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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

the Australian Catholic Migrant

and Refugee Office

Children in Immigration


Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

GPO Box 5218

Sydney NSW 1042

15 May 2002

Dear Commissioner

This submission is

made on behalf of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO).

It addresses some of the terms of reference of the Inquiry.

ACMRO has consistently

urged the government to address the issue of children in detention and

advocated for their release into the community once security, health and

other checks have been completed.

I recently spent

a few days at Woomera, Port Hedland and Perth Airport Detention Centres.

At Woomera, I met children and witnessed their conditions and how they

are living their day-to-day lives. This first hand knowledge of the situation

in detention centres has enabled me to substantiate the claim that detention

for children is in contradiction with the Convention on the Rights

of the Child (1989).

To further support

this submission I am aware of anecdotal evidence provided by Catholic

Pastoral Workers who regularly visit detainees at Villawood, Maribyrnong,

Woomera, Port Hedland and Perth Centres.

The observations

and comments made in this submission are based on information and data

gathered from experienced Catholic pastoral workers who have been visiting

detention centres since they began operation. The Catholic Pastoral workers

have a significant level of information and knowledge vital to the inquiry.

They substantiate the theme of this submission that detention of children

is fundamentally wrong.

Terms of Reference:

1. The provisions

made by Australia to implement its international human rights obligations

regarding child asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors.

Australia continues

to detain children despite of the UNCHR's Guideline on standards relating

to the detention of Asylum Seekers Guideline 2 on Refugee Children [1],

stating persons under the age of 18 years who are asylum-seekers should

not be detained.

Many inquiries since

the 1994 [2] have clearly identified children asylum

seekers rights and recommended their exclusion from mandatory detention.

The notion that "detention is undesirable for vulnerable people such

as women, children, unaccompanied minors" [3] was

a recommendation of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

inquiry into the detention of unauthorised arrivals in Australia.

The situation for

children and unaccompanied minors continues to be an acute concern for

NGOs, organizations and agencies involved in providing assistance to children

and their families in detention. The negative situation of detention is

compounded for children who may understand less their situation and why

they are in detention, but nonetheless suffer in a similar way to adults

in detention. The unknown factor of the unsureness of the length of detention

is the major catalyst for the manifestation of feelings of loneliness

and isolation accumulating in a very negative detention experience.

Such a problem is

exacerbated for children who are less equipped to deal with feelings of

depression, mental distress, boredom, sleeplessness, psychotic episodes,

self harm and suicide attempts [4] and the negative psychological

and emotional effect for children who are exposed to the actions of other

detainees such as self-mutilation and attempted suicide. The prison-like

environment of detention and living in a confined and controlled atmosphere

is not an ideal situation for the development of the child. The United

Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child noted that detention "condemned

children to live in unsuitable conditions and damage their emotional health"

[5] . The Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference statement

on Asylum Seekers and Refugees [6] notes an insidious

situation in detention centres which could only have a detrimental effect

for daily living and the long-term development of children by stating:

"We also

draw attention to another oppressive feature of life in detention centres.

Where human rights are so substantially restricted, a climate of bullying

is enabled to flourish. Harassment, by one group of residents against

other, more vulnerable groups, makes a miserable situation truly desperate.

Having escaped from situations of persecution in their own countries,

members of ethnic and religious minorities find themselves subjected,

in the centres, to similar persecution, but with little opportunity

for redress. If our country is determined to continue with mandatory

detention, then the rights of the residents to safety and freedom from

harassment within the centres must be guaranteed".

Catholic Pastoral

workers who regularly visit children and families in detention centres

observe that the fundamental principle of the dignity of the individual

is a major failure of detention. The concept of detaining children contrasts

and contravenes with The Principle of Human Dignity as defined by Catholic

Social Teaching where "Every human being is created in the image

of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy

of respect as a member of the human family" [7].

By detaining children asylum seekers such dignity is not guaranteed or


Every person - regardless

of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, employment

or economic status, health, intelligence, achievement or any other differentiating

characteristic is worthy of respect. It is not what you do or what you

have that gives you a claim on respect; it is simply being human that

establishes your dignity. Given that dignity, the human person is, in

the Catholic view, never a means, but always an end. [8]

The dignity of children

must be cherished and nurtured as observed in the body of Catholic social

teaching which highlights that individuals have dignity and it is the

principle of human dignity which gives the human person a claim on membership

in a community - the human family.

