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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
B.Soc.Wk., G.D.U.R.P, Child Abuse Counsellor
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:
children of asylum seekers be in detention at all?
the education needs of children in immigration detention being adequately
the health needs of children in immigration detention being adequately
conspiracy of silence and the lack of accountability for children
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:
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.
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;
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.
THE EDUCATION NEEDS OF CHILDREN IN IMMIGRATION DETENTION BEING ADEQUATELY
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.
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.
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.
CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE AND THE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY FOR CHILDREN
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Baglow, Child Abuse Counsellor
Updated 9 January 2003.