidence presented

here is therefore anecdotal. It is also unable to be sourced because those

sources risk losing access to the detainees if they are named.

The Uniting Church

in Australia believes that Australia is in breach of its obligations as

a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the

Refugee Convention. Reports to the National Assembly from its members

and staff indicate that, contrary to Article 19 of the Convention,

Australia has not taken '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, while in the care

of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of

the child.' In fact, Australia has legislated in such a way that exposes

child asylum seekers to such circumstances and treatment. Australia has

not acted with the 'best interests of the child' as a 'primary consideration'

(Article 3 (1) of the Convention). Australia has not acted to 'ensure

the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being'

(Article 3(2)) but rather has acted in a manner which has seriously affected

the well-being of children. Australia has breached Article 2 of the Convention

by discriminating against asylum seeker children just because they and/or

their parents or guardians are asylum seekers. And as long as Australia

continues to exercise a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for child

asylum seekers it will also remain in breach of Article 37 which states

that the detention or imprisonment of children should only ever 'be used

as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of

time'.

Recommendations

The Uniting Church

in Australia recommends that the Federal Government end the policy of

indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers and also recommends

the immediate formation and implementation of an alternative policy for

the processing of refugee claims. Indefinite detention should be replaced

by a form of reception processing for initial health, security and identity

checks which should take as little time as possible. Asylum seekers (other

than those who have proven to be a security risk) should then be released

into the community while their claims for refugee status are assessed.

There are many successful models of such community release programs available

for examination.

If, however, the

Government persists with mandatory detention for asylum seekers, the Uniting

Church recommends that all children and their families (not just children

and their mothers) be released immediately.

We also recommend

that the Federal Government:

  • appoint trained

    guardians who can advocate and care for unaccompanied minors and assign

    them to care for a child as soon as he or she is identified as an unaccompanied

    minor;

  • provide for the

    education of child asylum seekers within the local community;

  • improve health

    services to children and their families seeking asylum in detention

    or in the community;

  • expedite the

    processing of claims for refugee status;

  • ensure that all

    refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to facilities, benefits,

    assistance, information, community networks and legal advice immediately

    upon arrival within Australia and upon release;

  • ensure that unaccompanied

    minors and families released from detention are sent to places appropriate

    for their circumstances and assigned suitable and professionally qualified

    case workers;

  • abolish the Temporary

    Protection Visa subclass 785.

Introduction

The Uniting Church

in Australia

The Uniting Church

in Australia, an organic union of three denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian

and Congregational), was inaugurated in 1977. Its foundation document,

the Basis of Union shows the Church seeks to bear witness to God's call

for the continuing renewal and reconciliation of all creation. [1]

The Uniting Church

in Australia (UCA) is involved in God's work in many ways. We provide

services to address social and spiritual needs within the community in

a way that embodies our core values. We offer, among other things:

  • opportunities

    for spiritual development and worship

  • community services
  • education
  • health services

We also engage in

debate about the future of Australia. These things help us live out our

core beliefs as Christians. We must help bring about a society which honours

God and values others and all creation. The Uniting Church committed itself

to this at its inauguration in 1977. In the statement to the nation we

pledged 'to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self

interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of persons everywhere -the

family of the One God -the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth (John 10:38)

the one who gave His life for others.' [2]

The Uniting Church

believes that every individual is equal before God regardless of background.

The Church considers that the world is a community in which all members

are responsible for each other and the strongest have a special responsibility

for the vulnerable. Christianity teaches that all humanity will be judged

by its attitude to neighbours, visitors and strangers. Christians believe

that Australians should show concern for the suffering because Christ

first loved us. [3]

In the context of

the issues surrounding Australia's refugee and asylum seeker policies,

we reflect on the words of Jesus. He spoke of a new community established

on righteousness and love, and based on a fellowship of reconciliation

-a community in which all members work together for the good of the whole

[4]. In essence, working for this kind of society is

our contribution to civil society [5]. When we work for

freedom, human rights and the common good of the community we are expressing

our faith. It is an outworking of the community of God. We live in a time

of transient refugee populations. As global conflict grows, so does the

number of displaced persons. As a community of faith and as Australians

we are distressed about the impact this has on individuals and communities.

The Uniting Church

and Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Since its inauguration,

the Uniting Church in Australia has been involved in:

  • providing services

    to asylum seekers within Australia

  • advocating to

    government on their needs

Services have tended

to emerge in response to local needs. They are a manifestation of the

gospel principle to welcome the stranger. The UCA is involved in many

ways. For example, we provide:

  • settlement services

    to newly arrived asylum seekers

  • help with accommodation

    and basic needs

  • English classes
  • orientation of

    new arrivals to local communities and help to integrate into the local

    communities

  • advocacy on behalf

    of individual asylum seekers to the Australian Government

  • chaplaincy services

    (unofficially to detention centres)

  • pastoral visitors

    at detention centres

  • migration services

We also:

  • advocate for changes

    in Australia's current immigration policy

  • seek to change

    attitudes to asylum seekers

  • ask questions

    about the causes of conflict in the world that result in people needing

    to seek asylum

The UCA is deeply

concerned about Australia's current immigration policy, particularly the

mandatory and indefinite detention of children in immigration detention

centres. We believe that the current policies and practices fail to uphold

Australia's commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child

(1989), the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951)

and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention).

