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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

Dear Sir/Madam

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.

Yours sincerely,

Odette Waanders

The Detention

of Children

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

best interests:

  • 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

    suicidal thoughts.

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.

Health Services

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

be humanitarian.

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

rehabilitate refugees.


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

and ages.

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.