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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
The Association of Children's
Welfare Agencies (ACWA)
of reference 1
of reference 2
of reference 3
Dear Dr Ozdowski,
I am pleased to present
herewith a submission on behalf of the Association of Childrens Welfare
Agencies, addressing key issues for the Inquiry into Children in Immigration
The Association and
its members have been gravely concerned for some time now about the plight
of asylum seekers and refugee children in detention. We look forward to
the vital issues of human rights, education, physical and psychological
well being and general welfare of these children being addressed in the
Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies
Locked bag 13
Haymarket NSW 1240
of reference 1:
made by Australia to implement its international human rights obligations
regarding child asylum seekers including unaccompanied minors.
Australia is a signatory
to and has ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
The 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture
and Other Cruel and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Australia under the
present Federal Liberal Government and the former Labor Government has
made it clear that the protection of National Borders and the deterrence
of so called "people smuggling" is its primary concern in relation
to the Immigration Policy regarding refugees. This approach is resulting
in practices which contravene the rights of children in detention centres.
Policy contradicts many of the International Treaties to which it is a
signatory. Successive Federal Governments have sought to argue the position
of 'National Interest' and the enforcement of Federal Statutory Law over
international convention obligations.
The impact of this
position has been devastating for the hundreds of people seeking asylum
in Australia in recent years particularly children. Indeed the position
of the government has been to adopt an increasingly hard line approach
in the face of international criticism and independent inquiries into
its policies. One of the most devastating impacts of these draconian policies
has been the psycho-social trauma inflicted on refugee children under
the mandatory detention regime throughout Australia.
Until recently it
was impossible to obtain accurate numbers of minors (children under 18yrs
of age) Some progress in this regard has been make recently with regular
updates on the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA)
website. However these figures do not take into account the number of
children being held in camps off shore under Australia's "Pacific
Children are not
told of their rights to legal representation, nor of the process of application.
For unaccompanied children their experience of detention is even more
terrifying and the process of application bewildering. "DIMA officers
are not permitted to give arrivals information about their right to legal
assistance, on an interpretation of Section 256 of the Migration Act"
Many of the unaccompanied
children are currently detained in some of the most remote locations in
Australia - in detention centres in Woomera, Port Hedland and Curtin.
There is little access to regular or special services which children require
and minimal access to advocates who can support these children and provide
them with information on their rights in such isolated areas. Specifically
a situation has been highlighted of 12 unaccompanied children in Woomera
Detention Centre who have been screened out of the application process
in relation to their asylum claims because they did not utter the appropriate
words on their first interview with immigration officials
I am seeking
asylum as a result of persecution These children languish in
detention indefinitely because there is no case to process and no diplomatic
ties with their home country as an avenue for deportation.
A further concern
and contravention of human rights occurs when refugee children arrive
accompanied by family members and then become separated from these protective
adults at the hands of Australian authorities. Specifically there have
been incidents where the parents of these children have been charged with
inciting unrest in the detention centres and have been sent to another
part of the detention centre for a period of isolation out of contact
from their children. This is made worse for some children when their parents
have been transferred to prisons within the criminal justice system awaiting
criminal proceedings leaving the children vulnerable and unprotected.
Some of these unaccompanied children have recently been released into
the care and protection of the South Australian Government and are residing
in foster care situations according to recent reports from DIMA. It is
unclear however what the status of these children is. The long term prospects
for reuniting them with family in Australia is doubtful given the current
policy of family reunion for refugees. In September 2001 the law was changed
so that "boat people" who are recognised as genuine refugees
can never acquire permanent resident status and can never bring their
families to Australia to join them.
The serious concerns
highlighted above represent an appalling abuse of human rights and contravenes
Australia's obligations under international conventions. Specifically
Australia is in breach of:
- Article 37 of
the United Nations Convention the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which
prohibits the detention of children except as a last resort and for
the shortest appropriate period of time.
- Article 22 of
the UNCRC which requires the state to provide appropriate protection
and humanitarian assistance to refugee asylum seeker children, especially
in relation to family reunion.
- Articles 19 &
20 of the UNCRC which requires the state to provide care and intervention
to protect children from abuse and neglect.
- Article 24 clearly
articulates the right to access adequate health care and necessary medical
assistance. Australia is clearly in breach of this article as outlined
further on in this paper.
- Article 27 recognises
the right of every child to an adequate standard of living which promotes
their social, physical and moral wellbeing
- Article 28 requires
all children to receive a primary education and access to secondary
- Article 31 recognises
the right of all children to rest recreation and play.