Living in a Prison

Environment

The Uniting Church

believes that the conditions in immigration detention centres are worse

than in those of Australia's gaols. We believe that with the mandatory

and arbitrary indefinite detention of child asylum seekers, Australia

is in breach of Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child

(the Convention) which states that, 'No child shall be deprived of

his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily…and [detention] shall

be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate

period of time.'

The children in Australia's

detention centres have committed no crimes, yet they are incarcerated

behind fences of razor wire and locked gates. Their movements are controlled

by officers in uniform. The children are exposed to talk of escapes, attempted

escapes, riots, incidents of self-harm and violence that are all a result

of the inhumane conditions and the hopelessness suffered by their parents

and other adults.

The facilities

are jails. Visitors have to be tagged, scanned and assessed before being

allowed in. Even the centre in Sydney's suburban Villawood is surrounded

by double cyclone fencing, filled with four-metre high razor wire. In

appearance, the remote centres are similar to prisoner-of-war camps. Surrounded

by the cyclone fencing and barbed wire, they are divided into fenced compounds

with runways in between, so that facilities can be shut down or locked

up at short notice. [6]

Case

study 1

A

local resident of Port Hedland had formed a relationship with a family

in the Port Hedland detention centre and began visiting them. The family

had two children and the youngest, a girl of 5, had just started school.

The family were very pleased that their daughter was beginning to learn

English. The parents, keen to show off to the visitor their daughter's

English language skills, encouraged her to say something in English. The

little girl spoke to the visitor: "Officer, will you please open

the gate." This was her first English sentence!

The detention centre

environment is dehumanising for both adults and children. In detention

centres it has been common practice that the detainees are known to the

officers by number rather than by name. Detainees are also referred to

by numbers and addressed by their number. This breaches Article 37 (3)

of the Convention which states that all children that have to be detained

should be treated with dignity and humanity.

…Unlike criminals

who have been extended the full protection of the law before being incarcerated,

and who, as prisoners, are exposed to significant checks and balances

which have been built up over time reflecting decisions of the courts

and community expectations, immigration detainees appear to have lesser

rights and are held in an environment which appears to involve a weaker

accountability framework. [7]

Case

study 2

At

the Port Hedland Christmas concert in December all the children were to

be given Christmas presents donated by Mission Australia. The children

were all dressed up in their best clothes - girls in frilly dresses and

boys in long pants and clean shirts. They sat excitedly in the middle

of the quadrangle waiting for the gifts to be distributed. When the gifts

were given out all the children were called forward by number to receive

their gifts.

Australia's immigration

detention centres are not appropriate places for children to be under

any circumstances. Article 2 of the Convention states that all children

have a right to enjoy the rights set out in the Convention without discrimination

and that children have the right to be protected against all forms of

discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status of their parents

or family members. The Church believes that Australia is in breach of

this article of the Convention because the policies of the Federal Government

deny them their rights because of their status as asylum seekers or because

their parents are asylum seekers. This is discrimination.

Violence and the

Risk of Sexual Abuse

Detention centres

are violent environments. There are times when detainees become so distressed

that violence erupts - they self-mutilate, attempt suicide, fight with

each other, attack officers and destroy property. At times there are riots

to which Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) staff respond with

full riot gear, including batons and water canons. Children cannot be

shielded from this violence. They are exposed to it on a daily basis and

it is has a serious effect on their mental health. This is evidenced in

their behaviour - they begin acting in violent and aggressive ways towards

each other, teachers and staff or they internalise the anger and violence,

becoming increasingly withdrawn.

The children's daily

lives and the lives of their families and other detainees are controlled

by ACM staff. This loss of control of one's own life and loss of liberty

in these circumstances, when no crime has been committed, is a form of

violence in itself. Were Australian children living in such circumstances

child protection laws would be enacted.

Children in detention

centres are also exposed to an unacceptable risk of sexual abuse. Within

detention centres the majority of detainees are men without partners.

In any community, there are a percentage of child sexual offenders. The

children in immigration detention cannot be kept separate from adult men.

They eat meals with them and socialise with them. Although single men

are not permitted to enter the family accommodation blocks without the

invitation of a family, and then only in the daytime, and children are

never allowed to enter the men's accommodation blocks, this has proven

impossible to police, and does not protect children from inter-familial

sexual abuse. Children with little to do run around the centre and often

run through the men's blocks. Officers, if they find them there, will

remove them, but it is simply impossible to keep them out all the time.

This situation is unacceptable because it exposes the children to a high

risk of sexual abuse from men who are themselves traumatised, angry and

depressed.

