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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from


Diocese of Parramatta

Diocese of Parramatta

The Diocese of Parramatta covers the western part of

Sydney including Castle Hill, Mt Victoria, Penrith, Blacktown, the Mt

Druitt area, Windsor and Warragamba. It is a very multicultural area with

a large indigenous population.

Villawood Detention Centre lies just outside boundaries

of the Diocese but is regularly visited by the parish priest of Merrylands

and other members of the diocese. In collaboration with the NSW Ecumenical

Council the Diocese supports the House of Welcome providing

emergency accommodation for those recently released from Villawood Detention

Centre. Plans are underway for a drop-in centre for Asylum Seekers at

Carramar, purchased and refurbished by the Franciscan Friars.


As a Catholic Diocese striving to live out the

gospel principles of welcoming the stranger and offering compassion

and support to the most vulnerable in our society, we are particularly

concerned for the welfare of children currently in Detention Centres.

Our concerns are grounded in the following general principles espoused

by a number of Catholic agencies with involvement in Refugee and Asylum

Seeker issues:

The Church….. hears the suffering cry of all

who are uprooted from their own land, of families forcefully separated,

of those who, in the rapid changes of our day, are unable to find a stable

home anywhere… Pope John Paul II message for World Migration

Day 2000

The problem of refugees must be confronted at its

roots…. the first point of reference should not be the interests

of the State or national security but the human person so that the need

to live in community, a basic requirement of the very nature of human

beings will be safe guarded Pontifical Councils for Cor Unum “Refugees

a challenge to solidarity” p.11

All people have the right to seek and enjoy in other

countries asylum from persecution”
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(1)

“In every situation affecting the interests

of a child or a family, the interests of the child must come before all

Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3

“The widest possible protection and assistance

should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental

group unit of society”
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,

Article 10(1)

“No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest

or detention”
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article


“No one shall be subjected to torture, or to

cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article


“Contracting states shall not impose penalties,

on account of their illegal entry or presence on refugees who, coming

from a place where their life or freedom was threatened…are in their

territory without authorisation…”
Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951, Article


Recognising Australia’s commitment to these conventions

and to the basic principles of the Common Law, the Diocese of Parramatta

promotes the following principles as a necessary beginning to any debate

on an Humanitarian and Refugee program in Australia:

  • Australia is

    part of the international community and has, voluntarily and in the

    spirit of humanitarianism, undertaken its responsibilities towards refugees;

  • As a wealthy and

    stable nation, we share a responsibility for the weakest in the world


  • Australia is entitled

    to protect its territorial integrity in ways that are consistent with

    its international obligations and undertakings, and its domestic law

    and legal principles;

  • To deter others

    from seeking asylum in Australia no refugee or asylum seeker may be

    subject to punishment, mistreatment or other human rights violations;

  • Refugees and asylum

    seekers, intercepted on their way to Australia, will be treated with

    dignity and respect and not be subjected to physical violence or threats

    of physical violence;

  • Under no circumstances

    will a refugee or asylum seeker be diverted to a country that is not

    party to the 1951 convention or to major human rights treaties and is

    unable to support their presence with dignity;

  • Aid funds will

    not be diverted from development projects to underpin the detention

    and processing of asylum seekers in other countries

  • Non-citizens

    in Australia will only be detained after an individual assessment of

    their risk to public security or safety. All periods of detention must

    be reviewable by a court and must be for the shortest possible time.

  • Any asylum seeker

    in detention is entitled to be treated humanely with respect for his

    or her human dignity. The standards in detention will be no less than

    prisoners are entitled to.

  • Asylum seekers

    who are accepted as Convention refugees are entitled to family reunion.

  • Asylum seekers

    accepted as refugees will be granted permanent visas.

Declaration of the Rights

of the Child

(As adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1959. Australia, as a

founding member of the UN and a long time active participant in the development

of International Human Rights norms is bound by this Declaration as it

is to other foundations of the International Human Rights system.)


The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities

and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him/her to develop

physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and

normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment

of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the

paramount consideration.