- Article 34 requires
state parties to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation.
- Article 39 requires
that the state provide appropriate measures for the physical and emotional
rehabilitation from the effects of trauma and abuse.
There is a disturbing
lack of intervention on the part of State Child Protection Authorities
to intervene in the cases of reported abuse. The reasons for this would
seem to be complicated and varied however this does not belie the fact
that were these children Australian Nationals they would be provided with
care and protection under appropriate state and territory legislation.
- There is also
evidence that the Australian Government is acting in contravention of
national and international anti-discrimination conventions. The chasm
between the assistance proffered through state and federal policy to
child citizens and permanent residents in Australia compared to refugee
children is disgraceful and amounts to racial discrimination. This contravenes
Article 2 of the UNCRC which states that State Parties will respect
and ensure the rights of all children without discrimination of any
of reference 2:
detention of child asylum seekers and other children arriving in Australia
without visas, and alternatives to detention.
It is the unequivocal
position of ACWA that the detention of child asylum seekers is an unacceptable
form of care. Community based care is widely accepted as being a necessary
condition for children to achieve normal development. The outcomes for
children in terms of recovery from trauma are much higher when they are
placed in caring community environments under the protective care of family
members or with kinship and cultural groups the same as their own.
The detention centre
environment by its very nature re-traumatises already extremely vulnerable
children and young people. These children do not have the resilience to
withstand such circumstances, nor should they have to, under Australia's
international human rights obligations as outlined earlier.
The nature of Australia's
detention centres puts refugee children at grave risk of physical, emotional,
sexual abuse and neglect. The environment is a mix of highly traumatised
and stressed individuals from widely varied communities, ethnicities,
and religions; some of which are in conflict with each other. Family groups
are not separated from single adult males and no aspect of detention centre
operations are child focused. Staff in detention centres are not trained
in the care and protection of children. Detention centres are operated
on a corrective services model (a model similar to prisons). Australian
Correctional Management (ACM) staff are referred to as "guards",
their primary role being the maintenance of security not the promotion
of the wellbeing of detainees.
of the Villawood detention centre by the NSW Child Protection Council
as far back as 1993 the Council concluded that conditions under which
the asylum seekers were being held were detrimental to their well being
and particularly damaging to the physical and psychological health and
development of the children and young people. Among other things the Council
called for the children and their parents who were in detention to be
immediately released into the community while their applications for asylum
were being processed. (Rogers, 2002.)
The stress of such
conditions and the maltreatment of detainees by the guards often lead
to acts of violence and self harm by groups and individuals. Hunger strikes,
suicide attempts and actual suicide are not uncommon. Violent outbursts
occur frequently between guards and detainees as well as among detainees.
Riots are common place as the frustration of the visa processing system
takes its toll. The children are witnesses to all of this with increasing
frequency over long periods of time. The impact is devastating! Children
become involved in the rioting as an outlet for their frustration and
boredom. They are unable to sleep and many refuse to eat. The parent child
trust is broken as children become aware that parents are powerless to
improve their situation and their right to parent has been taken from
A major stressor
for children in detention is the experience of threat to their attachment
relationships. These children live with the fear of abandonment and loss
of attachment figures and some experience their traumatised parents' withdrawal
as rejection. (Newman 2002)
ACWA rejects the
Government's view that there is no reasonable alternative to detention
centres. For children and families there are now established programs
in every state and territory which can provide the model for alternative
and supportive forms of care while applications for asylum and refugee
status are being processed. Furthermore many ACWA member agencies and
equivalent organisations in other states and territories have indicated
their willingness to provide accommodation and support for refugee children
of reference 3:
The adequacy and
effectiveness of the policies, agreements, laws, rules and practices governing
children in Immigration detention or child asylum seekers and refugees
residing in the community after a period of detention with particular
under which children are detained
in detention in prison like conditions with other extremely traumatized
individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs
places an enormous amount of psychological and physical stress on them.
They are extremely vulnerable to abuse and have very few resources in
this environment to protect themselves, nor do they have appropriate levels
of protection from significant adults who become detached and demoralised
due to their own high levels of anxiety and trauma.
Regular musters are
part of everyday life in the detention centres. Orders are issued from
a loud speaker and the practice or referring to detainees by number rather
than by name is wide spread. Rooms are frequently searched at random and
checks are often done in the middle of the night involving guards, stripping
back bed clothes and shining torches in the faces of the detainees. This
is a terrifying experience for children who are at their most vulnerable
when they are asleep in bed.