Health and Nutrition

The Uniting Church

believes that children in detention centres are traumatised children.

They have been traumatised before their arrival in detention and their

trauma continues in detention. In their home country they may have witnessed

violence and barbarism and their families may have been subject to persecution

and violence. Because of these horrific circumstances they have been forced

to flee secretly from their homeland, leaving behind family and friends,

living in fear for their lives, hiding in foreign lands and finally enduring

what, for many, is the terrifying experience of the boat journey to Australia.

Their experiences

of immigration detention - living in a prison, being exposed to violence

and various forms of dehumanising treatment, experiencing the loss of

all dignity and living with uncertainty and fear (not knowing how long

they will have to stay in detention, not knowing whether they will be

sent home to face further persecution or sent somewhere else) - impact

severely on the health of all asylum seekers, especially the children.

Children also suffer

transferred trauma from their parents, The fear, anguish and hopelessness

suffered by adults communicates itself to children who feel that their

carers are unable to protect them. This is deeply disturbing to children

and leads to feelings of deep insecurity.

The universal experience

of Uniting Church members visiting the detention centres in many different

capacities is that the high level of trauma suffered by these children

is not recognised by the ACM staff or by DIMIA. Trauma counselling services

have been minimal and staff have obviously not been trained in managing

and assisting such damaged people. A recent program on the ABC's Lateline

program highlighted the poor training staff receive and their consequent

inability to manage any crises in the centres. [8]

Article 39 of the

Convention states that all appropriate measures should be taken to 'promote

physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child

victim'. The Uniting Church believes that Australia is in breach of this

article of the Convention. Not only are the medical and health services

provided in the detention centres inadequate but the conditions contribute

to the trauma already suffered by children. Instead of an opportunity

to improve their well-being, the health of these children in fact deteriorates

in detention. The Australian Federal Government has given no indication

that it understands that it is contributing to the growth and development

of deeply disturbed adults.

Sleep and Food

Children are also

affected in important ways by issues such a sleep deprivation. In particular,

the practice of conducting random night patrols by uniformed guards with

torches can have severe effects on children who are already dealing with

substantial experiences of trauma, both prior to and while in detention.

Meal times in Immigration

Detention Centres are set by the management of the centre and there is

no flexibility in these. This is of greatest concern for the very young

whose nutritional needs require more frequent meals than the set times

allow. It is a further concern that children have to eat food that is

not prepared by their parents, queue for that food and eat on that schedule

or not at all. There has been a report of parents of an eight month old

baby being told by guards that "they were 'there to look after adults

so there was no baby food.'"[9] The right of parents

to care for their children in this fundamental way has been taken from

them and this places great stress on the family as a whole and on the

parents in particular.

Recreation

While some attempts

have been made to provide recreation for the children (visits to the local

parks and swimming pools, trips to the beach and shopping excursions)

the reality is that 80 per cent of all detainees are imprisoned in very

remote locations and there are extremely limited recreational opportunities.

Even within the centres, opportunities and resources for healthy play

and recreation are limited. In Woomera, temperatures reach 45 degrees

Celsius during the day, and often fall below freezing at night. There

are no flowers or grass. While there are some playground activities, there

are no separate indoor playrooms for the children. This means they have

to compete with the adults who are equally bored and in need of entertainment.

Children in immigration

detention do not have any contact with children outside of detention so

their experiences of healthy play and opportunities to develop healthy

peer groups are limited. The children in detention are bored, stressed

and traumatised which among things, results in mischievous and disruptive

behaviour.

Case

study 3

"I

was once called in by the ACM manager to deal with a situation of children

who had become uncontrollable. They were throwing stones at officers,

climbing trees and fences and falling off and injuring themselves, fighting

with each other, refusing to go to bed at night, etc. He wanted me to

tell the parents that they needed to control their children better. After

talking with the mothers I concluded the cause of the problem was the

children had nothing to do- were just plain bored so were making their

own entertainment. I suggested more teachers and smaller classes in school,

more recreation for children, more childcare. The response from the ACM

manager was that he agreed that this might help the situation but all

of this would cost money and that would mean less profit for the share

holders in America."

Children with

Disabilities

The experience of

Uniting Church members in detention centres around the country is that

the care provided for children with disabilities is at best woefully inadequate.

The Church is concerned that there are children suffering in the centres

whose disabilities remain undiagnosed and untreated. The story included

below is the most extreme case the Uniting Church is aware of, and raises

serious concerns.

Case

study 4

Currently

in detention at Port Hedland is a family, a single mother and her four

children. Three of these children have disabilities. The family has been

in detention for almost two years. The stress on the mother is very great.

The three children suffer with multiple disabilities - intellectual, physical

and social. The two boys are hyperactive, have a very short attention

span, suffer speech disorders, are physically uncoordinated, intellectually

disabled and have no sense of personal boundaries. They will, for example,

kiss, hug and sit on the knee of men in the centre, behaviour which puts

them at risk of sexual abuse. The girl is highly withdrawn and appears

to be possibly autistic, or deeply depressed, or severely intellectually

disabled, or all of the above.

