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Submission to the National Inquiry
into Children in Immigration Detention from
National Inquiry into Children
in Immigration Detention
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 1042
Attached please find my
submission to this Inquiry. It expresses my concerns as a private citizen with
the current detention and treatment of refugee children.
As a result of my concerns on this
issue, I recently joined Amnesty International in an endeavour to bring about
changes that will result in a more humanitarian treatment of refugees. However,
the views expressed in this submission are my own.
Thank you for the opportunity to
comment on this important issue and for extending the deadline so that more
Australians could express their views.
The current lack of access to detention
centres by members of the public, the media, human rights groups and international
representatives makes it difficult to obtain evidence on the situation of children
in detention and its effects on their wellbeing.
This lack of access, in itself, indicates
the Australian Government's unwillingness to expose the treatment of children
in detention to independent scrutiny or quality assurance.
The use of a closed system of detention
is part of a systematic attempt to dehumanise refugees and asylum seekers. It
seeks to diminish the capacity of the wider community to respect the human dignity
of asylum seekers, to recognise their needs and to respond to them with care
and compassion. It prevents and undermines independent public scrutiny of the
detention and treatment of refugees.
As a signatory to the 1989 Convention
on the Rights of the Child, Australia is obligated to ensure that in all actions
concerning children, their best interests shall be a primary consideration.
This would require
- ongoing active consideration
of the child's best interests, having regard to all their human rights and
- the creation of conditions
and the provision of services and opportunities that actively promote the
child's best interests.
Active consideration of the child's
best interests requires a willingness to allow independent assessments of the
effects of the situation on a child and whether or not it is in the child's
best interests. The current closed system of detention actively prevents this.
Nor does the current system of detention
create the conditions conducive to the best interests of the child. It is an
abnormal environment that restricts the child's freedom and opportunity to participate
in the normal life of the community. It is imprisonment.
The dehumanisation of refugees is
reflected in the dehumanising process of detention, which exacerbates the trauma
and hardship they have already experienced. These people need a rehabilitative
environment, not a traumatising one.
In the context of such a closed system
of detention, recent evidence of the ill effects of the inhumane treatment of
refugees in detention centres is but the tip of the volcano. The eruptions of
riots, hunger strikes and self-abuse are visible cries for help from people
who are effectively held incommunicado.
The Government has systemmatically
tried to conceal or reinterpret evidence of the conditions in which children
are held in detention and the effects on their wellbeing. It has demonised the
behaviour of refugees in order to deflect responsibility for the ill-effects
of the detention conditions in which they are held.
However, the limited evidence available
indicates that treatment of children held in detention centres is not in their
- They are located in
harsh and isolated environments, where the culture is one of control not care.
- Medical, education
and recreational services appear to be minimal.
- They are not protected
from assault by the authorities responsible for protecting them. For example,
a 13 year old detainee was assaulted by three Woomera security guards dressed
in riot gear because he would not divulge the names of other detainees creating
a disturbance. These guards were subsequently reinstated. (The Age,
20 April 2000)
- HREOC officers visiting
Woomera found psychological trauma among the children - evidenced by lip sewing,
slashing, ingestion of shampoo, attempted hanging, threats of self harm and
It is impossible to imagine how any
Government or person could consider that holding children in such conditions
could be in their best interests, or could be justified in any way.
The limited evidence available indicates
that the Australian Government has failed to provide adequate health care to
refugee children and is, in fact, contributing to their psychological ill-health
by holding them in detention centres where conditions exacerbate previous trauma
and inhibit rehabilitation.
Refugees have undergone traumatic
experiences including the fear or experience of persecution and torture, physical
hardship and grief. Our immediate response on their arrival in Australia should
We should provide immediate access
to comprehensive health assessments, care, treatment and rehabilitation services
by appropriately trained professionals with access to cultural advisors and
translators. These services should be tailored to the specific needs of children
and be fully funded by the Australian Government as part of its humanitarian
commitment to refugees.
As most refugees who arrive in Australia
remain here indefinitely, it is also in Australia's best interests to ameliorate
the effects of the trauma they have undergone. The current system of detention
will leave a legacy of enduring psychological damage, ill health and alienation
that is not in the best interests of refugees or the wider Australian community,
or consistent with Australia's moral and legal obligations to children or refugees.
The most effective way of protecting
refugee children from harm is to provide a caring and nurturing environment
that proactively meets their needs and minimises the effects of the trauma they
have experienced. The correctional culture and environment of current detention
centres are completely inappropriate and serve to re-traumatise rather than
The current system of detention has
failed to provide appropriate education services to refugee children. Mr Ruddock,
in an interview on 7.30 Report in April 2002, acknowledged the difficulty of
providing appropriate education to groups of children with very diverse needs
in isolated detention centres.
Any detention of refugee children
should only be as a last resort, for a very short duration, where it is in their
best interests and uses a rehabilitative approach. In this context, education
services should assist refugee children to understand and cope with their situation,
to learn about the Australian context, and to prepare them for settlement and
participation in the community.
Refugee children should be able to
attend schools in the community. In selecting the most appropriate school, consideration
should be given to cultural needs and links, gender issues, and the capacity
of the school to meet their special needs. Funding for children with special
needs should include children who are refugees.
1. The mandatory detention
of refugee children should be abolished immediately.
2. Any detention of refugee
children should be as a last resort, for the shortest duration possible and
provided in a way that promotes their best interests.
3. Any centres in which
refugee children are detained should be accessible by members of the public,
the media, human rights groups and international representatives.
4. The philosophy and
modus operandi of time-limited detention centres must change radically. They
should operate as rehabilitation and care centres, not as correctional services.
The management and provision of services in such detention centres should
be undertaken by people with the expertise required to provide a nurturing,
caring and healing environment for refugees of different cultural backgrounds
5. Panels comprising
persons with relevant professional expertise and an understanding of refugee
issues and experiences should visit detention centres on at least a monthly
basis. Their role would be to assess and monitor the wellbeing of children
and other detainees and to recommend actions to promote their wellbeing. These
recommended actions may include immediate cessation of detention, changes
to the conditions of detention, and/or the provision of services and assistance
that will promote the wellbeing of children and other detainees. This would
require direct access to speak with refugees, including children and their
relatives, access to translators and cultural advisors and the ability to
seek further specialist assistance as required. The reports and recommendations
of panels should be posted on a publicly accessible web site within 14 days
of each visit, in a way that protects the identity of detainees.
6. Children should not
be confined to detention centres, unless this is determined by independent
professionals to be demonstrably in their best interests for a time-limited
period. They should be able to attend schools and to participate in other
activities in the community. In order to facilitate this, detention centres
should not be located in isolated areas.
7. As part of its humanitarian
obligations, the Australian Government should provide adequate funding to
ensure the timely provision of appropriate health, education, accommodation,
language and other services to refugee children and their families. This funding
should also cover appropriate levels of assistance to facilitate their successful
settlement in the Australian community.
8. The current practice
of providing Temporary Protection Visas must be abolished as it inhibits successful
settlement and creates protracted uncertainty that is stressful.
Updated 30 June 2003.