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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Hunter Community Council

1. The Hunter Community Council

The Hunter Community

Council was established in 1986 as a peak representative body to support

and advocate on behalf of the non-government welfare sector in the Hunter

region. In April of this year the Hunter Community Council held a forum

attended by welfare agencies representing a wide range of services including:

the youth sector, education, mental health, migrant centres and refugee

resettlement services, the Catholic Social Justice Commission, and early

childhood and family support services.

2. General Statement to the


In recognising the

focus of the Inquiry this submission does not comment on the issue of

border protection, however, we believe very strongly that regardless of

how detainees have arrived on Australian shores, each individual deserves

quality of care whilst their requests are being processed. Australia is

a society that is proud of how we care for our children, yet the conditions

of detention centres breach our own state child protection laws. These

children should not be punished or used as 'examples' in order to deter


The Hunter Community

Council is gravely concerned by the propaganda perpetuated by the government,

which not only dehumanises detainees but deliberately engages in misinformation

whilst preventing others from obtaining information. The HCC is particularly

concerned with the use of children in this matter (i.e. the 'children

overboard incident'). Additionally, the HCC believes current immigration

policies are not only damaging those detained within the centres but are

also damaging the already delicate social fabric of Australian society

outside of these centres.

The Hunter Community

Council is also concerned about the government practice of contracting-out

the running of detention centres. This practice has already proved detrimental

to the welfare sector in Australia by allowing the government to both

distance itself and deny responsibility for 'incidents' it wishes to ignore.

The HCC is concerned that contracting out to a commercial company exposes

detainees to systems abuse that arises from the pressure of profit making

where the well-being of the detainees, and particularly children, is not

the focus, and that there is a general lack of accountability for the

behaviour of the guards (particularly in relation to mandatory reporting).

In order to be brief,

this submission will focus on the following three points of reference:

refugees and the rights of the child, the psychological and social well

being of children in immigration detention, and the alternatives to immigration


3.1 Refugees Rights and the

Rights of the Child

As a peak body representing

welfare agencies in the Hunter, the HCC is concerned that the Australia

government does not meet its commitments to child detainees under the

Convention of the Rights of the Child. Under the Convention the government

has agreed to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is

protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis

of the status, activities of the child's parents or family members (Article

2). It could also be argued that the government is not working in the

best interest of the child in relation to adequate care, protection, supervision

and general standard of living, nor is it recognising the importance of

maintaining the family unit (Articles 3, 9 and 27 of the Convention).

The HCC is particularly

concerned that the best interest of the child are not being considered

in relation to the following matters:

Children's Guardian

The inherent tension

between the role of Minister of Immigration and his obligations as the

children's Guardian. It is proposed that the Minister of Immigration should

not also hold the position as the children in immigration detention's

Guardian; nor should this position be held by the Prime Minister. Rather,

in order to act in the best interest of the child, the children's Guardian

should be a person who is independent of the government and one that is

appointed by a justice body.

Disparity between

Federal and State Law

Children in immigration

detention do not receive the same rights as other children in Australia

because federal and state laws are not in agreement and a breach of state

child protection laws is not recognised within these centres.

Education is recognised

as a key factor in delivering people from poverty and is recognised not

only as a fundamental right for children under the Convention but also

an obligation under state legislation.

The HCC calls for

an agreement between DIMA and state and territory governments in relation

to child protection laws and access to local schools.

3.2 Psychological and Social


Welfare agencies

in the Hunter would like the Commission to take into account the following

points when considering the psychological and social wellbeing of children

in immigration detention:

  • Inadequate educational,

    recreation and healthcare, and an overwhelming sense of loss and uncertainty

    impede the child's ability to develop and grow physically and psychologically

  • Inadequate provision

    for the particular and changing needs of children can retard normal


  • Experience in

    Out of Home Care and the Youth sector has already shown that the residual

    effect on children who experience alienation, insecure and abusive living

    conditions is that they have difficulty functioning fully in a society

    that they have learned to mistrust. Some of these children will remain

    in Australia and they deserve to be brought up in a welcoming and secure


Stress and Trauma

  • The length of

    time a child lives in a traumatic and stressful situation impacts on

    the likelihood and rate of their recovery,

  • Disruptive living

    conditions caused by overcrowding, interrupted sleep, and inadequate

    recreational facilities compound any trauma already experienced by the


  • The impact of

    stress and trauma on other family members exposes the child to secondary


  • Adults have demonstrated

    they will damage themselves if held in detention under current conditions.

