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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from



[Address removed]

National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

GPO Box 5218


Dear Sir/Madam

I am writing to express my serious concerns about the health and well-being

of children, pregnant and lactating women and women of child bearing age

in the groups of asylum seekers presently locked up in detention centres.

I am also concerned about the men.

The human right to

adequate food and nutrition is a well established concept across

the world (see "Nutrition rights: The Human Right to Adequate Food

and Nutrition" by George Kent on behalf of the World Alliance on

Nutrition and Human Rights, 2000-

Whilst food and human

rights is not mentioned in the Australian constitution, Australia is a

signatory to international standards of the United Nations including the

UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the right to health

under Article 12, ICESCR.

I am sure that most

Australians agree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which

states "Everyone has the right to a decent life, including enough

food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services. Society should

help those that are unable to work because they are unemployed, sick,

disabled, or too old to work. Mothers and babies are entitled to special

care and assistance."

Women of child bearing

age, pregnant and lactating women and children have particularly important

food and nutrition needs related to particular stages of the life cycle.

If these needs are not met at the appropriate physiological age/stage,

there are health effects at the time or later in life.

When children are

deprived of adequate food and nutrition at important stages of growth,

there are long lasting and often permanently damaging consequences. Some

examples are stunting (growth failure) and marasmus (severe underweight)

or both together, together with the devastating effects of particular

micronutrient deficiencies. There can also be effects on psychological

and social well-being and behavioural and mental problems.

When pregnant and

lactating women are deprived of adequate nourishment, the health of the

mother suffers and adds to her burden of disease and morbidity and reduced

longevity later in life.

We are limited in

our review of the health and well-being of such vulnerable people in detention

centres-for the reason that the centres are not open to examination by

professional experts and others.

My serious concerns

are presented here on the basis of current knowledge and long experience

in the field of food, nutrition and dietetics. These concerns are now

expressed in a food insecurity framework.

In the first instance,

asylum seekers come from third world countries and then refugee camps

where the food supply and living conditions are problematic (even under

the better of situations). Food insecurity has often been a long standing

factor in their original and transit communities. I expect that a proportion

of the children and the women, in particular, will have been poorly nourished

either intermittently or constantly for at least several years before

arriving in Australia.

Add to this, the

exposure to high ambient temperature and lack of food security in smugglers

boats for perhaps several weeks of transit to Australia.

On arrival in Australia,

we understand that asylum seekers are not screened (let alone assessed)

for nutritional status. The children and pregnant and lactating women

are not reviewed for nutritional problems, which are expected to exist

in a proportion of them. There are no services provided in detention camps

for food and nutritional monitoring and support, particularly of those

most in need.

In remote detention

centres in remote communities and the Pacific, we do not know if food

insecurity exists. But food insecurity is expected to exist because of

the way in which families are communally fed, with no flexibility as to

eating hours, or availability of food and nourishing snacks between meals

for anyone, and little opportunity for the use of family meals to foster

good behaviour and child development.

If children need

feeding between meals, as most children do, I understand that there is

a limited choice of junk food snacks for sale but if families (and particularly

single mothers or single children) have to spend what little money they

have in this way, it leads to further impoverishment.

It would also be

interesting to know if families have any choice of foods, and whether

they are culturally acceptable to all of them. I would not expect that

this exists, leading to further food insecurity. All of these important

factors, which have enormous implications for health and well being in

the groups in question, are of course of increasing concern when detention

extends from weeks to months and years.

Those who protest

about their detention by fasting or sewing their lips together can be

expected to suffer greatly from a nutritional and health viewpoint. The

negative nitrogen balance and catabolism of body protein and fat stores

develops in four days or less, depending on initial body weight, and age.

Add the compounding effects of dehydration in high ambient temperatures

and the serious and perhaps life threatening decrease in body thiamin

reserves. Permanent brain damage and perhaps death is likely after four

to six weeks from thiamin deficiency in a healthy adult with good body

thiamin reserves to start with. There has been no work on how long this

takes in children or pregnant or lactating women-for obvious reasons-but

theoretically it could possibly be days in an undernourished child, and

certainly would be a much shorter period than four to six weeks.

On release from remote

detention centres, asylum seekers are again highly likely to be confronted

by food insecurity. Their inability to work or get a health card and their

own depleted resources and health means that they gravitate to the areas

of Australia which are already the most disadvantaged (the lowest socio-economic

index of geographical area, known as the first quintile of SEIFA).

Here asylum seekers

are observed and known by us to often be unable to access sufficient food,

and they are presenting in increasing numbers for emergency food relief.

There are many occasions when even this sort of charity cannot meet their


In summary, food

insecurity is a negative and often continuous factor in the lives of asylum

seekers - from their often impoverished lives in their original homeland

through mandatory detention centres and perhaps for years in their lives

in the Australian community. This is potentially serious and most disadvantageous

for the development of children and the health and well-being of them,

and of pregnant and lactating women.

We must also be cognisant

of the effect of the potentially increased burden of disease and physical

and mental and behavioural problems which asylum seekers potentially bring

to Australian communities - particularly communities which are already

disadvantaged, which have low levels of infrastructure and resources,

and where community and individual food insecurity already exist.

There are more humane

and cost-effective ways of coping with the asylum seekers who reach our

shores. It will be highly advantageous to them and to Australian residents

if they are screened and assessed for nutritional problems on arrival.

This should be followed by the provision of food and beverages which ensures

their food security and promotes their health and well-being-with continued

monitoring. On discharge to the community (as soon as possible, preferably

weeks) it would be wiser to provide them with sufficient entitlements

to prevent further food security and its associated high burden of ill-health

and other problems.

I will be pleased

to provide the Inquiry with further detail and information on the consequences

of food insecurity and its prevention in asylum seekers, as required.

Yours sincerely


Beverley Wood PhD, FAHIA, MDAA, APD

Consultant in Food, Nutrition and Dietetics


Updated 14 July 2003.