Skip to main content

Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

Click here to return to the Submission Index

Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Nicola Roxon MP, Shadow Minister

for Children and Youth

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.


includes any person under the age of 18.

Introduction -

Labor's Public Position on Asylum Seekers

For the purposes

of this submission, I would like to reiterate Labor's existing public

position, as announced by the Leader of the Party, The Hon. Simon Crean,

in his Australia Day address 2002.

This position addresses

issues regarding treatment of asylum seekers generally, but also specifically

issues affecting children in detention.

Labor is prepared

to work with the Government to get bi-partisan support for a comprehensive

and lasting solution to issue of processing and humane treatment of people

seeking asylum in this country. In doing so, we must ensure that our borders

remain well protected, and propose achieving this through the establishment

of a proper coast guard facility to patrol our coastline.

Further, there is

a desperate need for expeditious processing to speedily determine the

legitimacy of people's refugee status, once they arrive on our shores.

We believe that we

must get the balance right between protecting our borders and compassion.

This compassion should most obviously and immediately start with the children,

either accompanying their parent or parents, and those who arrive unaccompanied.

Australians are becoming

increasingly distressed with the plight of the children held in detention.

It is a clear Labor principle that all children, regardless of their family

background, should have the chance to be happy and healthy and get a good


As a nation, we should

be able to agree that it is wrong to hold innocent children behind razor

wire. Children should be out in the community where they can live more

normal lives and not be subjected to further trauma and stress, above

and beyond what they have experienced in the months and years before arriving

in Australia.

We shouldn't wait

until individual children in detention suffer abuse before we release

them. A safer course and a sounder principle is to get them all out of

detention centres.

We are proposing

the following practical solutions:

Where children seeking

asylum are unaccompanied by family members, they should be fostered out

in the community as quickly as possible.

Where children are

accompanied, we should allow them and their mothers to be released from

the centres into ordinary style housing under appropriate supervision

Where for some reason

a more formal detention setting is required for a child's family, then

those families should be separated from the other asylum seekers and housed

in more appropriate conditions.

Developing a more

comprehensive policy on Detention

Labor is in the process

of developing detailed policy statements on expediting processing and

mandatory detention. These statements will deal with the details of Labor's

plans to get children out from behind the razor wire.

Despite Labor's offer

of bipartisan support, it appears likely that under the Howard Government

children will remain in formal detention centres. Given this, as Shadow

Minister for Children and as the local member for the electorate of Gellibrand,

I wish to take this opportunity to detail some of the minimum conditions

which must be provided by the Government for children in detention settings.

The implementation

of these minimum conditions is no substitute for the comprehensive plan

Labor will develop and release before the next election. However, the

adoption of these minimum conditions by the Howard Government would go

some way to alleviating the problems being experienced by children in

detention today. I trust that these factors will be taken account of by

the Inquiry.

Provision of Appropriate


It is important for

this Inquiry to note and highlight the fact that basic needs are not being

met for children in detention - not just in Woomera, but also in my electorate

at the Maribyrnong Detention Centre.

Maribyrnong theoretically

has separate facilities for families - but this essentially means a separate

room for sleeping. Other communal areas are shared and young men (12-15)

are required to sleep in the general men's facilities (with convicted

criminals awaiting deportation).

We must do all we

can to make the Government act quickly to release children, and in the

interim urgently provide a better environment for these most vulnerable


Access to Educational


If children are to

be held in detention, even temporarily, appropriate educational facilities

must be provided. Despite these provisions being a requirement under the

Immigration Detention Standards schedule in the Detentions Services Contract,

it has been brought to my attention that these standards are not being

met in some centres. (See attached letter from DIMIA, 26 March 2002).

Educational facilities

are close to non-existent at Maribyrnong, and children must rely on the

discretion of the Centre's management as to whether they can access external

institutions. Smaller than the likes of Villawood, there are no teachers

at the facility. Primary aged children have been allowed to attend local

primary schools, but secondary aged children have not.

ACM and DIMIA fight

over what should be provided for these kids and who should pay for it

- all while they are held without any schooling. At the time of writing,

DIMIA has confirmed that there are currently five children held in Maribyrnong.

If the requirement to provide educational services is in the contracts

with ACM, it appears DIMIA doesn't adequately enforce those provisions.

This matter must be urgently dealt with.

Access to other

Children's Services/Support

Again in Maribyrnong,

there appears to be no access to specialist child carers, pre-school teachers,

counsellors or community support. Maribyrnong is a centrally located facility,

but welfare organisations other than the Red Cross are not granted general

access, despite often being willing to provide services free of charge.

