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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
SYDNEY NSW 1042
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.
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.
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." 
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. 
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
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.
NSW Registered Mothercraft Nurse, childcare worker
Rogalla and Trish Highfield for Conference; “Children, Torture and
other Forms of Violence” Tampere, Finland, 27 November – 2
Presented at the
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.