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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
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)
that each one of the above principles is in danger being compromised or
negated if the current policies and practice of the Australian Government
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
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.
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.
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.