A child, incarcerated,

for long periods behind locked gates and rolls of razor wire, in a detention

centre, enjoys neither special protection nor the opportunity

to develop in a healthy and normal manner. Best child development

practice indicates a need for children to have a secure and nurturing

environment, with freedom to play, access to a variety of experiences

and the support of stable and loving relationships, preferably those of

their parents. On being asked whether the Detention Centres had the best

interest of the child at heart a chaplain responded: “Children

aren’t considered. Detention seems to be all that is thought about.”

Principle 4
The child shall enjoy the benefits of social security. He/she shall

be entitled to grow and develop in health; to this end, special care and

protection shall be provided both to him/her and to his/her mother, including

adequate pre-natal and post-natal care. The child shall have the right

to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services.

Perhaps of greatest

concern in the current detention system is the mental health of children.

Reports in the media, from the College of Psychiatrists, and from regular

visitors to the detention centres, indicate that many children in detention

are adversely affected by the depression and desperation of their parents

[1], by their exposure to the inevitable tensions and

violent outbreaks associated with incarceration in a limited space and

by the attempts of other detainees to harm themselves or to attempt suicide.

Fr Frank Brennan, in an address at the opening of Uniya, spoke of young

boys at Woomera proudly showing the scars of their attempts at self-harm.

Children are frequently depressed and anxious responding to the world

around them with “sadness, lack of energy and disinterest”.



The child, for the full and harmonious development of his/her personality,

needs love and understanding. He/she shall, wherever possible, grow up

in the care and under the responsibility of his/her parents, and, in any

case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security:

a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances,

be separated from his/her mother. Society and the public authorities shall

have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and

to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other

assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.

The insecurity of

their situation and the length of time behind locked gates and razor wire,

compound the trauma and anxiety of asylum seeker families. In Australia,

unlike a number of receiving countries, there is no legal limit to the

length of time a child can be detained. Most asylum seeker children spend

a minimum of 6-12 months in detention centres. Amnesty International notes

the case of a 5 year old boy, released last year, who had spent his entire

life in a detention centre. One of the problems experienced by children

in detention centres is connected to the care and responsibility of

parents. In highly institutionalised structures, housing several

hundred people with large-group eating, sleeping and gathering facilities

the family unit, which, under normal circumstances, provides nurture,

stability, security and care, is seriously undermined. Given the structures

of the centres and the role of the ACM security personnel, authority is

taken from the parents and placed in the hands of the guards. It is the

ACM guards who escort children to school, determine where they can or

cannot go, decide whether they are sick and define the rules for everyday

living. Respondents to the ACLRI/CLRI questionnaire reported that some

children by-passed their parents when seeking permission; were deemed

to be out of control and, on release, experienced considerable

difficulties in adapting to their parents’ traditional role of authority.

It is, in the view

of the Diocese of Parramatta, the responsibility of the Minister for Immigration

to take particular care of the children under his jurisdiction. If parents

are prevented from exercising the duty of care for their children, by

the current policy, which requires long periods of incarceration, then

the Minister must assume this duty of care and do everything he can to

support the family unit. Of particular concern to the Minister must be

the 50 or so unaccompanied minors who are totally reliant on him for their



The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and

compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. (They) shall be given an

education, which will promote their general culture and enable them, on

the basis of equal opportunity, to develop their abilities, their individual

judgement, and their sense of moral and social responsibility, and to

become a useful member of society.

The best interests

of the child shall be the guiding principle…..

The child shall

have full opportunity for play and recreation…..

It is our understanding that children in detention centres do not, necessarily,

have regular access to education, despite DIMA’s Immigration Detention

Standards para 9.4.1, which states that, “social and educational

programs appropriate to the child’s age and abilities are available

to all children in detention.” The provision of education for children

of secondary school age is totally inadequate and always held behind the

fence of the detention centre. One of the regular visitors to a centre

reported: “Classrooms are inadequate, not welcoming, usually

used for other things” Appropriate stimuli and opportunities

for learning, experimentation and expression are essential if a child

is to develop and grow. It is of fundamental importance that children

in Detention Centres are given opportunities to learn about their own

language and culture as well as learning about the culture and language

of Australia. At present these children have no freedom to visit, play

and socialise with other children outside the centre. Visitors to centres

at Woomera and Curtin frequently comment on the bare, barren landscapes,

which are devoid of trees, plants or any equipment that might stimulate

the imagination and creativity of children. One respondent noted there

is nothing healthy about that place – people bring the children

toys, but there is no softness, no beauty, no gardens, NO FREEDOM.”