Recreational facilities

are scant - the hope of children developing with a balanced sense of wellbeing

in such an environment is impossible to imagine.

We are constantly

learning more in Australia about early childhood development and the value

of investing in our children early - so they can grow into balanced adults,

socially and emotionally adjusted and able to communicate and learn readily

in the future. Therefore, providing access to basic services such as maternal

and child health nurses, post-natal care, and other such services that

benefit both parents and young children should be considered an absolute


The Australian Early

Childhood Association, a national peak body of practitioners and policy

developers in the field of early childhood state in their position paper


  • Families with

    infants and children who have been exposed to trauma should be placed

    in safe communities with the support of their primary caregivers

  • Families should

    have access to the support they need to care for their children and

    participate in the community

  • All school-aged

    children should have access to school education

  • All children

    should be able to use early childhood services and funding should be

    available to support this. If young children need o be in child care,

    these services should be culturally appropriate and sensitive to the

    needs of traumatised children

  • All children

    should have access to health programs and services

  • Language support

    should be available in the child's home language to help them learn


  • Specialist support

    services should be available to help children cope with trauma.

Trauma Experienced

by Children in Detention

Many community groups

fear what the future will hold for these children in detention. Not only

are the children exposed to trauma and dislocation through fleeing their

home country, but then are subjected to extended periods in detention

which compounds this trauma. What impact can this ultimately have on their

development? What chance do they have of growing into happy, fulfilled


An article published

in the Australian Journal of Early Childhood (December 2000) titled "Working

in early childhood settings with children who have experienced refugee

or war-related trauma" (by Dr Margaret Sims, Dr Jackie Hayden,

Dr Glen Palmer, and Teresa Hutchins) states that:


who have experienced (traumas of war in countries from which they have

been displaced) learn to adjust in order to survive. The extreme nature

of their experiences results in adjustments that are developmentally

dangerous (Marans & Adelman, 1997). Children learn to think of the

world as a dangerous place where no-one can be trusted, especially not

adults. They learn to act aggressively before they themselves are hurt.

They learn to be hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for danger and

never relaxing. They often re-enact their trauma, playing out scenes

of extreme violence and even involving other children in their play.

Conversely, children may react to trauma by repressing all effect. They

become unresponsive and close down emotional senses."


behaviours are seen as maladaptive and inappropriate in Australian early

childhood settings. Children displaying them often become labelled as

aggressive or withdrawn/shy by both staff and other children. This results

in their social isolation from the peer group". (pp41-42)

These are not the

sort of behaviours or environments that we should be accepting, or fostering,

within Australian institutions. For those children who end up settling

in Australia, either with their parents or in other arrangements, the

long term damage is likely to not only affect themselves but other children

and adults they come in contact with. For those children who are returned

back to their country of origin or sent elsewhere, we can only be seen

to have further added to their trauma during their period of incarceration

at a very early and vulnerable period in their lives.

Some of the behaviours

the above researchers observed in this study included:

  • unusual withdrawn


  • chronic fear
  • fear of benign

    items and people

  • unnatural clinginess

    and over-dependent behaviour

  • continual difficulties

    at sleep time and sleep disorders

  • aggression
  • alterations to


  • delayed development

    because of behavioural difficulties

They concluded that

an empathetic understanding of the needs and situations of these children

and their families was essential in order to lay even a basic foundation

for assisting in the normal development of children at a young age. This

is even more important for young children who have experienced the traumas

most often faced in the process of seeking asylum in a distant country.

It appears that our

current treatment of children within detention centres is not even close

to meeting these basic standards of care, let alone concern, for the children

affected. A thorough reappraisal, by experts in the early childhood field,

of the facilities and professional care provided to children within detention

centres appears to be urgently required.


In conclusion, in

my position as Shadow Minister for Children and Youth, I congratulate

the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for undertaking this

enquiry into Children in Detention. My concerns are in addition to the

great deal of worry within the community about what is happening within

our detention centres, and particularly the circumstances of the children.

In respect of children, we cannot afford to wait until Labor is in Government

and implements its policy of getting children out from behind the razor

wire. I urge this Inquiry to make practical recommendations to the Government

for the humane treatment of innocent children.

Like other community

members, I am continuously frustrated by the shroud of secrecy surrounding

detention centres. The community has a right to know the full truth about

what is happening.

I trust that through

this Inquiry more factual information, and greater public scrutiny, of

the detention centre regime managed by this Government and its contractors,

will be made available.

I appreciate the

opportunity to make this submission and look forward to the results, evidence

and recommendations being made publicly available as soon as possible.


Updated 9 January 2003.