The risks of abuse
to children are much higher when people who are traumatised and have suffered
torture are forced to be detained for lengthy periods of time in over
crowded Centres without basic community resources and the freedom to access
Levels of stress
are critical in the normal brain development of infants and children.
High levels of circulating stress hormones such as cortisol can adversely
affect brain development and cause neuronal death. Infants and young children
are developing stress regulation systems and are not able to protect themselves
in the same manner as adults. Severe and chronic stress in the early years
will affect the stress system itself and result in ongoing vulnerability
to later stressful events. (Newman 2002)
The special health
care needs of children are not considered to be of sufficient importance
in Australia's detention centres. Although all refugees undergo health
checks on arrival into Australia there is no consistent ongoing monitoring
of paediatric health. In Villawood detention centre eight nurses are on
shift around the clock however none have any paediatric experience and
there is no resident paediatrician. A similar lack of health care facilities
most exists in Port Hedland, Woomera and the other centres. That refugee
children cannot be provided with adequate and appropriate health care
stands as a gross violation of children's human rights in a country as
medically advanced as Australia.
from the St Vincent De Paul Society is a regular visitor at the Villawood
detention centre. She has advised that it took over 24 hours for a doctor
to attend to a life threatening medical emergency in the detention centre.
This incident occurred early in 2001. In a much more recent incident at
Villawood Detention Centre it took 4 days for a breast feeding mother
with severe symptoms of Post Natal Depression to be seen by appropriate
medical staff. It was only after much lobbying by concerned individuals
that this woman was transferred to a public hospital for appropriate medical
care. (Personal communication with detention centre advocates February
Another example of
the dangerous inadequacy of health care is of a mother in the Woomera
detention centre. This woman alleges that she was taken alone from the
detention centre to a hospital a few hundred kilometres away when she
was in her 38th week of pregnancy and was subjected to an involuntary
caesarean section. She has since had great difficulties in bonding with
her new baby and suffers from severe depression.
The nutritional and
dietary requirements of infants and children are not taken into account
when meals are prepared in the detention centres. The quality of these
meals varies at the discretion of ACM. There is no food prepared specifically
for infants or toddlers. One detainee has advised that whilst detained
in Port Hedland some of the detainees complained that all they got to
eat was rice and they made a request for some cucumbers and tomatoes.
The detainee was told that a letter was needed from the doctor before
these special foods would be given out. (Personal communication with detainees
In one of the centres
a mother asked for milk for her baby who was in the process of being weened
and she was told to use reconstituted soup. In Villawood detention centre
the last meal of the day is served at 4:30pm. Many children refuse to
eat at this time especially in the summer months due to the heat. Families
are not permitted to carry food back to their rooms because of problems
with vermin. It is essential for the health and well being of all young
children that they have access to food and drinks 24hrs a day. Nursing
mothers also require access to nourishing food at all times however this
of refugee children has a devastating impact on their mental health. Many
children are presenting with symptoms of extreme withdrawal, depression
and sleeplessness. The depression of some children is so severe that they
have become mute particularly after witnessing violence and self harming
behaviours of other detainees. Detainee parents have reported that the
children lack concentration. Others have reported that the attention span
of many of the children is extremely limited. They often regress in their
developmental milestones after long periods in detention. Many children
report nightmares and night terrors associated with past and present trauma
and bed wetting is also common even in older children of 11 and 12yrs
of age. ( Prof Zachary Steele and Dr Aamer Sultan interview and personal
communication September 2001
There are grave implications
for these children with exposure to extreme trauma on development and
later mental health. Mental health services to detention centres are inadequate
and there is little opportunity for early identification of children in
distress or provision of appropriate interventions. The situation for
children in the detention centres has the potential for producing long
term emotional damage. There are clear intervention strategies based on
the principles of strengthening children's attachment relationships and
reducing trauma exposure that should be implemented. (Newman, 2002)
The federal government's
own mental health strategy is at odds with the policy and practice of
the Department of Immigration in relation to the mental health of refugees
Actions that affect
mental health occur at all levels: international national regional local
community, employment financial corrections and the media. Public policies
at all these levels and in all these sectors impact on mental health.
[ .] The influences on mental health are so pervasive that most public
policies will have some impact on mental health. It is important that
the mental health consequences of policies are explicitly considered and
that policy makers at all levels accept responsibility for the consequences
of their decisions. [ ] The second major principle for the development
of public policy that promotes mental health is that the impact of policy
made in one sector must be considered within other sectors. All aspects
of life are inextricably interlinked and policies made in one sector can
have far-reaching implications. in others. (Commonwealth Department
of Health and Aged Care 2000 p36 &40.)
separated adolescents may find themselves in situations of great responsibility
for themselves and others. They may be difficult to place in foster families
and moreover may be part of child-headed households assuming responsibility
for younger children. (UNHCR 2000)
experience the trauma of separation from parents and family members. Moreover
they may have witnessed the torture and slaying of parents and siblings
or may have been separated from their families while fleeing from war.
