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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST)
detention and post detention environment and services
impact of detention on children, adolescents and families
DETENTION AND POST DETENTION ENVIRONMENT AND SERVICES
Although it is not
possible to precisely specify all the circumstance that lead people to
arrive in Australia through people smuggling routes, there can be no doubt
that they undertake perilous journeys which put their lives and that of
accompanying family members at risk.
Given the very high rates of approval for those who have sought asylum
in Australia through these routes, it is reasonable to assume that most
detainees have fled their countries for reasons of persecution. Pre-arrival
experiences of this nature are bound to influence perceptions of and reactions
to the detention environment.
The purpose of this
submission is not to document in detail the conditions of the detention
environment. Much evidence will be submitted to the Inquiry regarding
these very conditions and the extent to which they affect the well-being
and recovery of children and adolescents, and indeed to any person who
is a survivor of trauma and torture. The VFST was a significant contributor
to the Mental Health chapter of the KIDS (Children in Detention Story)
This submission examines the nexus between the trauma experience, the
detention environment and the post detention experience thereby highlighting
the vulnerability of people seeking asylum in Australia who are first
incarcerated and then released with a temporary visa. The submission also
explores how services respond to the diversity of need of those with a
temporary protection visa released from detention into the community.
This submission examines
the nexus between the trauma experience, the detention environment and
the post detention experience thereby highlighting the vulnerability of
people seeking asylum in Australia who are first incarcerated and then
released with a temporary visa. The submission also explores how services
respond to the diversity of need of those with a temporary protection
visa released from detention into the community.
Impact of the trauma experience
The systematic violation
of the individual’s rights, is the legacy of those seeking asylum
Persecution and human rights violations are intended to destroy not only
the individual but also the person’s family and ultimately the destruction
of their community. Acts perpetrated by persecutory regimes create a culture
of oppression through violence, deprivation, death, destroying communities
and cultural beliefs, exposure to boundless brutality such as execution
of children and forcing people to make impossible choices such as who
will live or die, stay or flee for safety.
The consequence for those exposed to systematic persecution is the internalising
of social and psychological experiences, which in turn leads to the trauma
reaction. A state of fear or terror results. People don’t know if
they will live or die. Core attachments to families, friends and communities
and connections with religious and cultural beliefs are systematically
disrupted. Central values of human existence are destroyed.
Trust - the most
basic unit of human civilisation - is shattered.
effects of trauma associated with human rights violations are well documented.
Considerable research has shown that circumstances that produce helplessness
lead to anxiety, depression and escape behaviours. In regard to traumatic
events, it is the experience of helplessness, rather than the ostensibly
horrific nature of events which determines the severity of psychological
symptoms, including hostility and aggressive behaviours (Horowitz, 1976).
The chronic state of terror under which people are forced to live, being
exposed to life-threatening situations or intolerable danger and feeling
helpless to act, contributes to acute levels of anxiety that remain long
after people flee the persecution. Individuals may experience flashbacks,
intrusive memories, nightmares, hypervigilance, poor concentration, psychosomatic
symptoms, depression, anger, sadness and, for many, an existential despair
borne of the destruction of values once held.
Guilt and shame are
common consequences for survivors of torture and trauma. To blame oneself
for not having done enough is preferable to reliving the sheer helplessness
one felt in a situation when powerless to act or to control one’s
destiny. Those who survive human rights violations and life-threatening
situations have been forced to make impossible choices that are intolerable
The psychological effects of trauma associated with human rights violations
are well documented. Considerable research has shown that circumstances
that produce helplessness lead to anxiety, depression and escape behaviours.
In regard to traumatic events, it is the experience of helplessness, rather
than the ostensibly horrific nature of events which determines the severity
of psychological symptoms, including hostility and aggressive behaviours
The chronic state of terror under which people are forced to live, being
exposed to life-threatening situations or intolerable danger and feeling
helpless to act, contributes to acute levels of anxiety that remain long
after people flee the persecution. Individuals may experience flashbacks,
intrusive memories, nightmares, hypervigilance, poor concentration, psychosomatic
symptoms, depression, anger, sadness and, for many, an existential despair
borne of the destruction of values once held.
Guilt and shame are common consequences for survivors of torture and trauma.
To blame oneself for not having done enough is preferable to reliving
the sheer helplessness one felt in a situation when powerless to act or
to control one’s destiny. Those who survive human rights violations
and life-threatening situations have been forced to make impossible choices
that are intolerable to confront. The psychological impact of pre-arrival
experiences will continue, even in a safe environment. However, when the
new environment is harsh and uncertain, the negative psychological impact
will be exacerbated. People who have been exposed to violence in the past
are known to be sensitive to renewed humiliations, uncertainty and anticipated
persecution. When anxiety is high there is a tendency to readily perceive
threats and worry about outcomes.
