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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from


Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST)




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

from persecution.

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.

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 (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

to confront.

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

(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 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.

Without adequate

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

Raundalen, 2002).



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.

  • Disconnection

    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.

  • Communication

    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

as unjust.

Prolonged detention

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

    of freedom.

  • 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

the children,

(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.

Theoretical models

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

psychological harm.

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

of Tatz.

“It is

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

on them.

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.

  • Fragmentation

    of self.

  • Group influences.
  • Legitimisation

    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.

Staff-detainee relationships

Detention centres

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

lose scrutiny.


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

and value.

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.

Parents, particularly

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 public.

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

or not.

Nevertheless, it

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.

The services

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.

Without opportunity

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.

Limited English,

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

and resourcefulness.

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).

The Commonwealth

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).

The Commonwealth

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

of networks.

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.

Trauma reactions

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.

Creating possibilities

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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Updated 30 June 2003.