No

external assessment has ever been carried out on these children. They

are obviously in need of specialist services such as speech therapy, physiotherapy,

occupational therapy and possibly medication. They need to be attending

a special school. The mother and oldest daughter require a great deal

of information and support about how to care for them. The children attend

school in the centre only intermittently as the behaviour, especially

of the boys, is so disruptive that they are often excluded from the school

by the teachers. The boys are continually in trouble with other detainees

and at times the mother has been verbally and physically abused by other

detainees because of her inability to control these children.

Despite

numerous requests for these children to receive external assessment from

experts in disabilities, this has never happened. It is unclear why this

is so. Perhaps it is because DIMIA would have to pay the relevant Western

Australian government departments and is unwilling to do so. Or perhaps

it is because ACM do not know how to access these services.

Education (in

Port Hedland IRPC)

Article 22 of the

Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees states that

refugees should be accorded 'the same treatment as is accorded to nationals

with respect to education'. Australia is in clear breach of the Refugee

Convention at this point. The following information about the situation

at Port Hedland is provided as evidence of this breach. Whatever opportunities

are provided in detention centres are far below what Australian citizens

would regard as acceptable educational opportunities for their children.

In the Port Hedland

Immigration Reception and Processing Centre there is a school which provides

education for the children. This operates from 9:00-12:00 and 1:00-2.30

daily. The Uniting Church has some serious concerns about the quality

of education provided in this Centre.

At Port Hedland,

qualified teachers are employed on short-term six-week contracts. ACM

does this because the number of children in the centre varies greatly

and they do not want to be tied in to employment of large numbers of teachers

when there are only a few children. This allows them the flexibility to

employ more teachers when the number of children increases and fewer teachers

when the numbers decrease. Australian resident teachers are, therefore,

unlikely to take up these temporary positions, and in fact, the Uniting

Church has noticed that many of the teachers seem to be from overseas,

for example from Ireland and Germany, and suspects that they are on working

holidays in Australia. The education of children who are incarcerated

for long periods of time long-term is constantly disrupted and consequently

there is no hope of the children forming any healthy relationships with

the teachers. The Uniting Church believes the student-teacher relationship

is one that is crucial to the well-being of any child but could be of

even greater significance within the detention centres.

As would be expected

there are children in detention who, because of the severe trauma they

have suffered and continue to suffer, exhibit significant behavioural

problems. Classes can be difficult to handle under the best circumstances

and are a challenge even for experienced teachers - children exhibiting

this degree of trauma require teachers with specialist qualifications.

The problems are often exacerbated because adult detainees who are employed

as teacher aides often find themselves left in charge of the classes.

While it is helpful for the children to have someone in the classroom

who understands their language and culture, it is not appropriate to have

untrained and inexperienced people left in charge of the classes. These

people struggle to cope with the children's behaviour and have enormous

difficulty preparing interesting and useful lessons.

The children in detention at Port Hedland all have vastly differing educational

needs. Those who come from Afghanistan, particularly the girls, have often

had no education at all before arriving in Australia. They are illiterate

in their own language and have be taught how to hold a pen and how to

open a book. Other children, especially from Iraq and Iran, have attended

school and may be literate in their own language. What these children

need are highly experienced, highly trained, specialist teachers - not

travelling tourists, temporary teachers and untrained classroom assistants

who are often left to manage on their own.

Access to materials

in the Port Hedland school is severely limited. ACM seems to spend the

bare minimum on materials for the children. A packet of crayons is shared

between 3 children. At times the teachers do not even have white board

markers to write on the board. There are no textbooks. There are a limited

number of children's books, all donated by supporters on the outside.

Teachers do not have access to a photocopier, so are not able to photocopy

worksheets for the children. The focus of the education offered is on

English language training, with little emphasis on other areas. A music,

drama and art program is now being provided for the children by a volunteer

from the community. All musical instruments and art materials have been

donated by people in the community - none are provided by ACM.

There is also a problem with security of even the meagre resources in

the Port Hedland detention school. Community groups and local primary

schools have donated books and resources, but they disappear very quickly.

Musical instruments have also been donated and are now lost. Three keyboards

and 60 recorders have disappeared. There seems to be no system in place

to ensure the security of such valuable teaching resources.

The Uniting Church

is extremely concerned by the poor educational facilities and opportunities

offered to children in detention and doubts that Australia is meeting

its obligations to Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention.

The Uniting Church would support any moves to provide education within

the Australian community for these children by teachers who were trained

to handle their special needs. In Western Australia, however, the Education

Department refuses to accept that they have any responsibility for the

education of children in detention centres, claiming that this is a Federal

responsibility. The local Catholic school would be willing to accept them,

but must receive school fees in order to pay teachers etc. and DIMIA seems

unwilling to pay these fees. The parents of these children are constantly

asking whether it is possible for their children to attend "normal

schools" in the community. It is a tragedy that so far, in Port Hedland,

the answer is "no".