Previous loss and grief also can lead to heightened sensitivity to ongoing
separations, with worst outcomes being anticipated.
and appropriate assistance, the effects of experiences of torture and
trauma can lead to chronic health problems and have deleterious trans-generational
consequences for children. Children may be affected in a multitude of
ways. Poor nutrition, exposure to violence, undergoing periods of isolation
and separation, loss of one or both parents and siblings, or parents who
are severely traumatised as a result of their own experiences of torture
all combine to affect children’s physical, psychological and emotional
development. In the case of trauma, it is often felt that children have
a natural resilience or that they forget past experiences as they grow
up. Neither of these beliefs is true (VFST, 1996,Dyregrov, Gjestad and
OF DETENTION ON CHILDREN, ADOLESCENTS AND FAMILIES
Intrinsic stressors characterizing
The physical environment
and the quality and range of amenities varies from centre to centre but
certain characteristics would apply to most detention centres. They are:
- Restrictions and
control over everyday behaviours such as when and what detainees can
- Severe physical
conditions such as extreme temperatures in remote centres.
- Confinement as
a result of severe physical conditions and confined spaces for accommodation.
- No voice or representation
to authorities apart from processing of applications.
- Deprivation of
freedom and rights to ordinary privileges.
- Routine, monotony
with little meaningful activity.
- Lack of privacy:
the extent to which there are invasions of privacy such as head counts
several times during the night is a matter of dispute.
- Anonymity: the
degree to which detainees are required to identify themselves by their
number rather than by their name at meal times and during checks at
night is also a matter of dispute.
from community in the case of remote locations.
- Limited access
to information especially news of family left behind.
- Limited access
to outside world.
- Limited recreational
- Lack of autonomy:
eg permission needs to be sought to obtain medical attention.
- Inability to control
exposure to riots, hunger strikes, self-harming behaviour.
- Limited school
hours for children and adolescents.
- Limited protection
from victimization by other detainees.
regarding health and protective issues is compromised by unavailability
of external interpreters
Other detention conditions
are less concrete, in particular the policy environment. Awareness that
mandatory detention is being used as a deterrent to others would be experienced
would be experienced as a sentence for which no crime was committed.
Future security is completely uncertain.
Even if people are
determined to be refugees, only temporary protection with no right to
family reunion can be secured at best. For detainees who are not determined
to be refugees, there is no prospect of release from detention unless
they are deported.
In summary, detention
exacerbates the trauma response for those who have escaped persecution
and human rights abuses. This occurs in many ways, in particular:
- Ongoing deprivation
- Profound sense
of injustice and of not being heard.
- The almost complete
sense of powerlessness in their situation.
- Seeing the health
and well-being of children deteriorate in detention and the guilt and
pain associated with this.
- The secrecy, isolation
and management strategies that are part of the current detention situation.
- The inordinate
length of time spent in detention for many refugees seeking asylum.
Disempowerment of families
The act of mandatory
detention and loss of freedom combined with the physical conditions of
the detention centres result in a situation that undermines the capacity
for families to function as a viable supportive unit. Parents are limited
in their ability to provide the practical and psychological care required
by their children as a result of their experiences of conflict, flight
and a perilous journey.
Detention places people in situations remote from community supports,
in harsh (for those unused to it) climatic conditions and in some instances,
stuck in the ‘middle of nowhere’ behind at least two rows
of high fences and razor wire. People are thrown together in that there
is no choice about whom they share the compound with.
Depending on the
detention centre, there may be a number of separate compounds within the
one centre – separations based on the stage of processing.
The reality of detention for families is stark. The playground for children
may be a vast area of dust and heat – or mud and cold. People have
to share space – sometimes only with family, often with others,
and being unable to determine with whom. The difficulties for parents
in being able to effectively set limits on where and with whom their children
roam, is evident. Time weighs heavily for everyone. The daily challenge
of trying to communicate across languages – the impotence of not
being able to make yourself understood, especially when the needs of your
child are involved. Even though there may be classes or activities, sometimes
it is too hot to do anything. More often than not, the consequences of
their refugee experience and exposure to trauma and violence affects how
they feel and therefore their capacity to take up the opportunities. Grief
associated with separation or loss of loved ones can result in anxious
attachments with clinging behaviour, jealousy, anger and constantly being
afraid of losing the parent or parents (VFST 1998). Children with anxious
attachments exhibit separation anxiety.
