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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

The Multicultural Council

of the Northern Territory

The Multicultural

Council of the Northern Territory's research indicates that as at 24 November

2001 a total of 7933 unlawful non-citizens were admitted to Australian

detention centres in the 2000-01 financial year.

The detainees cover

84 nationalities, the five main being:

Afghan (27.7 per


Iraqi (13.2 per cent),

Iranian (7 per cent),

Chinese (5.2 per cent) and

Indonesian (4.5 per cent).

People held in detention

centres on November 2:

Woomera, SA, 1111;

Curtin, WA, 685;

Port Hedland, WA, 504;

Villawood, NSW, 347;

Maribyrnong, Vic, 65;

Perth, WA, 24.

Two years ago more

than 20,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Western Europe,

North America or Australia. Unaccompanied minors, UAMs, are children under

18 years of age, outside their country of origin, without parents or other

legal or customary guardians to care for or protect them.

53 unaccompanied

minors at the end of November 2001 were in detention in Australia

amongst the total of some 582 detained children. The biggest group of

UAMs, about 40, are in Woomera Detention Centre in the South Australian

dessert, far from any kind of community support mechanisms, where it is

difficult to gain access to legal advisors for those who are screened

out and visitors are all but forbidden.

The UN refugee agency

(UNHCR) on Friday 1 February 2002 urged the Australian Government to review

its policy of detaining asylum seekers and voiced concern about attempts

to swiftly repatriate Afghans among them.

"Recent events

in Australian immigration detention centres are a stark reminder of the

concerns of the international community regarding the detention of asylum

seekers," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said.

The UNHCR said in

a statement its governing Executive Committee, of which Australia is a

member, had set down policy guidelines opposing the detention of all asylum


"While recognising

the legitimate concerns of governments to protect national security, the

guidelines state that the detention of asylum seekers -- especially children

-- is inherently undesirable," it said.




ON ASYLUM SEEKERS relating to children in detention.

Guideline 6: Detention

of Persons under the Age of 18 years.

In accordance with

the general principle stated at Guideline 2 and UNHCR's Guidelines on

Refugee Children, minors who are asylum-seekers should not be detained.

In this aspect, reference is made to The Convention on the Rights of the

Child, in particular:

  • Article 2 which

    requires that States take all measures appropriate to ensure that children

    are protected from 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;

  • Article 3 which

    provides that in any action taken by States Parties concerning children,

    the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration;

  • Article 9 which

    grants children the right not to be separated from their parents against

    their will;

  • Article 22 which

    requires that States take appropriate measures to ensure that minors

    who are seeking refugee status or who are recognised refugees, whether

    accompanied or not, receive appropriate protection and assistance; and

  • Article 37 by

    which State Parties are required to ensure that the detention of minors

    shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest

    appropriate period of time.

The guidelines go

further to tell us that

  • Unaccompanied

    minors should not, as a general rule, be detained. Where possible they

    should be released into the care of family members who already have

    residency within the asylum country. Otherwise, alternative care arrangements

    should be made by the competent child care authorities for unaccompanied

    minors to receive adequate accommodation and appropriate supervision.

    Residential homes for children or foster care may provide the necessary

    facilities to ensure that their proper development (both physical and

    mental), is catered for while longer term solutions are being considered.

    All appropriate alternatives to detention should be considered in the

    case of children accompanying their parents.

If none of the alternatives

can be applied and States do detain children, this should, in accordance

with Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, be as a

measure of last resort, and for the shortest period of time in accordance

with the exceptions stated at Guideline 3.

We have not seen

attempts at first resorts by the government to place children in community


Other countries with

detention centres keep children for only short periods before releasing

them into the community. Sweden requires that children be held for no

more than six days.

The Department of

Immigration refuses to release details of how long children have been

kept in camps such as Woomera and Port Hedland, but it is believed to

be up to two years.

Despite requests

by various organizations, the Immigration department could not provide

breakdowns by age, length of time they had been held or how many were

in each centre "due to privacy concerns".