    Yet separating children from their families is not the answer as it

    simply exposes children to a different form of stress

Supporting families

and Unaccompanied Children

  • Families may be

    better supported in immigration detention by providing access to clear

    ongoing culturally relevant information about their status and the processes

    which they need to undergo in their quest for refugee determination

  • The lack of access

    to such knowledge reinforces a sense of helplessness and engenders frustration

    and even despair, which only serve to undermine families' psychological

    and social wellbeing

  • Families could

    also be better supported by having access to greater regular contact

    from appropriate organisations who could offer counselling and emotional

    support to minimise any impact of trauma

  • Unaccompanied

    children may be better protected if they are placed in the care of a

    family and community from the same ethnic, cultural and religious background

  • Alternatively,

    unaccompanied children who are especially vulnerable, with little protection,

    limited advocacy, and minimal appropriate support may be accommodated

    in special quarters, similar to a group home concept with trained "house

    parents," independent of the Detention Centre management and appointed

    specifically to look after their interests, and support them through

    the processes of determination. There is a range of NGOs and church

    based organisations who would be very willing to be involved in this



  • All children in

    detention must be provided with access to educational opportunity which

    is meaningful, appropriate to their needs, and delivered by trained

    educators. Adequate educational activities, or access to a local school

    can provide opportunities for children to engage in constructive play

    and interact with peers.

  • Ultimately, the

    provision of education will be to Australia's own benefit, given that

    a high percentage of asylum seekers do receive refugee status: and in

    effect educating these children is tantamount to educating potential

    new Australians.

3.3 Detention and Alternatives

to Detention

The HCC is concerned

that children and families currently in detention remain uninformed of

their rights and the facilities available to them. In some cases information

is only presented in English. It is also understood that detainees do

not have access to a complaints process. Additionally, children and their

families are subjected to unnecessary delays when receiving visitors simply

because there is inadequate staff at reception.

The HCC does not

support the current model of immigration detention, however, if children

must be detained the government must ensure that:

  • These children

    receive the same rights as other children in Australia, particularly

    in relation to child protection and education

  • The family unit

    must not only be maintained wherever possible, but also adequately supported

    so that the well-being of each individual within the family contributes

    to the general well-being and resilience of the family as a whole

  • Community representatives

    and health and welfare professionals are given appropriate access to

    children and their families

  • Children are provided

    with appropriate recreational facilities

  • Regular assessment

    of the situation of detainees and their children by an independent body

    of legal, health and welfare experts

  • An independent

    complaints process be established for detainees

  • Whilst recognising

    there are legitimate limitations, priority must be applied to hasten

    screening and determination processes

Alternatives to


Welfare agencies

within the Hunter region have been involved previously with refugees and

asylum seekers. Experience has shown that even when people are detained

in better conditions (for example the Safe Haven Project), the need for

freedom and autonomy is still very strong.

The HCC urges that

the current model of detention be seriously reconsidered. There are more

appropriate and humane systems to deal with asylum seekers, which Australia

could adopt, which are also much more cost effective than incarceration.

When considering

alternatives to immigration detention the HCC would like to stress the

importance of keeping families together and the detrimental impact of

isolating detainees from others. The HCC endorses the approaches taken

by both Sweden and New Zealand and other countries where asylum seekers

have greater freedom of movement once medical and security checks have

been made.


The Hunter Community

Council not only recognises that there is more than sufficient evidence

to confirm that the conditions created by immigration detention are detrimental

to the physical, psychological and social well-being of children, but

that currently children are being subjected to systems abuse because their

rights are not being recognised or protected by the Australian government.

Of particular concern

are those children who are in detention unaccompanied by a family member.

Any children, however, will remain vulnerable within a system that does

not provide adequate health care, educational and recreational facilities,

and where monitoring and early detection procedures that identify the

initial signs of stress and trauma are not put in place.


Community Council

PO Box 775

Newcastle NSW 2300


Updated 9 January 2003.