Daily routines that families are used to cannot be sustained because of
the regimentation of the detention centre.
When and how meals
are provided and the inability of parents to be able to acquire food outside
the regimented times for their children – particularly young children
– means that they are unable to respond to the needs of their children
in the most basic sense.
Parents are also
unable to protect their children from exposure to a vast array of events
that would normally be situations they would not want their children involved
in. Not only do parents have to deal with their own sense of powerlessness
in this situation but have to live with the knowledge that their own children
see them as being powerless and unable to protect. Opportunities for privacy
and intimacy between husband and wife are also difficult. The cumulative
stresses associated with the sense of powerlessness over their family
life combined with a sense of hopelessness about refugee processing decisions
being made would affect the psychological well-being of parents and children.
Studies have identified that the level of stability and coherence in living
arrangements, loss of or separation from family members, the level of
family functioning, the parents’ own responsiveness being affected
by trauma, and parental depression are all factors that influence the
child’s response to traumatic events. Parents who are traumatised
may become aggressive, perpetuating a lack of safety (Wraith 1995, Pynoos,
Steinberg & Wraith 1995, VFST 1996, 1998, Maksimovic & Pittaway
2001) or their preoccupation with their own situation may make them less
available to their children to assist them to deal with their worries
and feelings (Dyregrov, Gjestad and Raundalen, 2002). “Post trauma
disturbances in parental responsiveness and impairment in parental role
function are a major source of secondary stress for children.” (Pynoos
et al, 1995, p78).
The longer children remain in environments where they are exposed to violence
the greater the risk of significant impacts on developmental achievements
(Pynoos et al, 1995, McCallin 1992). In an examination of children in
the detention centres of Hong Kong, McCallin identified five significant
factors effecting the emotional well-being of children in detention. These
(1) the length
of time in detention,
(2) by whom they
were being cared for,
(3) the age of
(4) their prior
experiences of trauma, and
(5) the detention
centre in which they were living.
Children who were
in detention for longer periods had significantly higher scores on the
stress assessment schedule as the “effect of length of stay appears
to result predominantly from increased exposure to traumatic events within
the detention centres…further exacerbated by feelings of isolation,
detachment and loss of confidence that are apparent in children who have
experienced high levels of trauma.” (McCallin 1992 p16).
These findings are supported in a study by Rumbaut of settlement of Indo
chinese refugee adults and children. Rumbaut found that “psychological
distress was consistently linked to conditions of powerlessness and alienation
un buffered by networks of socioemotional support” and that there
was a positive correlation between greater degree of family loss, separation
and longer time spent in refugee camps and higher distress scores (cited
in Riser and Silove, 1993, p86).
While the primary focus of McCallin’s study was on unaccompanied
and attached minors, examination of the difficulties experienced by children
in the detention centres who were with their parents (accompanied children)
identified that they were also experiencing difficulties and could not
rely on their parents to provide care and safety. These children also
had significantly high scores on the stress assessment schedule positively
correlated with the duration in detention. “The children feel that
their parents are powerless in the face of the stronger, organized elements
within the camps.” (McCallin 1992 p16).
A study undertaken
by Raundelen (cited in VFST 1998) emphasised that parents’ failure
to protect their children from danger during traumatic events lead to
children feeling betrayed. In detention, children are exposed to riots,
conflict between ACM officers and detainees, conflict between detainees,
adults or adolescents engaged in attempts at self harm or dangerous behaviour,
potential physical or sexual abuse by other adults, and most recently
hunger strikes. In detention, the parents’ capacity to protect their
children from exposure to these events is diminished and the situation
is often out of their control.
The study by McCallin
concludes that children in detention without parents or with tenuous relationships
with caregivers, are the most vulnerable with severe long term psychological
and psychosocial consequences. Significantly, the study finds that children
who are with their parent/s also show a deterioration of emotional well-being
over time. Families can only do so much to meet the needs of their children
in a negative situation such as detention.
of social support operate in the assumption that there is a context of
normality and stability from within which support is derived to mediate
the effects of negative life events. In situations such as prolonged detention,
characterised by violence and dehumanisation, it is unrealistic to expect
such a model to operate…those who are the givers of support (the
parents) also need support themselves. The parents should be affirmed
in their role and traditional social support models encouraged and supported
as a resource for the children.” (McCallin, 1992, p22).
Children are already
seriously affected by their experiences of trauma and the journey to Australia.
