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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Australian Association for

the Welfare of Child Health (AWCH)

The Australian Association

for the Welfare of Child Health (AWCH) is a national organisation of parents

and professionals which advocates for and raises awareness of the psychosocial

needs of children, young people and their families within the health care

system in Australia. AWCH advocates a holistic family-oriented approach

to the care of children and young people, acknowledging the vital role

the family plays in that care.

No group is more

disadvantaged in the political process than children - they cannot vote,

cannot hold political office, and rarely can speak publicly for their

interests. They have no access to any of the traditional levels of political

power. Children need the advocacy voice of parents, health care providers,

and interested members of the community to speak on their behalf and represent

their interests.

The health rights

of children and young people were encapsulated in the UN Convention on

the Rights of the Child 1990 to which Australia is a signatory. This submission

highlights the primary issues of concern about the well-being and healthy

development of children who find themselves in immigration detention facilities

in Australia and makes recommendations to ensure the best interests of

detained children are met.


and Social Well-being

Immigration detention

in any form will never be in the best interests of children and is a breach

of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These rights include

rights of freedom, to a normal social life and to education. Detention

of a child interferes with all of these rights. This is true whether it

is an unaccompanied child or a child who is made subject to the detention

of his/her parents. AWCH is concerned that there is a tendency to overlook

the rights that the child has as an individual and a failure to ensure

that the child is given the opportunity to assert those rights and that

those rights are upheld and protected. This concern is expressed both

in relation to those children who are unaccompanied and those children

who are with their families.

Issue 1

Right to detention

only as a last resort

The detention of

children in immigration facilities poses long-term risks to the psychosocial

well-being of children and young people and is not in the best interests

of the child (CRC article 3). Extended stays can lead to behavioural extremes

in children and young people and those without family members in particular

can experience depression, apathy, delinquent behaviour, aggressive acts,

mental disturbances, drug abuse and suicide.

AWCH is deeply concerned

about reports that children are being detained for long periods of time

and that some of these children and young people have attempted suicide

and participated in hunger strikes. Recent press reports have alleged

that detention centres are unclean, extremely hot, and lack ventilation

or adequate outdoor recreation space. There are also reports that adults

have sexually assaulted detained children. If these reports are true the

situation needs to be urgently addressed.

There is no legal

limit on the length of immigration detention in Australia and some children

may spend years in detention. Detaining children is strongly discouraged

under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is discriminatory.

It also should not be used in an arbitrary way (CRC article 2 & 37):

they are the only group of children in Australia subject to automatic

detention. The CRC provides that children should be detained only as a

last resort, and then only for the shortest appropriate period of time.

Any detention of children must be subject to periodic judicial review.

Detained children

have the same social welfare rights (health, education, standard of living)

as the general population (CRC article 2). If it is necessary to detain

children in immigration detention facilities, all the needs of the child

must be met while they are being detained and the child's best interests

must be the primary consideration (CRC article 21). Freedom of movement

outside detention should be an option so that children have access to

the outside world and to enjoy their own culture, practice their own religion

and use their own language (CRC article 14 & 17). In this way the

mental and social well-being of children can be more effectively assured

by the quick re-establishment of normal community life.

No child should be

subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or

punishment (CRC article 37) and appropriate measures to promote physical

and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim

must be taken.

Documented evidence

has shown detention centre environments are inadequate to meet the special

needs of any child, let alone children who have suffered human rights

abuses and the trauma of fleeing their home. There are also fears that

children housed in detention centres may be at heightened risk of abuse

and the dehumanising effect of being treated as illegal.

Children are vulnerable,

and detention has a harsher impact on them than on adults. The continued

detention of children, who are innocent of any crime, causes physical,

emotional and developmental damage, which has been extensively documented.

It also violates the international conventions governing the welfare of


Every child has the

right to a standard of living adequate for physical mental spiritual,

moral and social development (CRC article 24). The detention of children

places them in an abnormal environment and risks impeding their development.

Australia, as a signatory to the CRC, must ensure the development of the

child to the maximum possible extent (CRC article 6) and every effort

should be made to minimise the physical and emotional distress to children

and their families.



  • Children and

    young people should not be housed in detention centres for extended

    periods of time. Special arrangements must be made for living quarters

    which are suitable for children and their families, who must be kept


  • Children and young

    people must have access to the same local services as children in the

    general community eg health, education, recreation and freedom of movement

    in and out of the facility.

  • Alternative non-custodial

    measures, such as reporting requirements, should always be considered

    before resorting to detention.

  • Unaccompanied

    minors should never be detained.

Issue 2

Right to family

support and unity

The best way to

promote the psychosocial well-being of children and young people is to

provide appropriate support to their families, who need to be fully involved

in their child's development and to be living in as normal an environment

as possible. The need for a functioning family becomes even more important

when we consider the developing needs of children and young people who

have had their normal structure taken away by the refugee situation and/or

by being detained. In these situations the normal social rules, values

and controls begin to break down and parental distress and anxiety can

seriously disrupt the emotional development of the child. A child's role

models can be lost and there can be growing alienation between the child

and parent.

According to the

Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children are entitled to grow

up in a healthy family environment. Families do not operate in vacuums

and they are influenced by what is happening around them. Most detention

centres do not have the capacity to separate families from the general

adult detainee group - a specification in international guidelines on

refugees. A family that is under severe stress will not be able to meet

fully the physical and emotional needs of their children. Family unity

and support to the family should be maintained in a family friendly environment.