The guidelines again

tell us that

  • If children who

    are asylum-seekers are detained at airports, immigration holding-centres

    or prisons, they must not be held under prison-like conditions. All

    efforts must be made to have them released from detention and placed

    in other accommodation. If this proves impossible, special arrangements

    must be made for living quarters which are suitable for children and

    their families.

  • During detention

    children have the right to an education which should optimally take

    place outside the detention premises in order to facilitate the continuance

    of their education upon release. Provision should also be made for their

    recreation and play, which is essential to a child's mental development

    and to alleviate stress and trauma.

Australia's treatment

of asylum seekers violates international human rights standards and particularly

those standards relating to children.


Our domestic Immigration

laws directly contravene this by mandating the arbitrary and indefinite

detention of children.

Legislation has empowered

the ACM officers who staff IDCs authority to strip-search anyone over

the age of 10. These children wear identity tags with a number and respond

when addressed by that number

Children live with

their families in flat army-style barracks.

The smaller rooms

sleep four people in double bunks, with little floor space between the

beds. Two families often share a large dormitory. Sheets serve as makeshift

curtains between each family area, to give the illusion of privacy. There

are no keys to the doors, so that the living quarters cannot be locked,

not even at night.

Life is regimented

for detained children. Random head counts occur at any time of the day

or night, when the siren calls to muster. Even asking for a cake of soap

or for nappies becomes a semi military operation. A uniformed guard controls

access to household items and issues day-to-day requirements.

Education focuses

on English language classes, and English-speaking detainees often teach

the material. Other subjects receive little attention. Attendance is not

compulsory, and there is no formal curriculum with approval from the Education

Department. This means that education is effectively interrupted for the

duration of detention.

There has been a

report of two children, aged six and eleven -who were locked in solitary

confinement with their mother with no toilet facilities but a supermarket

plastic bag.

A ten year-old girl

in Woomera was so traumatised after raids by guards in riot gear when

she was locked in solitary confinement that she was too afraid to go to

the lavatory when she was allowed out of her cell for toilet breaks. Her

trauma continued and she is now incontinent.

Women must queue

each day for their ration of tampons/disposable nappies, there is no baby

food or formula, one woman with a six month old baby who was struggling

to maintain breast feeding was advised to feed the baby powdered chicken

stock mixed with water.

A six-year-old boy

saw a detainee shutting himself in his room and setting fire to it, a

detainee threatening to slash his chest with a shard of glass, another

detainee who had cut his wrists in a suicide attempt. After that he stopped

eating and drinking and became mute. After being hospitalised eight times

and treated by doctors at Westmead hospital he was discharged. He was

not returned to the confining environment of Villawood,. But instead of

the family being reunited and receiving counselling, he was put in a foster

home against all the advice of the medical team. The Minister for Immigration,

Mr Ruddock, refused to exercise his public interest discretion and release

the family on a temporary protection visa to rebuild their lives.

The detention of

children is a serious concern and violates the Convention on the Rights

of the Child, signed and ratified by Australia, posing long-term risks

to their psychological and social development and well being, in particular

their ability to successfully resettle in an Australian community.

The effects of detention

on detained children's mental health has sparked debate in the medical


The Paediatrics &

Child Health Division of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians

(RACP), and the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of the Royal

Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), are

united in their call for appropriate assessment, intervention and support

for children in Australian detention centres.

"We are calling

on the Government to undertake an independent, expert review of the situation

at the earliest possible opportunity," the President of the RACP

Paediatrics & Child Health Division, Dr Jill Sewell, said today.

"We are particularly

concerned about these children, many of whom are born in detention, for

their subsequent emotional development and for the effects of detention

on the functioning of their families," echoed Dr Louise Newman, Chair

of the RANZCP Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Therefore, it is

VITAL that the United Nations safeguard the interests of children worldwide.

The preamble to the Convention of the Rights of the Child for instance

stipulates that children grow up in an environment "of happiness,

love and understanding". Article 3.4 defines the environmental contingencies

that enable such emotional comfort as "the right of the child to

rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities".

Living in regimented jail conditions inhibits children in DCs from engaging

in such activities.