Children cannot begin to grieve for these losses in a normal manner whilst
being incarcerated in detention without a secure future. Younger children
have little comprehension of why they are being detained and their developmental
sense of time means that they experience the detention period to be far
longer than adults.
from the Social Justice in Early Childhood Group and a regular visitor
to Villawood Detention centre told of the sad situation of children forming
friendships with other children in the detention centres only to experience
the trauma of separation when their friends are either deported, released
or transferred to another detention centre. These children will often
act out their frustration and confusion with sudden bouts of anger and
aggression. Because of the situation that parents have to deal with they
very rarely have the resources to help their children to deal with these
losses. The parents themselves are also grieving and are in a state of
limbo, not knowing what will happen to them. (Personal communication between
May 2001 and April 2002)
exploitation and abuse are strongly associated with situations of forced
population movement. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk of sexual
violence for a range or reasons including their size and vulnerability.
Boys are also victims of sexual violence. (UNHCR 2000) The Australian
press has brought to public attention multiple cases of children allegedly
being sexually exploited and abused in refugee detention centres particularly
those situated in the Central and Western Australia. (The Australian,
15/11/00. 25/11/00, 27/11/00, 6/12/00 & The Age 29/11/00)
Due to the trauma
of detention and the previous circumstances of people who find themselves
in Australia's detention centres, such as fleeing war torn countries,
seeing family members killed, political oppression and torture are all
pressures that add to the probability of increased physical violence.
The detention centres do not segregate peoples on the grounds of race,
ethnicity or religion, and therefore there is a high probability that
violence will occur due to racial tensions exacerbated by the intolerable
conditions of detention. Australia's detention centres do not offer a
protective environment for children to shelter them from physical violence.
Commands are issued over loud speakers and there is evidence that the
inmates are referred to by number rather than by name in some detention
centres. (Flood, 2001).
checks are carried out during the night by guards raiding sleeping quarters.
The impact of this kind of interrogation is enormous for children leaving
them living in a stressed and terrified state that disrupts their normal
development. Children witness the terror of special law enforcement squads
wielding batons and riot shields and water cannons and gas being used
to break up riots.
Young children are
exposed to rioting and first hand abuse from guards as well as physical
mistreatment. Trish Highfield related a story told to her by a father
of a two year old child in Villawood detention centre where the guards
after handcuffing him tried to leg cuff his small child with plastic cuffs.
This violence was perpetrated by guards with the purpose of breaking a
Hunger strike in July 2000. The man and his child along with a group of
other detainees including women and children were transferred to Port
Hedland Detention Centre. It is alleged that after arriving in Port Hedland
late at night the children were offered nothing to eat or drink until
the next morning. This man and his son were held in an isolation cell
with only a bed and one iron door with a small hole in it for 13 days.
The child was let out of the room once a day for about half an hour to
eat with the other children whose parents were on hunger strike. It is
alleged that this man was threatened by guards that he and his child would
be kept in this situation indefinitely unless the hunger strike was ended.
Children in detention
centres suffer from extreme forms of emotional deprivation and social
isolation often at tender ages for prolonged periods of time. This is
detrimental to their sense of self, both in the present, and later in
life. These children are likely to suffer from mal-attachment disorders
that will have far reaching implications for their future emotional and
social development and impact greatly on their future relationships.
There are no formal
preschool facilities in the detention centres. No child centred play activities
are arranged and playgrounds are not supervised. Very little is organised
by way of sporting activities. There is inadequate play equipment suitable
for the children. Where play equipment is provided there is no shade cloth
or soft fall making it unsafe for the children. Occasional recreational
outings are organised for the children in some of the centres, however
only children under the age of 12 are permitted to take part. The reason
for this seems to be that the older children are considered a 'security
risk'. (Source: Trish Highfield, Social Justice in Early Childhood Committee.
Patricia Ravlico, St Vincent De Paul Society - interview May 2001)
Access to education
is a fundamental human right of all refugee children and serves as an
important protection tool on the ground. Supporting refugee education
and vocational training is particularly vital in promoting the rehabilitation
of war affected refugee children and youth. In a number of countries,
interdisciplinary, cross-curricular education programs are offered to
refugee children, in peace, human rights and environment education. (UNHCR
In Australian refugee
detention centres it is left up to the management of the centre to determine
what approach is adopted in relation to the educational needs of the children.
