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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Len Baglow,

B.Soc.Wk., G.D.U.R.P, Child Abuse Counsellor


INTRODUCTION

As a counsellor

of children and families at risk of child abuse and neglect, I have

a number of concerns about the children being held in immigration

detention in Australia and in our region on the request of Australian

authorities. In my professional capacity I see children who have been

abused by their Australian families. I find it appalling that Australia

as a nation is now systematically abusing children whose parents have

sought asylum here. In the following submission I offer suggestions

under a number of headings:


SHOULD

CHILDREN OF ASYLUM SEEKER BE IN DETENTION AT ALL?

In the modern

era there have been a number of international documents that have

sought to protect children and acknowledge their special status. I

note in particular the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted

by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1959, and the Convention

on the Rights of the Child of 1990.

In article 2

of the Convention it states in part that:

States Parties

shall 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, expressed opinions, or beliefs

of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.

This article

of the convention seems both self evident and consistent. Yet, we

the Australian people are punishing the children of asylum seekers

on the basis of actions taken by their parents. Certainly, in many

cases, it would be crueller to separate the children from their parents.

However, the fact remains that the current policy of mandatory detention

results in children being detained in detention centres because of

the actions of their parents.

In article 3

of the Convention it states in part that;

In all actions

concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social

welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities

or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be

a primary consideration.

I am aware that

being a primary consideration is not the same as being the only consideration

in matters of public policy. However, I are not convinced that in

this matter, the welfare of children really has been a primary

consideration as envisaged by the Convention. The Government,

I know, has claimed that the detention of children is part of a necessary

policy of stopping the flow of illegal immigrants. I believe that

there are alternatives, which must now be seriously considered, if

we are to have as a primary consideration the best interests of children.

In article 27

of the Convention it states in part that;

States parties

recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate

for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

I do not see

how one can realize an adequate standard for a child's physical, mental,

spiritual, moral and social development in a detention centre.

ARE

THE EDUCATION NEEDS OF CHILDREN IN IMMIGRATION DETENTION BEING ADEQUATELY

MET?

I understand

that the Government states that education is provided for every child

in detention in Australia provided that they and their parents if

accompanying them agree. Nevertheless, I have serious concerns about

the quality of education that can be provided within a detention centre,

especially in centres based in remote areas. Indeed, it is apparent

that significant numbers of adolescents are not getting anything like

an appropriate education. Given that we know that the majority of

these children will eventually be accepted as refugees, we are not

only disadvantaging them, but also sowing the seeds of further social

problems in Australian society. We have known for many years that

getting a basic education is one of the essentials both for employment

and social integration as adults.

I commend the

Derby regional kindergarten-to-Year 12 school for welcoming 16 students

from the Port Headland detention centre. I am concerned however that

this appears to have been an isolated case, and according to the "The

Australian" newspaper, Derby is the only known education centre

to have refugees from detention centres amongst its full time students.

I also have concerns

about the level of education being provided to children held in detention

in Nauru, Christmas Island, and Papua New Guinea.

ARE

THE HEALTH NEEDS OF CHILDREN IN IMMIGRATION DETENTION BEING MET?

I am aware that

many of the children in immigration detention centres have been traumatized

by events in their country of origin, and again by events on the trip

to Australia. I am concerned that the experience of detention, often

for an indefinite period, can further traumatize these children. It

is my experience that the treatment of trauma, while trauma is still

ongoing, is of very little therapeutic use, and indeed can be counterproductive.

It is for this reason that I argue that children who have suffered

psychological trauma in either their country of origin, or on route

to Australia, should not be held in detention for this is likely to

further accentuate their problems and slow the healing process.

Furthermore,

I am concerned about the culture of violence that seems to be growing

in some detention centres, particularly at Woomera, and the exposure

of children to the resulting violence. Such exposure has an extremely

damaging affect on children, especially if it is accompanied by fear

for their own or their family's safety.

The lack of privacy

at some detention centres is also detrimental to the mental health

of children. At one level children should not be exposed to every

aspect of adult life. At another level, children, like adults, need

at times their privacy so that their imagination and spirit can grow.

THE

CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE AND THE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY FOR CHILDREN

HELD OFFSHORE

During the compilation

of this report I have become increasingly frustrated by the failure

of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to release

basic information about children being held offshore in immigration

detention. I would like to place on record the saga of the search

for basic information.

