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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

Inquiry's work.

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Spence


Association of Childrens Welfare Agencies

Locked bag 13

Haymarket NSW 1240

9281 8822



of reference 1:

The provision

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.

Australia's Immigration

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

Solution Policy".

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"

(Rayner 2001)

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:

The mandatory

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.

An investigation

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

and families.


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

reference to:

The conditions

under which children are detained

Placing children

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)

Health Care

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.

Patricia Ravelico

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

September 2001)

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

is denied.

Mental Health

The incarceration

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

in Australia.

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.)


Unaccompanied and

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)

Refugee children

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.

Trish Highfield,

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)

Sexual exploitation

Sexual violence,

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)

Physical Violence

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).

Regular security

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.

Emotional &

Social Isolation

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

    home arrangement.

  • 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

    young people.


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

Commonwealth Department

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

Agencies. Sydney

Royal Australasian

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

Centres. Sydney

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

2 1990.

United Nations High

Commissioner for Human Rights; Universal Declaration of Human Rights Office

of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland.


Interviews with:

  • 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.