Childcare

In Port Hedland no

childcare is provided for parents who have young children. Even a few

hours a day of childcare would be a great help. Parents, often suffering

trauma and depression themselves, are left with the responsibility of

caring for their children in a highly stressful environment with no support.

Children are stressed and often bored and get into trouble. ACM expects

parents to take full responsibility for the care of their children and

are blamed when things go wrong. It would be a great help to parents if

they were free of child care responsibilities for a couple of hours a

day, in order to care for themselves and recover their equilibrium, so

that they are better able to care for their children in the long term.

Family Life

Article 14 of the

Convention states that the rights and duties of the parents 'to provide

direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner

consistent with evolving capacities of the child' shall be respected.

Australia is in breach of its obligations to meet this requirement. All

hopes of a decent family life are stripped away by the conditions in immigration

detention centres. Parents do not have the ability to care for their children

when they are hungry or sick, naughty or bored. They do not have the opportunity

to raise their children in a manner appropriate to their culture and heritage.

They cannot take them out to play. They cannot clothe them. They cannot

protect them from physical and emotional harm and maybe worst of all,

they cannot protect them from their own depression, trauma and despair

(as is evidenced in the case below).

Child Welfare

in Curtin and Port Hedland

Under Western Australian

legislation, Family and Children's Services has the responsibility for

child protection and welfare in the state. But FACS refuses to accept

this responsibility for children in detention, saying that they are the

responsibility of the Federal Government. This leaves DIMIA as the authority

with the responsibility for ensuring children are protected and cared

for. The Uniting Church is greatly concerned by this conflict of interest.

There have been occasions when ACM officers have reported to FACS alleged

cases of child abuse by parents. On one occasion a mother who had become

mentally ill abandoned her baby on the doorstep of the medical centre

and refused to take it back.

When this happens there are no clear procedures for dealing with this

situation. In the case above FACS did agree to take the baby into foster

care on a temporary basis but made it very clear that it was not their

responsibility to care for this child at all. But who is responsible for

this?

ACM have one staff member whose total responsibility is child welfare.

Any issues of child abuse or neglect are reported to her. She will at

times liaise with FACS about how to handle the situation. Our concern

is that this ACM staff member has had no training in welfare studies or

childcare and is totally inexperienced in the field. This is clearly inadequate.

Unaccompanied

Minors

Based on first-hand

anecdotal accounts by Uniting Church members who regularly visit the detention

centres, the Uniting Church is very concerned for well-being of unaccompanied

minors in detention centres. They are an especially vulnerable group and,

as more and more of them are released, the situation becomes increasingly

dire for those who are left. Many were already in the workforce in their

home countries and have become very street wise from their experiences

of escaping persecution. Many do not attend even the limited schooling

offered in the centres as they consider themselves to be beyond schooling.

Under guidelines

issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, all unaccompanied

minors should be assigned an independent guardian who can advocate on

behalf of the child and take responsibility for his or her welfare [10].

The Minister for Immigration has repeatedly denied that Australian legislation

provides for that guardianship to be held with his office. Whether this

is actually the case or not, the Uniting Church believes that because

of a failure to appoint such independent guardians the State has become,

in practice, the de facto guardian. This means that these children have

a guardian (legal or otherwise) who doubles as their gaoler. A recent

incident in Port Hedland highlights the problems created by such a conflict

of interest. In March this year two boys aged 15 and 16 years, both unaccompanied

minors, were directed by DIMIA to have their wrists x-rayed. On the basis

of consequent bone density analysis it was determined that these boys

were 19 years of age. They were reclassified as adults and moved into

the single men's accommodation block. The direction to perform such tests

on these boys and the consequent actions taken by DIMIA were certainly

not in the best interest of the children and there is no-one responsible

for helping them to challenge the results.

The Uniting Church

recommends that independent guardians be trained and appointed to represent

the best interests of unaccompanied minors in detention. The chidl's guardian

should be present whenever the child is interviewed by DIMIA, should be

able to help the child access specialist legal services and should check

on their welfare on a regular basis. This having been said, we do not,

however, support the continued incarceration of any unaccompanied minors.

The following story shows just how vulnerable unaccompanied minors are

and how in need they are of special protection.

Case

study 5

Before

Christmas money was raised to provide each unaccompanied minor in Port

Hedland with a new set of clothes. A member of the support group took

one of the boys to K Mart to choose his new clothes. As they were shopping,

he said to her, "You remind me of my mother. I have lost my mother

- I don't know where she is. My father is dead and I think my brother

is too. I have lost my family. Will you come and visit me because I need

to cry?"

Conclusion

When he [Jesus]

came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue

on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll

of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found

the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because

he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim

release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the

oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'

Luke 4:16-19

In conclusion, the

Uniting Church offers these voices and the following case study. The voices

come from children at Villawood and the case study contains within it

nearly all the concerns addressed in this submission.