Conditions for these

children amount to imprisonment. They are growing up among depressive

adults or ACM guards (the privatised Australasian Correctional Management

Services, an arm of a major US Corporation). They have done nothing wrong

but they have fewer rights than young offenders. They are denied adequate

schooling, stimulation and play equipment.

Many children are

at risk as noted in the March 2001 report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman

on Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs):

"….in June

2000 330 women and 469 children were living in close association with

2,700 men, most of whom were unaccompanied. Women who do not have a partner,

family friend or male relative accompanying them and their children, or

young unattached children are at greater risk than single men or family


Evidence taken...

together with the appraisal of incidence reports indicates there were

a worrying number of indecent assaults and threats towards unattached

women and children who represent the groups at highest risk…."

At a minimum, families

with children, and without criminal records should be immediately removed

from detention centres, to enable them to regain some family routine,

to benefit from community support, to decrease their vulnerability detention

centre guards, and to provide the children with more freedom, access to

education and better socialisation.

The Human Rights

Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski, will conduct an Inquiry into children in

immigration detention on behalf of the Commission.

The Commissioner

will inquire into the adequacy and appropriateness of Australia's treatment

of child asylum seekers and other children who are, or have been, held

in immigration detention, including:

1. The provisions

made by Australia to implement its international human rights obligations

regarding child asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors.

2. The mandatory

detention of child asylum seekers and other children arriving in Australia

without visas, and alternatives to their detention.

3. The adequacy

and effectiveness of the policies, agreements, laws, rules and practices

governing children in immigration detention or child asylum seekers

and refugees residing in the community after a period of detention,

with particular reference to:

  • the conditions

    under which children are detained;

  • health, including

    mental health, development and disability;

  • education;
  • culture;
  • guardianship

    issues; and

  • security practices

    in detention.

4. The impact of

detention on the well-being and healthy development of children, including

their long-term development.

5. The additional

measures and safeguards which may be required in detention facilities

to protect the human rights and best interests of all detained children.

6. The additional

measures and safeguards which may be required to protect the human rights

and best interests of child asylum seekers and refugees residing in

the community after a period of detention.

In the past year,

the Commission has received an increase in the number of complaints about

human rights breaches involving children in immigration detention.

One area of Commission

responsibility is the rights of children under the Convention on the

Rights of the Child (1989). Australia agreed to be bound by the Convention

in December 1990. The Australian government has also included the Convention

in the human rights responsibilities of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity


The Convention applies

to every child in Australia regardless of nationality or immigration status

and regardless of how the child arrived in Australia.

Under the Convention,

children in detention have the right to:

  • family life, and

    to be with their parents unless separation is in their best interests.

  • the highest attainable

    standard of health.

  • protection from

    all forms of physical or mental violence, sexual abuse and exploitation.

    They also have the right to recover and be rehabilitated from neglect,

    exploitation, abuse, torture or ill-treatment, or armed conflicts.

  • to practise their

    culture, language and religion.

  • to rest and play.
  • to primary education,

    and different forms of secondary education should be available and accessible

    to every child.

  • appropriate protection

    and humanitarian assistance as an asylum seeker or refugee.

  • not be deprived

    of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily, with detention only in conformity

    with the law, as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate

    period of time.

  • be treated with

    humanity and respect for their inherent dignity and in a manner which

    takes into account their age.

  • access to legal

    assistance and the right to challenge their detention.

  • not be subjected

    to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • privacy.
  • a standard of

    living adequate for physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

It is abundantly

clear that these conditions do not apply to children held in Australian

detention centres. The Multicultural Council therefore urges HREOC to

strongly urge the Federal Government to adhere to Australia's Human Rights

principles and abolish the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers

in the interest of the mental and physical health and well-being of the

children currently held there for long periods of time. Those who are

assessed to be genuine refugees will ultimately settle in Australia, and

their prolonged incarceration will have a detrimental effect on their

future health, happiness and settlement prospects.


the Multicultural Council,


Mulder, President

25 February 2002

Paper research and prepared by Isabelle Harrison, Hon Secretary


Updated 9 January 2003.