Detaining children has profound consequences on their development and
psychological well being. Detaining parents of children also has a profound
impact on children as they see their parents increasingly affected emotionally,
psychologically and in their capacity to respond to their children’s
needs the longer they are detained. Parents are in a powerless position
within detention and are unable to protect their children from ongoing
Extreme psychological states
There are no systematic
studies of people in Australian detention centres but studies of prisoners
and young people in detention or remand have shown that conditions of
confinement, lack of control over the environment and monotony, alone,
lead to extreme psychological states of despair, self harm and/or aggression.
The sense of injustice
would be strong in any detention environment which unduly restricts freedom
for a protracted period. In any country, the deprivation of liberty and
freedom of movement, and confinement to a small physical area, is linked
with sentencing for criminal behaviour or extra judicial detention associated
with political oppression. Incarceration may serve a government’s
interests but could not be perceived as justified by those incarcerated
because they have not been convicted of any crime. Short periods of detention
may be accepted as just because they serve the readily understood purpose
of processing, but beyond that, any fair-minded human being could not
accept the privations which come with detention.
Children do not have the capacity to comprehend their environment in terms
of justice, but adolescents have “moral antennae”. Once they
reach the age of twelve their ability to think abstractly develops. They
scrutinise adults for their fairness and react strongly to unfairness.
Research has shown
that children exposed to inescapable violence over years develop the belief
in adolescence that revenge is the best way to obtain justice (Garbarino
and Kostelny, 1993). The potential for retributive justice combined with
identification of the aggressor, which is another way to deal with chronic
feelings of helplessness, can lead to the perpetration of violent acts.
Although the Australian detention environment is not responsible for earlier
exposure to violence, the bewilderment of detention for those innocent
of crime can precipitate the desire to avenge previous injustices where
previous exposure to violence has been great. Where aggressive behaviour
is legitimised by family, peers or other influential figures, the probability
of acting out against others increases.
Most young people,
however, carry their feelings of unfairness and frustration within and
are vulnerable to acting against themselves. Self- harm and suicide can
become the only way out.
Tatz (2001), analysing the causes of Aboriginal youth suicide, calls for
understanding such behaviour in terms of a long history of powerlessness
and existential crisis rather than in terms of mental disorder. He quotes
the French writer Albert Camus who wrote “people are simply tired
and have had a gutful of the hypocrisy of life, the meaninglessness of
life, the purposelessness of life, and they see no horizon, and they see
no means of altering such horizons as they have.” This quote captures
the meaning of existential despair which can lead to suicidal behaviour.
It highlights the predicament of young people in detention, as well as
adults, a predicament borne of history as well as of harsh current circumstance.
A simple summary of the causes of suicide amongst young people in custodial
settings, including remand, is offered by Liebling and echoes the view
the combined effects of feelings of hopelessness, their current situation
and the fact that they cannot generate solutions to that situation that
propel the young prisoner towards suicide.”(Liebling, 1992,
Humiliation and the
degradation associated with anonymity are the other feelings to fuel passivity,
self- harm and violent protest. They are common amongst refugee survivors
of torture and trauma, as a legacy of violent invasions against the body
or the sanctity of certain values. They are particularly harmful to long
term mental health when the survivor has had to face impossible choices
which have led to harm or threat of harm coming to family, friends or
colleagues. The guilt and shame can undermine the will to survive once
escape itself has been successful. Humiliation and shame are reinforced
for detainees by the political environment and the voices of political
leaders who firmly lay the blame for the detainees’ predicament
Prime Minister Howard
(The Today Show, January 25, 2002) has openly spoken of wanting to deter
asylum seekers by providing an inhospitable environment.
What can detainees make of being used to deter others or of publicity
which highlights their possible links with terrorism, apart from feeling
demonised and dehumanised?
All detainees, whatever
their background, will have fled, leaving family members and friends vulnerable
to hardship at the least, and vulnerable to more substantial dangers,
in certain countries and circumstances.
Decisions to flee
are therefore fraught with continuing anxiety about people left behind.
Detainees feel threatened by discovering that they are unable to secure
safety for others. They feel guilty about this as well. Inability to contact
relatives left behind and inform them of their safety is a severe prohibition
and gives detainees no means to be reassured or evaluate the impact of
their actions. Again, this can lead to self punishment for guilt over
having made what is felt to be the wrong decision or anger toward the
source of frustration.