Seventeen year old boy held in detention over two years:

'I have to get out of here or I have to die. I can't stay here any longer.'

Sixteen year old boy who recently spent his third successive birthday

in detention:

'I am like a bird in a cage. My friends who went to other countries are

free'.

One of his drawings was of an egg with a boot hovering above it ready

to crush it. Pointing to the egg he said, 'These are the babies in detention

centres'.

An eleven-month-old breastfed girl who cannot speak yet and has been in

detention since before she was born has been separated from her mother

who has been admitted to hospital suffering a mental and physical breakdown.

This baby remains in detention with her father.

Case

study 6

Mina

is a 16 year old Iranian girl who arrived at Christmas Island in early

2000 on an Indonesian fishing boat with her parents and two brothers.

The family were sent to Woomera Detention Centre which Mina describes

as "hell". Her family came with the hope of a future free from

persecution but were placed in detention. Her family shared a hut with

another family so there was no privacy. The weather was extremely hot,

the compound barren and dusty with no trees or flowers. There was nothing

to do, no access to newspapers, no outside contact. The family were moved

to Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing Centre and then were

transferred to Villawood. Mina does not know why they were transferred

but is happier at Villawood because the living conditions are better,

there are trees and grass and visitors are allowed. I met Mina on my first

visit to Villawood in December 2001 when she had been in detention centres

for twenty-two months. During the past several months I have visited her

seven times. She speaks English so was able to tell me her story as well

as be an interpreter for others.

There

are ten children and young people at Villawood IDC ranging in age from

ten months to seventeen years. Mina is the only teenage girl there. She

told me that she feels isolated amongst the many hundreds of adults. Her

days are spent with the women. She cannot have a normal adolescence. She

does not have schooling. There are no shopping trips, no cooking with

her mother, no access to the pursuit of hobbies and interests. She is

called by loud speaker to muster for meals and to be counted.

For

the past two years and two months Mina has been living in a state of uncertainty.

She has not committed a crime but is in detention behind razor wire. She

does not have a release date. She is being supervised by guards trained

in correctional management. She lives in a climate of fear with depressed,

despairing people. There have been acts of violence including riots, a

suicide and the forced removal for deportation of a pregnant woman without

her husband. Mina has seen her parents, who arrived in Australia with

hope, become prisoners without hope and without any power to protect their

children. At a vulnerable time in Mina's life she has lost over two years

of her normal adolescent development. Many people are concerned about

Mina. She has been reported to DOCS as a young person at risk because

of her situation. Her case was presented to Mr Ruddock and in early March

2002, Mina was given permission to be released from detention. She is

allowed to go to a foster family if one can be found but her parents do

not want her to live with strangers so she remains confined. Mina is resigned,

with quiet dignity, to her uncertain future. She is just one of the victims

of our policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

30

March 2002

The Uniting Church

in Australia believes that Australia is in breach of its obligations as

a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee

Convention. Reports to the National Assembly from its members and staff

indicate that, contrary to Article 19 of the Convention, Australia has

not taken '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, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s)

or any other person who has the care of the child.' In fact, Australia

has legislated in such a way that exposes child asylum seekers to such

circumstances and treatment. Australia has not acted with the 'best interests

of the child' as a 'primary consideration' (Article 3 (1) of the Convention).

Australia has not acted to 'ensure the child such protection and care

as is necessary for his or her well-being' (Article 3(2)) but rather has

acted in a manner which has seriously affected the well-being of children.

Australia has breached Article 2 of the Convention by discriminating against

asylum seeker children just because they and/or their parents or guardians

are asylum seekers. And as long as Australia continues to exercise a policy

of indefinite mandatory detention for child asylum seekers it will also

remain in breach of Article 37 which states that the detention or imprisonment

of children should only ever 'be used as a measure of last resort and

for the shortest appropriate period of time'.

The Uniting Church

in Australia believes that child asylum seekers in immigration detention

centres in Australia are suffering an extreme loss of dignity and respect.

Their human rights are being violated, they are losing their childhood

and their innocence. They are being exposed to conditions and experiences

that would not be found acceptable in any other area of Australian life.

Not only is Australia in breach of its obligations under international

treaties and protocols but also is in breach of its moral and ethical

responsibility to provide the best possible care for all children. It

is imperative for the short and long-term well-being of child asylum seekers

that they and their families are immediately released into the community

with appropriate qualified support services made available to them.

Recommendations

The Uniting Church

in Australia recommends that the Federal Government end the policy of

indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers and also recommends

the immediate formation and implementation of an alternative policy for

the processing of refugee claims. Indefinite detention should be replaced

by a form of reception processing for initial health, security and identity

checks which should take as little time as possible. Asylum seekers (other

than those who have proven to be a security risk) should then be released

into the community while their claims for refugee status are assessed.

There are many successful models of such community release programs available

for examination.

