here to return to the Submission Index
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
minors should never be detained.
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
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.
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
Right to access
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.
Right for unaccompanied
children to access all the social services and legal protections
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.
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.
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.
children should be provided with all the social services and legal protections
available to children in the general community
children should be cared for in the community in foster families or
groups of similar ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious background
children must be kept informed at each step about plans being made for
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
Anne Cutler, National Liaison Officer
PO Box 113
Phone: 02 9633 1988
Fax: 02 9633 1180
Updated 9 January 2003.