Options to deal with stress
There is no doubt
that, in part, experiences of helplessness and injustice in the country
of origin, motivate people to flee, despite the risks involved. Once in
detention, renewed feelings of helplessness and injustice will inevitably
fuel attempts to exert some control, at least in some detainees. In a
normal environment attempts at control can be adaptive and manifest in
responses such as creating a hospitable home environment, and acquiring
skills. Where options for adaptive control are unavailable, various behaviours
emerge such as passivity, submission, withdrawal, excessive help seeking
behaviour, self-harm and in some instances violent protest. These are
all attempts to escape from the emotional states described above, as well
as a form of communication.
Which of these behaviours actually emerge will depend on a range of factors
in addition to those considered.
- History of political
- Provocations such
as mistreatment by officers.
- Group influences.
of violence as honour, revenge.
- Stage of development.
The last factor warrants
special consideration in regard to unaccompanied minors, most of who have
been adolescents. In adolescence, there is the propensity to experience
intense emotions of disappointment, rage and shame with poor self-regulation
of emotional states.
When such emotions
are combined with the developmental demands of identity formation, forging
a future and integrating sexual urges, the young person can literally
not know where to turn to deal with what is typically experienced as confusion
or turmoil. Peers and role models are sought as a guide to ease the distress.
These are normal processes but in an abnormal environment, distressing
emotions will lead to acting out behaviours which in a percentage of cases,
will be destructive. There is also the sheer fact of restlessness which
arises from inactivity during the day and sleeplessness at night, which
can fuel acting out.
Self-injury is not peculiar to the young but it has been described as
a sub-culture in young-offender institutions (Liebling, 1992). Toch (1992)
surveyed an institution for young offenders with a population of 1054
men. 7.7% had injured themselves during their stays which averaged 17
People who injure themselves are called “slashers”, “cutters”,
with their “tramlines” and “scratches”. They are
called “manipulative” and “attention-seeking”
(Liebling, 1992). Such words obscure the pain of isolation and helplessness
they experience and their desperate need for relief.
are run by ACM and to date there has been little or no access to the conditions
of their contract. One would expect considerable variation in the way
in which rules are enforced, an observation which has been made for prison
settings (De Rosia, 1998). It is impossible to know to what extent officers
act coercively or perform their jobs with professionalism and dignity.
The political climate and media reports which describe detainees as illegal
queue jumpers, whose acts of protest such as lip sewing are portrayed
as barbarous (cite newspaper articles), would reinforce the perception
that detainees have no right to have sought refuge in Australia. Such
government and public attitudes have to influence the attitudes of detention
officers and would mitigate against dignified and fair treatment. The
lack of understanding of self- harming behaviour and other forms of protest
also reinforces the view that the detainees are not like us as evidenced
by a statement made by Minister Ruddock on the Sunday Program (5 May 2002).
He responded to a question by the reporter regarding self-harming behaviour,
stating: “I’am saying that people who self harm are certainly
behaving in a way which we would regard as unacceptable in the Australian
Once behaviour is labeled as manipulative and horrific, there is further
justification for potential mistreatment. Of course, violent or elf-destructive
behaviour has to be responded to at many levels for the safety of both
detainees and staff, but the appropriateness of such responses requires
Those released from
detention with a temporary protection visa are in the situation of knowing
that their refugee claims have been accepted but they continue to face
an uncertain future.
Although some basic
needs may be met with temporary visas, the circumstance of complete uncertainty
about the future,separation from family members for many years if not
forever, fears for their family’s safety, guilt about impossible
decisions which had to be made and a political climate which is un welcoming
and punitive, mean that the most fundamental conditions for well-being
are difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil.
The goals of recovery
when working with survivors of persecution, are to restore safety and
control, begin to rebuild attachments and connections with others, assist
the survivor to find meaning and purpose to life and to restore dignity
Much of this is not possible when refugees who seek asylum continue to
live in a state of uncertainty, with the threat of forced return (a temporary
visa means that there is ongoing threat of return), guilt about having
some sense of safety (albeit somewhat intangibly) when family and friends
at home continue to live with violence and threat to survival, and to
be constantly exposed to unjust practices in what is supposed to be a
‘humane country’. The building of trust and hope and meaning
to life is very difficult in the face of these constant reminders about
the refugee journey and the perpetual state of humiliation at not being
The condition of the visa that bars them from family reunion leads to
despair. On a TPV they are unable to bring family, many of whom are at
ongoing risk and danger overseas, to the relative safety of Australian
protection. Their impotence in this situation mirrors the powerlessness
they felt during their refugee experiences. The guilt associated with
having to continually live with remaining here in relative safety, while
family remain unsafe, is likely to result in depression and chronic despair
for many. Some are unable to bear this guilt and shame and may take extreme
measures to assuage their guilt. This can include self-destructive behaviours
or a decision to return home with the risk of renewed persecution.