If, however, the

Government persists with mandatory detention for asylum seekers, the Uniting

Church recommends that all children and their families (not just children

and their mothers) be released immediately.

We also recommend

that the Federal Government:

  • " appoint

    trained guardians who can advocate and care for unaccompanied minors

    and assign them to care for a child as soon as he or she is identified

    as an unaccompanied minor;

  • provide for the

    education of child asylum seekers within the local community;

  • improve health

    services to children and their families seeking asylum in detention

    or in the community;

  • expedite the processing

    of claims for refugee status;

  • ensure that all

    refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to facilities, benefits,

    assistance, information, community networks and legal advice immediately

    upon arrival within Australia;

  • ensure that unaccompanied

    minors and families released from detention are sent to places appropriate

    for their circumstances and assigned suitable and professionally qualified

    case workers;

  • abolish the Temporary

    Protection Visa subclass 785.

 

Postscript: Children

out of Detention

Rationale

The Uniting Church

in Australia believes that the time spent in immigration detention centres

will continue to impact the lives of children upon their release and for

the rest of their lives. We will better understand the problems and issues

for children in detention if we can also gain a picture of how children

who have been in detention cope with life outside of detention. For this

reason we add this postscript - a report of the work and experiences of

the Romero Community Centre, Brisbane.

The Romero Community

Centre

The Romero Community

Centre, located in Brisbane, Queensland, provides ongoing support and

liaison with Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders, including assistance

with basic needs such as clothing, food, household goods, employment and

emergency accommodation. The Community Centre is currently under the auspice

of Lifeline, Community Care in Queensland. It is the main drop-off point

for TPV holders who have been released from detention and brought by bus

to Brisbane. The centre is the hub for the local community of TPV holders

and the children who accompany them, and to a group of unaccompanied minors.

There are currently approximately 20 unaccompanied minors in the local

community. The Centre has provided services for 30-40 unaccompanied minors

from Afghanistan, all Hazara. The Centre continues to serve those who

have turned 18 years while in detention or in the community and a significant

number of young adults (18-25 years of age) who fled the Taliban and are

without family in Australia.

As a result of this

focus, the workers at the Romero Community Centre have been able to make

some assessment as to the impact of detention on the children - those

granted TPVs and those released as unaccompanied minors. The following

key points illustrate the impact of their detention experiences.

Education

The detention centre

environment is not conducive to learning and the educational opportunities

and resources provided in the centres is inadequate. The children have

been traumatised by their experiences before and during detention and

this is a continuing barrier to effective learning. More specifically,

their ability to cope with schooling and other educational services has

been severely impaired by their history of sustained sleep deprivation

while in detention.

Upon release, therefore,

most children require intensive education programs, particularly with

English language skills and to assist in pursuing further study. Such

programs are available for these children at Milpera State High School

- refugee children who attend here are as old as 22 years of age as a

result of their previous lack of access to educational services.

Finally, the parents

of these children feel powerless to help them with their education. They

are themselves suffering the effects of trauma. They do not understand

the education system and so without intervention, parents and children

alike suffer because the parents are unable to provide the support for

their children's education that they would desire to be able to give.

Mental Health

The staff of the

Romero Community Centre are concerned about the long-term mental health

of the children who have been in detention. Children out of detention

suffer nightmares and display many other physical symptoms of stress and

trauma, including twitchy eyes, poor concentration and hyperactive behaviours.

They carry with them a strong sense of the injustices they have suffered

in detention and have been politicised from a young age. In the centre

one day a two-year-old Iraqi girl spoke her first English words - over

and over she chanted, 'DIMA. Freedom'.

Many parents are

finding their children's behaviour difficult to cope with. Their ability

to parent was severely hampered by the prison-like environment in detention,

and out of detention their roles as parents continue to be regarded by

the children as compromised. Children grow away from their parents and

the family unit suffers further stress.

The mental health

of unaccompanied minors (particularly the Hazara children) is of particular

concern. These children and young adults often express an overwhelming

sense of despair about their situation, even after release from detention.

This sense of utter despair does not appear to have been adequately addressed

in the detention centre environment, and significant work is required

to deal with the psychological impacts of this issue. One staff worker

reported that a 16-year-old boy said to her, 'Perhaps I must go home and

die with my family'.

Many suffer deep

grief because they have lost their families. All grieve for their homes

and their friends and their past lives. For many who still have families

in their home countries or somewhere fleeing their home countries, the

prolonged lack of contact with their families causes continuing distress.

They are also burdened by incredible feelings of obligation and guilt.

While they are in detention they feel like their lives are on hold and

are therefore unable to live up to the sacrifice of their families. The

burden on them to make up for this upon release is great. Many give up

their schooling to earn money to take home. A 17-year-old boy explained

his leaving school this way, 'If they deport me I must get money first

to support my family'.

It is also clear

to the workers at Romero that the detention centre experience has not

helped the children to develop healthy ways of caring for themselves.

