Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
rights and the rights of the child
and social well being
and alternatives to detention
Samaritans, the welfare
arm of the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, is one of the largest regional
welfare organisations in Australia. We employ more than 500 professional
staff and enjoy the continuing support of over 400 volunteer workers.
Managed from Newcastle, Samaritans has a regional focus on the Hunter,
Central Coast and Manning regions and an annual turnover of nearly $17million.
The organisation delivers more than 80 welfare and community service programs
in 100 locations, providing service to more than 60,000 people annually.
Samaritans is committed
to the care and protection of children and young people in Australia,
regardless of their religion, race, country of origin, gender, political
persuasion (or those of their parents), sexuality, disability or immigration
status. This commitment has prompted the organisation to speak out against
the mandatory detention of children asylum seekers and their families.
The deteriorating situation in the detention camps and the growing pressure
on the government makes it incumbent for a child protection agency, such
as The Samaritans, to speak out.
believes that detaining children, young people and their families in immigration
detention centres is not an appropriate option for dealing with refugees
arriving in this country seeking our protection.
without a visa is not a crime under Australian law. Under international
law refugees have the right to seek asylum using any available means.
By branding refugees in Australia as "illegal" the government
is implying that the prolonged detention of people seeking refuge from
repressive regimes in prison-like camps is an appropriate response to
their "criminal" behaviour.
The mandatory imprisonment
of asylum seekers has aroused intense community debate since the arrival
of the first boats from Cambodia in 1989. The issue attracted further
controversy with the opening of the Port Hedland immigration detention
centre in North Western Australia in 1991. The isolation of the centre,
reports of poor facilities for detainees and the slow processing of their
applications, generated adverse media attention and some deep seeded community
divisions. There are now six detention facilities. These are:
- Villawood Immigration
Centre in Sydney
- Maribyrnong in
- Port Hedland
- Curtin in Derby,
- Woomera in SA
RIGHTS AND THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD
commitments to child detainees under the Convention on the Rights of Children
and the Convention on the Rights of Refugees
The 1951 Convention
on the Treatment of Refugees clearly states that liberty is a fundamental
human right. As a general rule, detention of asylum seekers is not acceptable,
especially when those detained include the very vulnerable - children,
single women, families, and people with special psychological or medical
needs, such as torture victims.
The Convention specifically
prevents countries from punishing people who have arrived directly from
a country of persecution (or from another country where protection could
not be assured), provided that they present themselves speedily to the
authorities and show good cause for their entry without a visa. The Convention
only allows for detention if it is brief, absolutely necessary, and instituted
after other options have been implemented. Acceptable purposes include:
to verify identity, to determine the elements on which the claim for asylum
is based, or for the protection of the community. Under the Convention,
detained asylum seekers should always be informed of their rights - including
the right to challenge their imprisonment.
this convention because all refugees, including unaccompanied children
are subject to mandatory detention without discrimination. The detention
of refugees is neither brief nor necessary, with asylum seekers waiting
months or years for their applications to be processed.
Last year, there
were 1103 children held in Australian immigration detention centres, out
of a total of 8401 people overall. Many stay there for 6 months and some
for as long as 19 months, according to the Department of Immigration and
Multicultural Affairs. At Woomera detention centre, there are about 40
children without an accompanying adult.
Article 2 of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "States Parties
shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention
to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any
kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's
race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national,
ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status".
This includes their immigration status. Australia's mandatory detention
of children asylum seekers is a clear breach of this convention as it
relates to Article 19(1) "States parties shall take all appropriate
legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect
children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse,
neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, whilst in
the care of legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of
The government also
breaches the Convention in relation to Articles 6(2) (child's right to
survival and development); 22(1) (ensure the protection of rights of child
refugees or asylum seeker children; 24 (child's right to highest attainable
standard of health); 27 (child's right to adequate standard of living);
31 (child's right to play and recreational activities); 37© (the
right of the child deprived of liberty to be treated with humanity and
respect); 39 (promotion of physical and psychological recovery of child
victim). The Article most clearly breached is Article 37(b) which states
" detention shall be used only as a measure of last resort and
for the shortest appropriate period of time "
2. The "Best
Interests of the Child"
Article 3 of The
Convention states "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". The practice of mandatory detention
ignores the best interests of the child.
The Children and
Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 is the legislation governing
the care and protection of children and young people in NSW. The Act clearly
states that "...children and young persons receive such care and
protection as is necessary for their safety, welfare and well-being, taking
into account the rights, powers and duties of their parents or other persons
responsible for them, and that all institutions, services and facilities
responsible for the care and protection of children and young persons
provide an environment for them that is free of violence and exploitation
and provide services that foster their health, developmental needs, spirituality,
self-respect and dignity "
Detaining child asylum
seekers and their families in immigration detention centres clearly breaches
this Act, and similar legislation in other states of Australia.