Some provide sporadic primary schooling in the centre, while others allow
children out to access local schools. There appears to be no comprehensive
secondary education provided to children. Above primary school level children
can only access English language courses that are provided for the whole
detention centre population. Refugee children have special educational
needs which could not possibly be addressed under these conditions.
According to Patricia
Ravelico from the St Vincent De Paul Society, who currently sits on the
Community Reference Committee at Villawood Detention Centre, there is
one primary school teacher located in the Detention Centre. The children
are free to access the school however classes are not compulsory. Children
attend classes only when they are motivated to do so. The school room
has inappropriate furniture and little in the way of educational aids.
Classes are conducted in English regardless of the nationality of the
children attending. One teacher attempts to teach 4 levels of classes
in this one room. As only one teacher is employed, with no relief staff,
classes do not run if this teacher is on leave. The conclusions drawn
from this of course is that for large periods of the year there is no
access to primary schooling at Villawood. Children are not permitted to
attend schooling outside the detention centre. The situation in Woomera
is believed to be much worse. There is no school in the detention centre
and most of the children have never attended school outside the centre
or if they have it has been a very rare occurrence.
Schooling for children
with such diverse needs cannot possibly be addressed adequately under
these conditions. The Guidelines for the Care and Protection of Refugee
Children state that schooling is one of the best ways to give refugee
children the structure and predictability they need. Teachers need to
be trained to look out for emotional problems and help the children talk
about their experiences.
The Association submits
that the Australian government must address several issues as a matter
of urgency in order to provide better care and protection of refugee children
and children of asylum seekers. These can be summarised as follows:
- All children currently
in detention should be released into the community with their caregivers
- Where children
under 16 are without parents or a significant relative state welfare
agencies should be approached to locate suitable foster carers or group
- In both cases
above the children and their carers should be provided with appropriate
supports from government and non government services
- A joint Commonwealth
State initiative should commence immediately to identify and train suitable
carers for the current population of children in detention and to ensure
that future arrivals do not have to spend any time in detention
- The guardianship
arrangements for unaccompanied children in detention needs to be addressed
to resolve the conflict where the Minister for Immigration is the guardian
of these children and yet is the one who holds them in detention.
- The authority
of state welfare departments to enter detention centres to exercise
duties under relevant state welfare provisions should be accepted by
the Commonwealth and such visits assisted with full co-operation.
- Mandatory reporting
should apply to all staff in detention centres and all staff should
be trained in recognising " Risk of Harm" to children and
The Age 2nd December
2000 Australia Faces up to the quandary of Locking people up Karen Kissane
and Penelope Debelle.
The Australian, 15/11/00.
25/11/00, 27/11/00, 6/12/00
of Health and Aged Care 2000 Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention
for Mental Health - Mental Health and Special Programs Branch, Commonwealth
Department of Health and Aged Care Canberra
Flood Philip AO.
Feb 2001. Report of Inquiry into Immigration Detention Procedures,
New South Wales Government;
Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 NSW Government
Newman L. Children
in Detention - the burden of trauma. In developing practice Number 2;
Summer 2001 - 2002 Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies. Sydney
Rayner M. 2001. Political
Pinballs Walter Murdoch Lecture.
Rogers, G., Children
and young people in detention centres. Has anything changed in nine years?
in developing practice, Autumn 2002. Association of Childrens Welfare
College of Physicians, Paediatrics & Child Health Division ' The Royal
Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Faculty of Child
and Adolescent Psychiatry. August 2001; Media Release - Child health specialists
call for the release of Children and their families from Australian Detention
UNHCR September 2000.
Summary Note on Strategy and Activities concerning Refugee Children and
Adolescents, Office of the Senior Coordinator for refugee children UNHCR
UNHCR 1993 Policy
on Refugee Children High Commissioners Programme Sub Committee of the
Whole on International Protection.
UNHCR 1994 Refuge
Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care High Commissioners Programme
Sub Committee of the Whole on International Protection
United Nations 1990
Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A.res.44/25, annex, 44U.N.GAOR
Supp.(No.49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force Sept
United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights; Universal Declaration of Human Rights Office
of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland.
- Trish Highfield,
Social Justice in Early Childhood Committee. Member of Defence for Children
- Patricia Ravlico,
St Vincent De Paul Society, Community representative Villawood Detention
Centre Community Reference Group.
- Dr Aamer Sultan
Iraqi Detainee in Villawood Detention Centre
Updated 9 January 2003.