What they gain, rather, are more prison-like survival techniques that

tend to isolate them even more. It is left to support services and individuals

to provide life skills training. They are being offered by Milpera school,

the Tigers Eleven Soccer Club and individuals including adult refugees

from the Hazara community.

The potential for

these children to mature into adults able to build healthy families and

provide good parenting to their own children has been severely compromised

by their experiences before and during detention. They have had little

personal experience of 'whole families' and any kind of family not subjected

to severe conditions.

Unaccompanied minors

in particular find it difficult to talk about their detention centre experience.

They have recounted stories of a brutal institutional life, including

assault; the dehumanising experience of being identified by number rather

than name; being told that Australians did not want them; having been

subjected to anti-Muslim rhetoric; and the distress of being witness to

numerous hunger strikes and demonstrations. The requirement on TPV holders

to reapply or extend their visas has meant that people are forced to retell

and relive their experiences many times over causing even further distress

and retraumatisation.

Despite this, the

workers have found unaccompanied minors to be in the main, inherently

respectful, courteous and helpful. They prefer not to talk about their

detention centre experiences but to concentrate on their future possibilities.

They have however, continually asked the question why Australia treated

them like this when they came seeking freedom. They also continue to suffer

from the politicisation of their identities. One 17-year-old said, 'Mr

Howard won the election around us. He owes us. Give us permanent residence'.

It is also clear

that children (and adults) from different cultural backgrounds require

different forms of counselling both in and out of detention. The experience

of the Romero centre is that for many children, the counselling that has

been offered has not been effective because it has been culturally inappropriate.

The Hazara children cannot even access adequate telephone interpreter

services as there are no accredited Dari language translators.

Healthcare and

Case Management

The experiences of

the staff at the Romero Centre indicate that medical assessments within

the detention centres are not always thorough and that medical records

are not always provided to the refugees for future use. On release from

detention the healthcare of children continues to be placed at risk because

of inadequate case management. The staff have found that some parents

are carrying a backlog of medical and dental needs indicating that their

capacity to recognise and/or know how to address the health care needs

of their children is limited. Medical and dental interventions by health

and community workers therefore become paramount for the well-being of

these children.

Poor case management

for unaccompanied minors can be identified in the following stories of

arbitrary community placement. Though state government care is arranged,

there have been some notorious errors in terms of reuniting family members:

  • Three siblings

    - two minors in the care of their older brother - were sent by bus from

    Port Hedland to Brisbane when their blood relatives were living in Perth

    (reported in The Australian December 17 2001).

  • An Iraqi woman

    with 3 children under eight years of age was sent to Brisbane when her

    husband was living in Shepparton. She spent a significant amount of

    her benefit payment to reunite her family.

  • A pregnant woman

    (a few weeks away from giving birth), her husband and two-year-old child

    were sent from Western Australia to Brisbane with no consideration given

    to the dangers this would pose to the woman and her unborn child. On

    the day after their arrival in Brisbane they boarded a bus to Adelaide

    to join her sister who was to be with her for the birth.

The Importance

of Peer Group

For the unaccompanied

minors in particular, the importance of forming a sustainable and strong

peer group cannot be overstated. The opportunity for forming this type

of group in detention centres is extremely limited. The Tigers Eleven

Soccer team based in Brisbane is an example of a program designed to develop

such a peer group among refugee children. Its success has been well demonstrated

and it has also succeeded in developing wider acceptance within the Australian

community for refugees in general.

The Romero Community

Centre believes that children who have been denied their freedom and their

childhoods while in immigration detention in Australia mostly remain captured

by a negative experience which has damaged them as human beings. Some

overcome that, with or without help, but one way or another, they will

all carry the experience and its trauma to their graves.

Staff from the

Romero Community Centre would be happy to discuss the information contained

in this report. For further information please contact Frederika Steen

on (07) 3393 2500.


1. Paragraph

1, Basis of Union, Uniting Church in Australia, 1992 edition

2. Statement

to the Nation, Uniting Church Inaugural Assembly, 1977

3. 1

John 4:11

4. Rev

Dr Chris Budden in Doing Justice, Social Responsibility and Justice, UCA

(yet to be published)

5. Rev

Dr Ann Wansbrough on Civil Society see 'Speaking Out' (PhD Thesis, University

of Sydney, 2000)and 'Principles of a Fair and Equitable Social Security

System in Australia' UnitingCare Australia and National Social Responsibility

and Justice, 2000.

6. Mary

Crock and Ben Saul, Future Seekers: Refugees and the Law in Australia,

The Federation Press, 2002, p. 84

7. Report

of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Own Motion Investigation into DIMA Immigration

Detention Centres, March 2001

8. ABC,

Lateline, Monday April 22, 2002

9. Moira

Rayner, 'Political Pinballs: The Plight of Child Refugees in Australia,'

Walter Murdoch Lecture, October 2001, p. 7

10. UNHCR

Guidelines on Unaccompanied Children, para 5.7

Last

Updated 9 January 2003.