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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from



Monday, April 29,


Dr Sev Ozdowski

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

GPO Box 5218


Dear Dr Ozdowski,

Thank you for the

opportunity to address an issue, which I believe, is another stain on

Australian history. The systematic neglect and abuse of children in our

IDCs is shameful and must end. It is intolerable that our senior politicians

claim that a simple majority gives them the mandate to practise policies

that ignore established standards for the care and nurturing of children.

No one has the right

to do this in my country’s name.

Over 30 years ago

I trained as a Mothercraft Nurse at an orphanage where children arrived

at all hours, taken from everyone and everything they had ever known.

The fear on their faces will never leave me. As a visitor to the Villawood

IDC I see the same fear and despair in the eyes of the children, many

of them locked away for years behind the Australian razor wire. .


Caged children become scarred by their own pain and sorrow, but also

deeply wounded by observing the suffering of those around them deprived

of a normal life. A child’s potential cannot be realised when

the child’s education and development is interrupted by the damaging

effects of such incarceration.

Children need to be happy, secure and emotionally safe – all absolute

prerequisites for the learning process – and simply to lead a

decent life. Parents suffering depression are not able to meet the needs

of their children. Future studies may well identify generational damage.

These children

may not have the confidence to form happy, secure relationships because

of the constantly changing populations in the detention centres. Friendships

are formed only to be lost, leaving the one left behind in despair and

the other guilt-ridden for abandoning their friend.

The opportunity and encouragement to explore their own creativity and

the freedom for imagination to flourish are essential. This includes

sensitivity and careful consideration given to cultural differences,

which teaches children tolerance, respect and cooperation. Instead,

detainee children are further marginalised by a system that denies their

identity and refuses to accept their reality. This is one of the cruellest

forms of oppression you can perpetrate on another human being.

A newspaper article

about the relationship between a clinical psychologist who works with

detainees – [name removed] – and a [detainee] gives this account.

“ My

wife, [name removed], and our son, [name removed], went to visit him,

and [my son], who was 20 months, went over to some detainee kids. One

of them, a little girl of three pushed him over, and he started crying.

[My friend] rescued [my son], then explained how the parents of that

little girl had basically given up hope and that, consequently, the

two siblings in the family had increasingly begun to fight with each

other, to the point where their only interaction was violent. It was

a dramatic illustration of what’s happening to families in detention

centres.“ (SMH Good Weekend “Two of Us” 7-7-01)

These children are

socially and culturally isolated; often in remote locations far from recognised

community visitor programs and other support services. Inadequate playground

equipment exposed to temperature extremes and the absence of shade cloth

or softfall to prevent injury is the norm. There seems to have been little

recognition that specialised equipment is needed to provide the children

with the exercise and challenge required to promote healthy gross-motor

development. Authorities would not allow these inferior standards in any

Australian pre-school or school environment.

I observed a group

of detainee children in the visitor area of the Villawood IDC in Sydney

fighting over one rusty, dilapidated and rickety swing. A boy around 6-years

of age was pleading for a turn - he became increasing frantic as he whined

for a turn, lest he miss the chance before the short visiting period came

to an end. Eventually he gave up - walking away with head bowed and shoulders

slumped in resignation. Not even a tension-relieving tear!

It was me who wept

for this sad boy.

In one of my visits

to a detainee and his young child, I took seashells collected from my

local beach. The child played happily with water, marvelling at the colour

changes that occurred in the submerged shells and stones. These simple

playthings yielded a much better response than animal pictures in a storybook.

It was shocking to realise the reason -such creatures were outside the

experience of this child of detention.

At the close of visiting

time, the small child from the security of his father's arms, reached

out, imploring me take the both of them with me. His tear-filled eyes

followed me through the perimeter razor-wire fence until I was out of


He had spent over

half his young life in detention but he clearly recognised that where

I came from was much better than the misery of life behind cruel coils

of razor wire with an institutional regime that denies children the right

to freedom and development in a secure environment.

Many unaccompanied children, some very young, are held in Australian detention

without an advocate to support, nurture and comfort them. CROC entitles

children without family to special protection. Compounding the trauma

is the fact that many of these children are already suffering the effects

from earlier experience with repressive regimes. Forced to flee countries

of origin under hazardous conditions, travelling through hostile intermediate

places - or even in some cases, travelling unaccompanied - many have suffered

abuse or been forced to watch family or relatives brutalised or tortured.

One unaccompanied child who has been held in the Australian system since

he arrived at the age of [details removed] after an extremely lonely,

frightening and hazardous separation from his family told me recently:

"My father secretly took me to the hills after my older brother was

forcibly removed and my mother and sisters badly beaten. For the first

few nights (in a neighbouring country) I could not stop crying. I was

afraid of those around me and aching for my family. When I came on the

boat the man did not know the way. We ran out of food and water after

ten days. We had nothing but seawater to drink until our rescue by the

Australian boat. Everybody told me that Australia was a good country and

people were kind. My father sent me away to save my life. But they persecute

me here in Australia. They do not believe my story and shout at me. The

guards say to me Australian people do not want you. I am dying inside

everyday in DIMA detention with no hope. I cannot go home to find my family

and I cannot have freedom." [2]

A [teenager] at Villawood

came into the Visitors compound with a shuffle and the pallor that I have

come to recognise accompanies depression in these children. His response

to my clumsy attempt to talk about how his life could be when he is released

from detention was delivered with such chilling certainty;

Q: "What are

your hopes, what are your dreams, what do you want to do when you are


A: I have no hope

for there is no end to this nightmare and I no longer dream. When I can

take no more, I'll take my death over the razor wire".

Another child sat

on my knee as I chatted with her mother. She suddenly interrupted our

conversation and her body tensed. She recounted an incident in the isolated

IDC from which she'd recently come; She said she was woken by a group

of ‘officers‘, coming into her room and dragging her by her

clothes and shouting. Demonstrating, she pulled my clothes with force,

shaking from the trauma of re-living the experience. This child of such

tender years slumped against me, emotionally exhausted.

The grief and sorrow

in her mother’s eyes betrayed the powerlessness of a parent unable

to protect her child.


The hostile silence of those in a position of power to influence the plight

of these children and their suffering is shameful.

These children have

no voice. [4]

For many of these

children their torment does not end with freedom.

They are haunted by recurring memories from the experience of detention,

witnessing the frequent suicide attempts and a fear of doing the same

to escape the misery. They carry guilt and shame for their behaviour,

which was a response to the abnormal environment of detention over which

they had no control. They are angry and resentful for the ‘lost


When we read Sir

Ronald Wilson's "Bringing Them Home" Report of the National

Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children,

through our tears we asked " how could this happen, if only we'd

known ".

We do know about

the about the abuse and neglect of the children and their families in

the DIMIA centres - if we fail to act we are all complicit.

Trish Highfield

NSW Registered Mothercraft Nurse, childcare worker


and 2 extracts from an unpublished paper written by Barbara

Rogalla and Trish Highfield for Conference; “Children, Torture and

other Forms of Violence” Tampere, Finland, 27 November – 2

December 2001.

Presented at the

international conference:

The Refugee Convention ; “ Where to from here ?” at the UNSW

6 – 9 December 2001


“No Play Camp” - Australian Children’s Rights News pp

10 – Number 28, March 2001


“Someone’s Beloved Child” – “Rattler “

Issue 60, Summer 2001 Community Childcare Co-operative Ltd (NSW) .


Updated 30 June 2003.