On Christmas

Eve, I wrote to the Minister asking for the numbers. He did not reply.

In mid February

this year I began ringing the Department asking for the figures. I

have rung on average once a week ever since. On advice from DIMA I

began ringing the Public Affairs section of the Department. Initially

the officers told me they were sure the figures were on the public

record and a more senior person would get back to me. I pointed out

that the figures were not available on the website.

After a month,

a helpful young officer, who was obviously embarrassed and distressed,

assured me that he was now ringing his superiors every 2 days asking

them to phone me. Eventually, he contacted me to tell me that he had

been ordered to tell me that in order to get the figures I would need

to phone the Minister's office.

I then rang the

Minister's office. A curt woman at the Minister's office directed

me to the office of the first secretary Phillipa Godwin.

At the first

secretary's office someone initially informed me that someone would

get back to me. On my second call, a very helpful person told me that

the first secretary was unlikely to know anything about my query as

she was principally concerned with refugees held onshore rather than

offshore. However, she gave an undertaking to follow up the issue

for me, which she obviously did.

A message was

left on my work answering machine on the Wednesday before the ANZAC

day holiday from [name deleted] from DIMA saying that she was responding

to my query and I could contact her the following Tuesday. No phone

number was left. As a result I phoned the first Secretary's office

looking for her, and by one of those quirks of telephone systems,

actually spoke to the first secretary, Phillipa Godwin, who was a

delight. She explained that I had the wrong number, but if there were

any more problems following up [name deleted] and getting the figures

I needed, then I was to get back to her.

I phoned [name

deleted] who was unavailable and I left a message. She did not reply.

I again phoned her and eventually was put through. She gave me the

figures for minors detained offshore on May 1, 2002.

The figures were

On Christmas

Island 8

On Nauru 243

On Manus 125

I then asked

why it had been that I had not been given the figures in February,

when I first asked for them, and were the figures just now being released.

Ms [name deleted] told me that it was her understanding that the figures

had been released to a Senate Enquiry in mid February and as a result

were on the public record. She stated that the figures had also been

released to the press. I pointed out that I had been watching both

the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian for these figures and

had never seen them published in the papers. Ms [name deleted] felt

that the reason I had not been given the figures was that I had been

asking the wrong people.

I am afraid that

I do not believe Ms[name deleted]. I think that senior people within

the DIMA have made it deliberately difficult for the public to access

the figures on children in detention offshore, because they are clearly

an embarrassment to the Government. Had it not been for the intervention

of the First Secretary's office, I do not believe I would have been

given the figures.

Clearly, there

are now 376 minors held in immigration detention offshore. This is

now more children than are held in immigration detention in Australia

at this moment. Most of these children have been held for over 6 months.

Had these children been allowed into Australia, between 70-90% of

them would have been released into the community, based on previous

percentages of applicants being granted refugee status.

This is clearly

a figure that the Government does not want to be made widely available.

This is appalling behaviour by a Government Department. How can a

Government be accountable when even the most basic information on

the children in offshore immigration detention is withheld from ordinary

citizens? It seems that the Government is following a policy of out

of sight leads to out of mind. To a large extent this immoral policy

is working.

I note also that

various sections within the Government claim that some of these children

held offshore have been abused by their parents. Yet it is not clear

that the Government has done anything to protect these same children

from ongoing abuse.

ALTERNATIVES

TO DETENTION

It seems that

the main reason that the Government has given for not finding an alternative

to detention is that too many of the those seeking refugee status

will abscond.

I would like

to make a number of points in relation to this.

1. While it may

be relatively easy for an individual to abscond, it is much harder

for a family with children to abscond. Families simply have too many

needs to make it easy to disappear. Furthermore, the risk of endangering

a family would seem to us to be a real encouragement for parents not

to disappear.

2. A large percentage

of families seeking refugee status do indeed eventually get granted

this status. For the most part these families will have no incentive

to abscond, as it will weaken their already strong case. As the current

situation stands, these families and children are penalized because

of the smaller percentage of families that are likely to abscond.

3. While it is

important to ensure that adult asylum seekers who have a weak or nonexistent

case for asylum do not simply disappear into Australian society, should

this principle so override the needs of children of asylum seekers,

that these children are held in detention centres? I do not think

so.

Len

Baglow, Child Abuse Counsellor

Last

Updated 9 January 2003.