Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
The Multicultural Council
of the Northern Territory
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.
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.
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
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.
GUIDELINES ON ASYLUM SEEKERS
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
- 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
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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;
- security practices
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.
- 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,
25 February 2002
Paper research and prepared by Isabelle Harrison, Hon Secretary
Updated 9 January 2003.