A sense of hopelessness, frustration and anger characterise responses
to the powerlessness and discrimination experienced by refugees with a
temporary protection visa. This has a cost to mental health and also to
the capacity of parents to respond to the needs of their children.
fathers, can feel ashamed at being unable to provide for their wife and
children. Children and young people can sense the despair felt by their
parents and feel equally despairing and helpless. This will in turn, impact
on their capacity to cope with school and the establishment of friendships
and social supports. Depression can also characterize the psychological
state of children and young people who are living in the community with
a temporary protection visa.
Almost daily, people with TPV’s have been exposed to media portrayal
of them as “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, “unwanted”,
undesirables who throw their children overboard, Muslims who hate the
West, vandals, terrorists, and many equally demonising and derogatory
descriptions. A consequence is that those with a TPV will feel that the
community does not accept or understand them and their situation. The
wider community has stereotypical and xenophobic attitudes reinforced,
further alienating the general community from the asylum seekers. While
there are counter arguments to these attitudes and the publishing of positive
stories about those seeking asylum, the weight of negative media attention
is far greater. The environment into which people are released from detention,
therefore, is not conducive to acceptance and supportive assistance from
The VFST has had contact with many families released from detention centres.
Our experience is that families deteriorate further in the community.
Whilst still in detention, the focus had been on getting out. Once out,
they begin to experience the loss associated with an uncertain future.
It is hard for many people to see the point of struggling to learn English
and apply for jobs, facing the potential rejections that all this entails.
Parents can feel useless as they can see that they have no rights in the
way that other people living in Australia do. This sense of being without
rights is quite pronounced for some because everyone they meet does have
rights, and they feel their second class status very acutely.
People came to Australia trying to achieve safety for themselves, and
particularly their children. They cannot, however, offer this and this
realisation impairs their confidence. We have observed them to become
withdrawn. Children expect their hardships to be over once released but
instead notice their parents are ineffectual and remote. Their hopes for
being a family are not realised and so the children too become withdrawn,
where they had been happy on release.
At times parents
are unable to respond to their child’s needs, especially with younger
children, when the child’s behaviour is more demanding, aggressive
or distressed. This in turn exacerbates the child’s impression that
the parent’s are unavailable. Paradoxically, not being able to contain
the child’s behaviour results in an increase in demanding behaviour
from the child which can diminish the parent’s sense of hope that
the child will improve and life will get back to normal. It is a vicious
cycle of building distrust and despair for both child and parent.
The situation is compounded for children and adolescents who have been
separated from one or more family members. The degree of withdrawal of
these children is intensified. They cannot learn and are observed by teachers
to be isolated and shut down. From a counseling perspective it is almost
impossible to deal with their problems because the pain of separation
is so intense that they are in a non-feeling state. They cannot talk about
their problems because it would expose them to feeling the pain of separation
much more acutely.
These reactions, linked to the temporary nature of their stay and the
fact of separation, would have prevailed whether they had been in detention
is also the experience of having been in detention that has eroded any
sense that they mattered to anybody. They do not find it easy to accept
help because they have internalised distrust and wariness of people. This
results in difficulties for the counselor trying to engage and support
In several cases
children and parents we have seen have been seriously traumatized by events
in detention. The nature and extent of symptoms reflects particular experiences
in detention. Examples include: children having nightmares about things
that happened in detention and children speaking about violent events
which occurred in detention; some report experiences of treats being deliberately
withheld from them. In a city-based detention centre, children have been
permitted to go to school or the occasional excursion but that has exposed
them to detention officers accompanying them, picking them up and sometimes,
there were more guards than individuals in the party/group. This has caused
humiliation for the children and for the parents too.
Children once released still ask questions regarding what they had done
wrong to be treated this way, as they can only comprehend such events
in terms of them having done something wrong.
It is also our belief that some children continue to act in extreme ways
as a way of coping. In detention they had learned to cope when angry or
frustrated, in a maladaptive way. In the present, they still resort to
extreme withdrawal or doing things like rejecting food.
Normally it is possible
to restore safety for children, even if their long-term safety is not
secured, because they will accept what adult figures, counselor, parents,
teachers, can provide. But the experience of detention makes them distrust
those reassurances. This is particularly damaging because essentially
there are children who sense they are not safe any more and this is well
known to make them particularly vulnerable to remembering disturbing experiences
of any kind – in detention or pre-arrival.
