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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Centacare Sydney

Centacare Sydney, as

an agency with more than sixty years experience in the provision of services

to children and young persons, in both family and out of home settings,

is pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the current situation of

children in immigration detention in Australia.

Comments are made

from two perspectives; the first from Catholic chaplains who regularly

visit the Villawood detention centre in Sydney's outer Western suburbs.

The second perspective is that of the broader professional perspective

of Centacare staff who provide care and protection to children

We believe that the

care of children and young people should be based on the following principles:

  • In all matters

    relating to the welfare of children, the essential goal is to achieve

    the best interests of the child or young person.

  • The rights of

    Children and Young people are based in their own dignity as human persons

    and are not derived from parents or family.

  • As far as is

    consistent with their human development and capacity for self-determination,

    the wishes of children and young people are to be taken into account

    in respect of their own lives.

  • Parents have a

    right to found a family, and to receive state care and support. Children

    have a right to the care of their parents. (CROC, Art.18)

  • Children and Young

    people, including refugee and asylum seeker children, have the right

    to appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance, especially in

    relation to family reunion. (CROC, art.22)

  • Children and young

    people have a right to education. (CROC, art.28)

Centacare submits

that each one of the above principles is in danger being compromised or

negated if the current policies and practice of the Australian Government

are continued.

On average twenty

children are being detained at the Villawood detention centre at any one

time. This detention is having an observable detrimental effect on the

health of children. One example at the Villawood detention centre is the

action of two boys; [words deleted] who recently attempted suicide. Both

are presently being treated with medication. Both of these boys have had

no formal education for [words deleted] years. There is no secondary school

teacher at Villawood. The local State High school has refused to take

the boys as students. The local Catholic high school has offered to take

the boys for education but the Department of Immigration would not allow

the boys to attend. It was reported by the worker who knows the boys well

through her regular visits that the motivation for their self-destructive

acts is a deep sense of their life chances deteriorating. These boys are

acutely aware that other children their age have access to education and

broad opportunities for a rewarding and dignified life.

When children detainees

at the Villlawood detention centre reach the age of 14 years 9 months

the they no longer have access to any education. In Article 6 of the United

Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) we find that State

parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development

of the child. Without access to education or meaningful work the cognitive,

social and emotional development of these children is arrested. The practice

of ceasing to provide educational opportunities to children at age 14

years 9 months clearly is not ensuring that they children are developing

to the maximum extent possible.

In Article 12 of

CROC we find that the child has the right to express his/her opinion freely

and to have that opinion taken into account in any manner or procedure

affecting them. The children at the Villawood detention centre have no

means of expressing their opinions to the body that is detaining them,

the Australian Government, and their opinions are not sought with regard

to any manner or procedure that affects them directly or indirectly.

A regular visitor

to Villawood detention centre has reported that initially children blame

their parents for their plight. Wives blame husbands, and husbands blame

wives. The children caught up in this cycle of blame and counter blame

internalize the emotional maelstrom and end up seeing themselves as responsible

for the plight of the whole family. This process of self-blame on the

part of children is well documented in many family studies; it is a crippling

sense of responsibility. In article 19 of CROC we find that the State

shall protect the child from all forms of mal-treatment by parents or

others responsible for the care of the child and establish appropriate

social programs for the prevention of abuse and the treatment of victims.

There are no social programs conducted at Villawood designed to prevent

the children being abused through this unintended, but non-the-less corrosive


Interaction with

peers in play is a constituent component in the developing sense of self

for a child or young person. A strong sense of identity is integral in

the formation of robust young adults. Culture, religion, sense of place

and family are critical factors in the development of identity. Article

31 of CROC refers to the child's right to leisure, play and participation

in cultural and artistic activities. According to reports from the Catholic

chaplains who visit the Villlawood centre on a regular basis, the children

and young persons in detention have no opportunity to participate in meaningful

peer interaction. A twelve-year-old boy is caught between making friends

with either an eight-year-old boy or seventeen-year-old young person.

He interacts with both for different activities but the nature of the

friendships retards normal healthy psychosocial development. His sense

of self is developing in a distorted and truncated manner. It is accepted

by social science researchers and other professionals who work with children

that this distorted sense of self will have long term consequences with

regard to psychosocial adjustment in adult life. These consequences will

occur in the ongoing lives of these persons irrespective of their ultimate

status as Australian citizens or another nation.

As a direct result

of detention, children and young persons at Villawood are restricted in

their access to the symbols, rituals and stories that shape their cultural

identity. The disruption that accompanies movement from one detention

facility to another combined with the insecurity of not knowing his or

her ultimate destination or determination vis-a vis refugee status has

a severe negative effect on the cognitive, emotional and social development

of children and young persons at Villawood. The profound loss of hope

and clinical depression observed in the children and young persons in

detention by the regular visitors is a specific result of the deprivation

of peer interaction, a stable sense of place and a lack of exposure to

ethno-specific cultural expressions.

The children and

young persons at Villawood are there because their parents desired a better

life for them. The Australian social fabric is being stretched and tested

as we continue to detain children whose only crime is being the children

of asylum seeker parents. Centacare is deeply concerned at the long-term

consequences of detention of children and young persons. The effects of

detention will impact negatively on communities, families and individuals

well into the future.

Centacare's Children

and Youth Services programs work predominantly with children needing the

care and protection offered by the Out of Home Care system in situations

where their own parents are unable to care for them, for whatever reason.

The principles and

objects of the legislation guiding this work are centred around the need

to provide environments for children that are free of violence and exploitation

to ensure their safety, welfare and well being. The provision of services

to children and their caregiver families, which will foster children's

health, developmental needs, spirituality, self respect and dignity is

of paramount importance.

Centacare sees the

negative effects on our children where these essential elements have not

been met. When a daily regime of emotional instability and disconnection

to appropriate family functioning is the norm, as is evidenced at the

detention centres, it is extremely difficult to resolve the psychological

effects on the child. The hope of re-encultrating the child into a nurturing

environment, that is so needed for a child's normative development is,

sadly, often not able to be achieved.

The strength of the

bond between children's love and commitment to their parents and their

desire to remain in the care of their parents is undeniable in our work.

It is our role and responsibility to assist families to meet the needs

of the children, such that the community as a whole is strengthened by

the growth of intact, stable family life.

The present situation

in detention centres around Australia has, as a by-product, the suffering

of innocent children in environments that cannot possibly lead to their

normative development. Reputable and consistent theories of attachment

strengthen the argument to keep families intact. The return to normative

development can only be redressed by children, with their parents, being

released and assisted to live in the community. Only in this context will

the children be able to develop to their deserved potential. How could

these families send their children out of detention? Who would they trust?

Losses are compounding for these children; they have already lost their

homeland, their extended family, friends and cultural identity. The family

unit is all that is left intact.

To separate children

from their parents is a wrongdoing and hopefully we have seen the error

of this from past practices. To use historical learning of non-separation

as an excuse to keep children and their families in detention is equally

a travesty of justice and seems to indicate that the Australian Government

has no commitment to the agreed principle of the CROC.

Centacare stands

with many individuals and agencies with a willingness to commit resources

to assist families currently in detention to live in the community. We

see no reason why an agency like Centacare could not house and support

asylum-seeker families with children in community settings without jeopardising

the government's assessment procedures relating to their proper refugee

status in this country. In so doing, many of the detrimental effects on

these children could be gradually reversed through accepted practice of

"normalisation" in the general community, at least for an interim



Updated 9 January 2003.