Human Rights and
Equal Opportunity Commission officers recently completed a fact finding
mission to Woomera detention centre in South Australia, as part of the
National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. The five day
assessment was extremely thorough and included interviews with children,
children with their family and others.
Interviews were also
held with the centre's management, medical and other staff. The Commission
concluded that there are clear breaches of the Convention on the Rights
of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory. The recent issues of
self-harm, neglect, and the wide-spread sense of despair felt by children
in these camps indicates that detention centres are not an appropriate
environment for children and young people.
1. Initial health
screening, testing and treatment required for children
More than half the
world's refugees are children. When children seeking asylum arrive in
Australia without papers we mandatorily detain them in detention centres
which are isolated from society and are operated by a private American
The best way to ensure
the safety, health and well-being of children asylum seekers is not to
detain them at all. All health screening should be conducted in the community
by culturally appropriate health and welfare professionals. The Samaritans
Foundation is opposed to the detention of children in immigration detention
centres. We are aware however, that initial screening is a necessary requirement
for public health concerns. Therefore, we suggest that unaccompanied children
and young people be placed in foster care in the community whilst the
screening process is undertaken. This will ensure that they receive the
care that is essential to their ability to recover from their experiences
in the country they have fled and their flight, as well as their ability
to adapt to a new environment. All initial health screening should be
undertaken in this time to identify any health, including mental health
issues, as well as public health issues that may be present. All unaccompanied
minors must not be detained at all but be placed immediately into the
community whilst screening is undertaken. Children and young people who
are not accompanied by a relative are at extreme risk of abuse if left
to fend for themselves in detention camps.
In order to meet
the requirements of the respective State Public Health Acts, all refugees
should be provided with a complete health screening, medical examination
and treatment within 7 days of their arrival. The health care needs of
each child must be identified by qualified medical and welfare professionals
and should have due regard to both the child's physical and mental health,
including the effects of trauma and torture.
specialist treatment should be referred immediately to community health
care. The child's family must be fully informed and be permitted to accompany
the child at all times. The care of children should be monitored continually.
This care includes dental treatment and preventative mental health intervention
aimed at minimising the psychological impact of becoming a refugee. All
care must be provided in a culturally appropriate manner and delivered
in such a way as not to further traumatise children and young people.
Screening and treating children and young people in detention centres,
surrounded by razor wire, swarming with guards carrying weapons, experiencing
rioting, suicides, self-harm and despair, parallels their experiences
in the regimes they have fled.
Whilst in the centres,
culturally appropriate food of sufficient nutritional value must be provided.
Three meals per day, fresh water, fruit and snacks available 24 hours,
tea and coffee making facilities and special diets for individual needs
such as medical reasons, religious beliefs etc.
All detainees must
be provided with toiletries and toilet facilities including access to
baths and showers in privacy. They must be provided with clean and adequate
clothing and underwear which is appropriate for the climate and for their
culture, including shoes. There must be facilities for washing clothes
as well as sufficient clean linen and bedding.
needs of infants, children and young people must be met at all times.
This includes social programs, activities, education and outings with
family members. Children and young people must remain with their families
at all times. They must be allowed to maintain the family unit and enjoy
the safety and security that the family can provide.
2. Specific health
services required for children and pregnant women
been born into detention and children have grown up peering through barbed
wire to the open spaces beyond the compound" (The Age, 28/5/98)
In the Centres
and in the community.
If pregnant women are to be detained in immigration detention centres
it must be for screening purposes only and for a very short time. All
health and welfare screening should be conducted in the community. Pregnant
women must have access to ante-natal services. All children should be
born in a hospital in the community. There must be adequate facilities
for women to breastfeed in privacy with a midwife available 24 hours.
Refugee women have a number of distinct health needs specifically related
to their gender, their cultural and religious backgrounds, and their refugee
Many women from refugee backgrounds:
- Will have had
little or no previous health screening, particularly cervical and breast
- Will have had
little access to and knowledge of family planning services
- May have psychosexual
and mental health issues following trauma, rape and abuse during flight
- Will have difficulty
accessing health care services in the community due to language barriers,
cultural barriers, cost, and transport
- May experience
difficulties surrounding female genital mutilation and accessing services
providing appropriate rehabilitative, gynaecological and obstetric care
Refugee women may
have higher-risk pregnancies for some of the following reasons:
- Previous multiple,
spontaneous or elective abortions
- Previous still
- Neonatal death
- Short spacing
- Recurrent urinary
tract infections, possibly associated with female genital mutilation
- Aged above 35
years or below 18 years
- Pregnancy weight
less than 45 kg
- Rheumatic heart
(Toole M. Foreword
to Refugee Health and General Practice. Melbourne: The Victorian Foundation
for Survivors of Torture Inc.)
Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding childbirth are many and varied.
Many of these practices will clash with Australian medical practices and
beliefs but must be respected, unless the practice is actually harming
the health of the mother or baby. (Crossland J. (1995) A Manual for Refugee
Resettlement Support Groups. Wellington: Refugee and Migrant Commission)
Children asylum seekers
have particular health needs. Although they arrive with the same physical
and psychological health problems as other refugee children, the stresses
they face after arrival have a profound affect on their health.
Many have fled situations
of political unrest or terror and may have experienced intense and prolonged
traumatic experiences such as war, torture, rape, starvation, and loss
of families. On arrival in Australia, they become prisoners, held in detention
camps for prolonged periods of time. This can result in a burden of unsupported
needs and enormous worries. As a result, asylum seekers are particularly
vulnerable to feelings of profound isolation, hopelessness and depression
as well as a fear of being deported back to the country from which they
have escaped. This anxiety may lead to re-traumatisation and to the surfacing
of stress symptoms and mental health problems years after their arrival
in Australia. (Antiss S. 2001 Refugee Community Profiles for Service Providers.
Auckland: Auckland Refugees as Survivors Centre.)
AND SOCIAL WELL BEING
1. Past Trauma
and Developmental Harm - Detection and Treatment after arrival, in the
centre and on release.
children and young people are dominated by one feeling that is painfully
traumatic - a deep sense of loss. Loss of what is obvious and tangible
and external such as possessions, a home, lifestyle, family members, friends
or freedom - and the loss that is less obvious, internal and subjective
such as loss of trust in the self and others, loss of self-esteem, self-respect
and personal identity.
A 1996 study of refugee entrants in NSW found that 1 in 4 refugee people,
including children, had been subject to severe trauma and torture. (Iredale
R., Mitchell C. et al (1996) "Ambivalent Welcome: The Settlement
Experiences of Humanitarian Entrant Families in Australia". NSW Centre
for Multicultural Studies, University of Wollongong.
Most refugees arriving
in this country will have been exposed to traumatic events. These may
- Threats to their
own lives or those of their family and friends
- Witnessing death
- Witnessing mass
murder and other cruelties inflicted on family or friends
of family members or friends
- Perilous flight
or escape with no personal protection
- Separation from
- Forced marches
- Extreme deprivation
- poverty, unsanitary conditions, hunger, lack of health care
- Persistent and
long-term political repression, deprivation of human rights and harassment
- Removal of shelter
or forced displacement from homes
- Refugee camp
experiences involving prolonged squalor, malnutrition, physical, psychological
and sexual abuse, absence of personal space, lack of safety
of such trauma include:
- Brain damage
- Chronic pain
- Poor mobility
- Missing teeth
- Impaired hearing
- Mutilation of
- Scars or disfigurement
- Damage to cervix,
uterus, fissures, fistulas, pain from testes, irregular menstruation
- Guilt and shame
- Distrust and
- Post traumatic
- Suicidal ideation
- Suicide attempts
- Eating disorders
It is rare for children
who have been exposed to trauma and torture to disclose to authorities,
especially when they are being detained against their will and they perceive
the authorities as a further threat. Generally, an awareness that a child
or young person is an asylum seeker is sufficient reason to orient care
to meet their needs. Therefore, detention is not appropriate for these
children. In the community, gentle enquiries by culturally appropriate
professionals over several sessions, can help to build up a picture of
their past and can assist in establishing the likelihood and extent of
exposure to trauma. Appropriate and immediate health and welfare treatment
is crucial to the current and future well being of the child and to their
ability to integrate into Australian society. Health professionals should
always use an appropriate interpreter keeping in mind cultural and gender
issues. They must ensure that they minimise any resemblance to a torture
or traumatic situation in the surroundings. For example, no razor wire,
guards, weapons, medical instruments and most importantly the current
experiences of children and families in detention of self-harm, hunger
strikes and suicide attempts.
2. The role of
the family in the child's social and psychological well-being
According to Islamic
religion, which is the religion of the majority of asylum seekers in immigration
detention centres in Australia, family life relies on the following four
pillars which are based on Qur'anic regulations and the traditions from
the life of the Prophet Muhammad, handed down from generation to generation.
These four pillars
1. Family life
as a cradle of human society providing a secure, healthy and encouraging
home for parents and the growing children.
2. Family life
a guardian of the natural erotic desires of men and women, leading this
powerful urge into wholesome channels.
3. Family life
as the very breeding place for human virtues like love, kindness, mercy.
4. Family life
as the most secure refuge against inward and outward troubles.