The United Nations

High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has clearly stated that refugees

who are most at risk of sexual violence are children in detention or detention-like

situations - particularly girls and unaccompanied minors. Current detention

practice takes away parents' ability to protect their children from unnecessary

violence and fear. Alleged cases of child sexual abuse in the Curtin Detention

Centre highlighted the dangers of detaining children in cramped conditions

with adults, many of whom may be suffering depression and post-traumatic

stress disorder. Unless special measures are taken to ensure that children

are protected, to keep them and their families apart from the rest of

the detainee population, and to provide staff specially trained to attend

to children's special needs, children detained in these centres may be

at continued risk of attack and abuse.

Children are able

to apply for a "Bridging Visa", which enables them to leave

detention. The reality of this is that they are then separated from their

families and placed into foster care. Numerous studies provide strong

evidence that such separation is strongly detrimental to the health and

well being of the child. Studies on children of refugees support the need

for a parental bond or continuous relationship in order to protect a child's

mental health. Research into the psychological well being of children

demonstrates that they suffer less if they remain with their parents,

even under dangerous and stressful conditions.



  • Families should

    be housed as family units in appropriate accommodation that is separate

    from other families and detainees.

Issue 3

Right to play

and education facilities

Articles 25 and 29

of the Convention on the Rights of the Child state the right to education

and the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society.

Detention may preclude or inhibit the child's access to education. In

particular, exclusion from mainstream education deprives children of the

social environment of the school. No child is prepared for a responsible

life in a free society by being held in detention.

Article 31 of the

Convention on the Rights of the Child supports the right of the child

to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities

appropriate to the

age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Children are developing emotionally, physically, intellectually and socially,

and are effected negatively when they are deprived of developmental essentials

like play and education. Play and social interaction are vital to the

healthy development of children and young people. It is the way children

and young people make sense out of their experiences. It is a way of relaxing

and relieving tensions. The predictability of being able to access play

and education facilities to the same level as children in the general

population will create a sense of normalcy which is of paramount importance

to their development.

Children living in

detention centres do not enjoy the full range of rights they are entitled

to. Reports indicate there is no consistent full-time education system,

insufficient play and leisure areas and limited - if any - contact with

the outside world. Children learn best in the mainstream system and they

need to learn more than just English to advance their education suitable

to their age. They learn much more from interaction with peers at school

than they would in an isolated environment. The long-term implications

for children are worrying in terms of their development and ability to

integrate. Although asylum-seeking children may initially face difficulties

in schools, they are nevertheless probably the best ambassadors for building

links with their community. Going to school is a vital and integral step

in the integration process, even if children are only resident in Australia

for a short period.



  • Children and

    young people should attend daily school, preferably in the local community

  • Teachers should

    be specially trained in the needs of the families

  • Children should

    have play facilities available to them outside school hours. There should

    be a range of gross motor, fine motor, imaginative and social play experiences

    in appropriately child and family friendly facilities

  • Sun protection

    shady areas should be available

Issue 4

Right to access

health services

Inadequate educational

and recreational facilities, inadequate trauma and torture support, and

the prolonged period in detention will contribute to the deleterious effect

on psychosocial health. Children in detention may have difficulty in accessing

a whole range of health care services and this may compromise their right

under the convention to access equity and quality of health care to the

same level as the general population (Article 24).



  • Children and

    young people's access to health care must be met to the same level as

    the general population.

Issue 5

Right for unaccompanied

children to access all the social services and legal protections

Unaccompanied children

who are not being cared for by their families face a high risk of not

receiving proper protection and care: the physical and developmental needs

of these children will not be fully met unless they receive appropriate

alternative care and guardianship arrangements. Supervision of the care

of unaccompanied children should be undertaken by national or local child

welfare services, who are experienced and trained to deal with children

and young people. Children should only be entrusted to an agency if that

agency's qualifications and ability to care for children has been proven

and the agency ensures the needs of these children is its first priority.

Unaccompanied children

seeking asylum belong to one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.

Without the care and support of parents or other family members, they

face particular difficulties in making applications for asylum. They have

often experienced horrific torture and subsequent trauma. Many children

have been made to witness the rape, torture and killings of their parents,

brothers or sisters.

Unaccompanied children

should never be detained other than in the most exceptional circumstances

and then only overnight with appropriate care if they arrive alone. It

should only be in the most exceptional circumstances that local social

services departments are unable to provide an immediate, emergency response

when children arrive alone. Immigration detention is not the appropriate

place for newly arrived unaccompanied children and it would be a rare

circumstance indeed in which a child cannot be taken into the care of

social services immediately upon arrival.



  • Unaccompanied

    children should be provided with all the social services and legal protections

    available to children in the general community

  • Unaccompanied

    children should be cared for in the community in foster families or

    groups of similar ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious background

  • Unaccompanied

    children must be kept informed at each step about plans being made for


  • Well-trained

    staff equipped with the skills to meet the unique needs of these children

    should be employed to monitor these children

  • Should unaccompanied

    children be in detention then there needs to be adequate procedures

    and mechanisms to deal with complaints involving ill-treatment


AWCH is very concerned

about the impact of immigration detention on the psychosocial well-being

of children and young people. AWCH strongly opposes the mandatory detention

of children and young people and recommends that families with children

be housed in family friendly units with access to health, education and

recreation services to the same level as the general population. Unaccompanied

minors should be placed in the community with a continuous care-giver

who is loving and nurturing, and who meets the developmental needs of

each child.

Anne Cutler, National Liaison Officer


PO Box 113

Westmead 2145

Phone: 02 9633 1988

Fax: 02 9633 1180




Updated 9 January 2003.