In an article in The Lancet, the authors stated, in regard to

Woomera, “there are few recreational facilities for children…one

swing was observed for about 50 children.” [3]

As noted earlier the usurping of the parent’s traditional role

of nurture and authority leaves children without the mentors and role

models essential for the development of moral and social responsibility.

For children to grow and mature, opportunities for exercise, team sports,

creative activity are important, as are opportunities to demonstrate responsibility

for tasks within the home environment.

It is, we believe, a terrible indictment of stable, democratic and affluent

Australia that children should leave detention centres with little or

no preparation for the world they are to encounter.


The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty

and exploitation…..

In all decisions

regarding children their interests must be a primary consideration

(art.3). There is little or no evidence to indicate that current

legislation and practice gives anything, other than minimal consideration

to the needs of asylum seeker children in detention centres. It could

be argued that keeping children for periods of six months or more in detention

centres with:

  • limited access

    to educational and recreational facilities,

  • an atypical, if

    not destructive, family structure

  • extremely limited

    access to psychological support and counselling

  • exposure to violence,

    unrest, self-harm

  • increased risk

    of sexual and physical abuse (HREOC observed that the detention environment

    places children at risk of sexual and physical abuse. (quoted Mares

    p.33) [4]

  • unfamiliar and

    institutionalised food

  • cramped, crowded

    or inadequate living conditions

amount to neglect

and possibly cruelty and exploitation. One frequent visitor to a detention

centre wrote: the welfare of the children is not even thought of!

They receive nothing! No love, no care, no education, no toys, nothing

from the guards – only from each other…


– it is the view of those compiling this report for the

Diocese of Parramatta that current practices for dealing with children

in detention centres are in contravention of the Declaration on

the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child

and the best interests of the child receive scant consideration.

In their recent statement the Bishops of Australia stated that the

human dignity of people seeking refuge from persecution must be reflected

in our nation’s policies. Of great concern to us is the apparent

lack of compassion and care for these extremely vulnerable, traumatised

and needy children.

The Convention on

the Rights of the Child recognises that the child, for the full and

harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a

family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.

The Catholic Church regards the family as the original cell of social

life…the natural society in which man and woman give themselves

in love and the gift of life (Pope John Paul II). This being the

case it seems that the best way to care for asylum-seeker children is

not to detain them and their families.

According to the Convention the detention of children should be a measure

of last resort and subject to periodic judicial review. From the research

we have undertaken and the inquiries made, asylum seeker children are

automatically detained, can be kept indefinitely and their detention is

not subject to periodic review. These are serious breaches of human rights.


1. That the important

role of the family, in the nurture, support and care of the child, be

recognised in the development of best practice for the children of asylum


2. That every effort be made to keep the family together, in detention

centres or out of them.

3. Given the importance of a loving supportive environment for a child’s

development we urge the investigation of non-custodial measures for

monitoring asylum seekers during the investigative and processing phases.

4. If it is necessary to keep children in detention for some extended

period of time they must be provided with opportunities for education,

language learning and creative expression. The best way of dealing with

this would be for them to attend school in the local community.

5. Ensure that the children of asylum seekers have access to adequate

medical, dental and psychological assistance.

6. That children must never be housed in conditions which unnecessarily

expose them to physical or sexual abuse.

7. That HREOC requests the Minister to require the training of ACM staff

in skills necessary for the handling of families struggling with trauma.

8. That HREOC request the Minister to actively encourage greater flexibility

in detention centres including allowing parents to prepare food for

their children.


Silove, Sinnerbrink, Field, Maniccavasagar & Steele, Anxiety, depression

and PTSD in asylum seekers…British Journal of Psychiatry (1997)

indicates that the asylum seekers studied were a vulnerable group who

manifested an array of anxious, depressive and post-traumatic symptoms(p.356).
2. Becker & Silove, The Psychological and Psychosocial

Effects of Prolonged Detention in Detention or Punishment p.83
3. Loff, Snell, Creati, Mohan, “Inside” Australia’s

Woomera Detention Centre, The Lancet vol. 359, February 2002 p.683
4. Mares, Peter, Borderline, UNSW Press, 2001


Updated 14 July 2003.