There are various ways in which children have expressed their sense of
being second class citizens. For example, in group sessions with adolescent
students in a school, when asked to make their nametags they asked if
the ‘numbers’ from the detention centre was required. In discussion
with teachers, who have young people with TPVs in their classes, they
have identified that these children are more withdrawn and troubled than
other refugee children who have arrived with permanent visas. Teachers
have observed that parents too are more wary of them as teachers, and
of the attention shown, perhaps because they do not know what they can
trust about it.
Teachers themselves are affected by knowing that there is no certain future
– for the young people or the parents – and consequently they
find it difficult to assist the child who has been separated from a parent
with no prospect of reunion.
The full extent of
long term mental health effects of what we have described is unknown at
this time. However, the difficulties in the present pose many challenges
for children, adolescents, parents and service providers, which they are
unlikely to meet.
Asylum seekers and
people with TPVs require a holistic approach to care that encompasses
food, shelter, income through work or some form of benefit, access to
physical and mental health care, legal representation, as well as social
connections within their communities (however defined).
Many service providers
would want to assist those with TPVs and those seeking asylum to avail
themselves of what they need in order to be able to meet at least basic
needs – shelter, food, clothing and education. After all, those
granted a TPV have had their refugee claims upheld.
The temporary protection
visa conditions give people access to Medicare, the Centrelink Special
Benefit payment, the right to work and the right to live freely within
the community. On the surface this would seem to be an adequate response
by government, in that those with a TPV have access to income, health
care and the capacity to acquire food and shelter. In reality, however,
there are a number of factors that mitigate against those with a TPV from
establishing themselves within the community.
to learn English, individuals will perpetually be in a disadvantageous
position for employment, participation in mainstream society, being able
to advocate for themselves and to become increasingly independent. Access
to interpreter services provided by the Commonwealth Government through
the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) is also not free –
to clients or service providers. In effect, this maintains people in a
powerless and vulnerable position in relation to accessing services and
the capacity to act independently.
People have the right
to work. They do not have access to assistance in getting employment other
than the self-access resources. Without English or the opportunity to
learn English, these self access facilities are of limited use.
no active assistance in finding employment, the temporary nature of their
visa, the impact of the negative media coverage in relation to those with
TPVs, and the limited access to other supports, act against them finding
employment. The fact that some do is testament to their survival skills
Provision of settlement
assistance to all newly arrived migrants – whether arriving under
the Humanitarian Program or the Family Migration Program – is acknowledged
as being crucial to link people with a vast array of services essential
to successful settlement and participation in society. The National Population
Council (1988) defined settlement as:
the process by
which an immigrant establishes economic viability and social networks
following immigration in order to contribute to, and make full use of,
opportunities generally available to the receiving society. (NPC, 1988).
Government, through funding services to provide such assistance, recognises
that contributing to successful settlement soon after arrival is a cost-effective
measure. As stated in the Victorian Integrated Settlement Plan 1994- 1999,
produced by the then State Intergovernmental Settlement Committee (SIGSC)
coordinated by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (now Department
of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs):
To assist migrants
in the process of establishing themselves within the Australian community,
government aims to ensure that services are provided which enable migrants
to successfully make the transition from one country to another. A fundamental
assumption in planning for settlement services is that migrants are entitled
to benefit from the same services as the rest of the community. Barriers
to access therefore need to be addressed and strategies developed to achieve
an outcome which makes services equally responsive to migrants’
needs. (SIGSC, 1994, p4).
Government expressly denies those on TPVs access to settlement services
funded through DIMIA’s Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy
(IHSS) and through the Community Settlement Services Support (CSSS) grants
funding. Through IHSS funding, torture and trauma services are allowed
to assist those with TPVs in accessing health services and provision of
limited assistance in dealing with symptoms related to their trauma and
torture experiences. Without access to systematic provision of settlement
services, however, the capacity to benefit from such assistance is diminished.
Some State governments
have responded positively to the plight of people with TPVs. The Victorian
Government has ensured that people have access to State-funded services
such as public housing, education for children and young people and access
to hospitals and community health care, although funding has not increased
to accommodate the needs of the group. One of the difficulties regarding
access is that individuals may not know of the services that do exist
and even more importantly, how to access them.