2. The mandatory

detention of child asylum seekers and other children arriving in Australia

without visas, and alternatives to their detention.

ACMRO has long supported

and advocated for alternatives to detention as developed and advocated

initially by the Refugee Council of Australia [9] and

more recently by other NGOs, agencies and concerned groups.

Catholic Pastoral

workers who visit children and their families in detention at Woomera

support a radical extension of the housing trial project to include children

and their mothers from all categories of immigration detention, not just

those in the first stage of assessment, and to eventually include fathers.

They also support expansion of the housing project both in Woomera, and

in other detention centres towns and cities in Australia. We believe that

it is destructive of young people's emotional, spiritual and psychological

health to incarcerate them in the centres.

The Australian Catholic

Bishops in their statement on Asylum seekers and Refugees [10]

clearly object to detention of children and advocate the benefits of the

Woomera housing trial project:

"The isolation

of detention centres, the difficulty of access to them, uncertainty

and ignorance about the assessment process on the part of the people

detained cause wide-spread and significant psychological damage. Staff

are similarly affected by the stressful environment of these centres.

In stark contrast

stand the achievements of the Housing Trial Project currently underway

in Woomera for women and children. Residents enjoy a much healthier

and less stressful lifestyle as they await the outcome of their applications

for visas. Violence and psychological harm is virtually non-existent

in this normal community setting. After initial misgivings, the local

Woomera community now accepts the presence of the Housing Trial. We

propose the extension of this trial: the inclusion of fathers of families

so that the family unit is complete, and the widening of the experiment

to communities beyond Woomera".

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, health, including mental health,

    development and disability;

  • education - Refer

    also to the submission made by the National Commission for Catholic


  • culture - reference

    the International Convent on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

  • guardianship

    issues; and

  • security practices

    in detention

4. The impact

of detention on the well-being and healthy development of children, including

their long-term development.

5. The additional

measures and safeguards which may be required in detention facilities

to protection the human rights and best interests of all detained children.

6. The additional

measures and safeguards which may be required to protect human rights

and best interests of child asylum seekers and refugees residing in the

community after a period of detention.

ACMRO endorsed the

submission made by the Kids in Detention (KIDS) working group and reference

it to address the terms of reference from 3 to 6 as detailed above. The

submission comprehensively addresses international law, domestic law and

comparative practice among the States of Australia

In particular, we

note the significance of the KIDS submission in addressing Australia's

international legal obligations in accordance with international conventions

and the necessity to address and adhere to these laws domestically. We

note the relevant international conventions including the: Rights of the

Child; Civil and Political Rights and Economic and Cultural Rights and

the Refugee Convention and Protocol are addressed extensively.

In conclusion, we

support the submission made by KIDS and those from Catholic agencies and

organizations, in particular the submission of the National Catholic Education

Commission which addresses education issues. Of note we are concerned

with the ongoing detention of children asylum seekers and their families

and believe that detention of children is reprehensible and challenges

our notions of dignity, protection and adherence to the rights of the

child. This notion is well acknowledged by Most Reverend Francis Carroll,

President of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, in a Statement

(29 January 2002) which observed that mandatory detention had deteriorated

and that, at the very least, children should not be held in detention


For your consideration.

Rev. John Murphy


1. UNHCR's

Guidelines on applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention

of Asylum Seekers. Web page,

date accessed 20 March 2000.

2. Joint Standing Committee on Migration: Asylum, Border

Control and Detention, AGPS 1994.

3. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, "Those

who've come across the seas: Detention of unauthorised arrivals",

pg. ix, 1998.

4. Ibid, pg 229.

5. Overington, Caroline, "Australia attacked for

'harming' child asylum seeker" , page 9, The Age, 2 May 2002.

6. A Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference:

Refugees and Asylum Seekers, 26 March 2002.

7. Ten Building Blocks Of Catholic Social Teaching, William

J. Byron Issue: page 1, 31 October 1998.

8. Ibid.

9. Alternative to Detention, Refugee Council of Australia,

web page, date accessed 14 May 2002.

10. A Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops'

Conference: Refugees and Asylum Seekers, 26 March 2002.

11. Australian Bishops call for Action on Asylum Seekers,

Media Release, 29 January 2002.


Updated 9 January 2003.