Because the settlement
service support environment is being forced to establish dual systems
– one for the ‘legitimate’ humanitarian arrival who
comes with a permanent visa and one for the ‘temporary refugee’
who does not have access to the formal settlement service system –
there is fragmentation in service provision and an inevitable duplication
Coordination is more difficult because workers are trying to expand their
role to be inclusive of refugees with TPVs, rather than to have a legitimised
role that identifies what services are needed and establishing a systemic
response. This places pressure on workers who also have to deal with feelings
of frustration and anger at how the system is discriminating against a
vulnerable group of individuals who are, in fact, refugees. By actively
not funding agencies to provide settlement assistance to those being released
into the community with a TPV, in effect the Commonwealth Government is
consciously setting up barriers to access. A probable outcome is that
individuals and families will not know about or use services that could
support them, would be less able to establish economic viability and social
networks and would not make the transition from
their own country to Australia. The costs to individuals, and in particular
children, are enormous.
The school environment
For children and
adolescents the primary source of normalisation is the school setting.
Through our work in schools, from observations of and interactions with
students and in discussions with teachers, it is apparent that children
and adolescents on temporary protection visas have difficulty adjusting
to the school environment.
of young people impact on settlement into a new school system and the
transition is made more difficult by the recent detention centre experience.
The time spent living in detention centres without access to comprehensive
educational services means educational input, disrupted by experiences
are further compromised. This compounds the difficulties for children
and adolescents in adjusting to the school environment.
Additionally, these factors can pose challenges for teachers to work with.
The detention centre experience coupled with the conditions of the temporary
protection visa affects particularly the process of forming relationships.
There is a sense among many students that long-term relationships cannot
be forged because of the uncertain future as well as the experiences of
multiple losses. Teachers also report finding it difficult to assist children
who seem very anxious.
Acceptance by the
wider school community is further hindered by adverse media coverage.
For example, reporting regarding the “Children Overboard”
incident and events on September 11th has created a sense of disharmony.
In one school, children from all ethnic backgrounds have been called “Arabs”
as part of the new name taunting that happens in the school-yard.
For many refugee young people the consistency provided by school assists
in the settlement process. For young people with TPVs their despair and
lack of hope about the future affects their capacity to engage in what
school can offer. To learn well requires not only that adolescents, children
and their families know about and access educational programs but that
they also have the capacity to remain as participants within existing
systems. The difficulties experienced by children and adolescents holding
TPVs are further exacerbated by a lack of knowledge by mainstream schools
of the dilemmas facing students who are holders of TPV’s.
On release from detention
centres, people with temporary protection visas have certainly gained
safety and one aspect of freedom. It does not take long for people to
realise, however, that the pressures and constraints of detention have
been replaced with new pressures associated with settling into the community
but with only limited access to services and supports. The current policy
environment, coupled with the negative image portrayed in the media of
those who seek asylum in the process they have, serve to exacerbate any
trauma which was already compounded by the detention experience. The act
of mandatory detention and consequent loss of freedom, combined with the
physical conditions of the detention centres, result in a situation that
undermines the capacity for families to function as a viable supportive
unit. It is extremely difficult for parents while in detention centres,
to be able to provide the practical and psychological care required by
their children as a result of their experiences of conflict, flight and
a perilous journey. The physical conditions of a detention centre contribute
to the disempowerment experienced by parents in particular but also their
children. Having risked all to seek protection they are then detained
because mandatory detention is implemented as a general deterrent to others
trying to also seek protection through the same means.
Until detention is
dismantled it is also critical that a number of strategies be implemented.
1. While children
and young people and their families are being held in detention, opportunities
need to be created and sustained for children/young people to study, have
places where they are able to be involved in age and gender appropriate
activities, and to provide opportunities for them to express themselves.
for parents to be able to regain authority within their family and to
participate in a more meaningful way within the detention community is
2. Strategies that
contribute to minimizing harm must also be considered. In order to ensure
that the best interests of the child are at the forefront, a number of
factors must be incorporated:
- The importance
of parents and children being together for the psychological well-being
of the child.
- The need to protect
children from arbitrary detention and to keep any deprivation of liberty
as brief as possible.
- Children have
already experienced multiple separations through the process of fleeing
their country and being placed in detention. Proposals to separate children
and mothers from fathers will compound grief reactions, anxious attachments
and separation anxiety.
3. There would be benefits in ensuring that those released from detention
have access to the range of settlement services that support their establishment
in the wider community. Access to English language learning, free access
to interpreter services, assistance with employment-seeking activities,
legitimate settlement assistance and increased resources to work with
children and adolescents in the school setting would positively contribute
to mental health. Without a coordinated service response, the risks that
those on a TPV will remain marginalised and unable to participate more
fully in society are inevitable. The cost to them individually and to
the wider community is profound. The cost to the healthy development of
children and adolescents is even more concerning.
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