(Muslim Women's League (1995)
The importance of
family support for children and young people on arrival in Australia ranks
a close second to health as a factor that facilitates successful integration
in a new society. Families, in a broad sense, most importantly provide
emotional/moral support to children and young people. Children will be
most frightened when they are separated from their families. They will
experience increase levels of anxiety, fear, depression and despair which
can lead to severe mental health issues in the future.
Children who are
refugees or asylum seekers are being denied there most basic rights -
their right to enjoy family life, their right to learn, to make friends,
to play, to security, to good health - their right to be children. Instead
they face life in prison-like conditions, with no legal limits on the
length of their detention, living with other deeply traumatised people,
deprived of contact with the outside world, at risk of abuse.
AND ALTERNATIVES TO DETENTION
The Australian government
is imposing conditions that we do not tolerate for our own children. Were
Australian children to experience imprisonment, not attending school and
exposure to violence and psychological harm, swift intervention would
occur by child protection authorities.
the chance to experience childhood and family life damages them both now
and in ways that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Children are always the most vulnerable parties in any conflict. In peacetime,
children rely on their families and the institutions around them to give
their lives stability and a springboard from which to learn about the
world around them and their place within it. As refugees fleeing from
oppressive regimes or war, those structures have been threatened and sometimes
completely obliterated. Detention merely perpetuates this state. It does
nothing to build resilience in child refugees who may be lucky enough
to make the transition to a new life in Australia.
in the lives of child refugees is fundamental to re-building their sense
of well-being and their capacity to adapt to the huge changes involved
Children who are
asylum seekers have not committed a crime. They need access to education,
health care, and have a right to live with their families and be reunited
with them when separated. They are entitled to a safe environment, free
of fear and intimidation. Imprisonment behind razor wire and wearing an
identity number is no way to bring up children. They need to grow in a
climate of trust, security, and attachment to others. But they also need
playgrounds, toys, grass, growth and development.
Until recently, the
population in detention centres consisted mainly of men who arrived from
troubled countries to seek refuge in Australia. In October 1999, a legislative
amendment was proclaimed to prevent these men from bringing their families
to Australia after they are granted residential status. As a direct result,
more men now arrive with their families, so that children arrive in ever
increasing numbers. (Rogalla B. (2001) Australia's Little Prisoners"
Australian Children's Rights News, no.28 March 2001). The protection visa
system, and the inability for men to apply to bring their families here
is responsible for placing more and more children at risk.
When refugees arrive
in a boat, children and their parents are arrested. Most are detained
in Woomera until the outcome of their application for refugee status is
decided. The Woomera camp is brightly lit at night and can be seen several
kilometres away from the Stuart Hwy. Within the boundary fence, additional
razor wire fences subdivide the camp into compounds. Guards are placed
at corners and at strategic point, so that every part of the fence is
always in full view. Guards patrol the perimeter and monitor the guards
at the static points in case they take their watchful eyes off the fence.
Children live with
their families in flat army-style barracks. The insides are dark during
the day because the tiny windows are covered with sheets to keep out the
heat. Air conditioning is barely effective when temperatures soar to 48
degrees in summer and there are no trees to provide shade. The smaller
room sleep four people in double bunks, with little floor space between
the beds. Two families often share a large dormitory with sheets as makeshift
curtains between each family area, to give the illusion of privacy.
Life is regimented
for children. Random head counts occur 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. Guards control access to household
items and issue day-to-day rations.
Play for the children
lacks the colour, clutter and spontaneity one expects whenever children
are carefree and happy. Detained children learn to play quietly on the
barren ground. Education focuses on English language classes, and English
speaking people often teach the material. Other subjects receive little
attention and there is no formal curriculum with approval from the State
Education Department. (Peter Shadbolt in Woomera 31/8/01 The Telegraph
As previously discussed,
there is a very high chance that child refugees are traumatised before
they arrive in Australia. Instead of providing an environment where healing
can occur, the detention camps actually perpetuate the trauma. Negative
experiences in childhood create long-term pain and suffering later in
life. Children learn behaviour towards other by the way they are treated
as children. Children who are respected will learn respect. Those that
are cared for will learn to care for others weaker than themselves. Children
who are loved will learn tolerance and acceptance. In detention, children
will learn inhumanity, degradation, humiliation and disrespect for others.
Contrary to government
policy on mandatory detention for asylum seekers, The Samaritans Foundation
firmly believes that there are alternatives to detention that will allow
the government to process applications quickly and protect the community
and at the same time provide refugees with the dignity, respect, care
and safety that they require.
We understand that
asylum seekers claims do need to be assessed for legitimacy, but refugees
are not criminals and detention, if necessary at all, needs to be minimal.
It costs approximately $104 per day for each detainee. This is a very
expensive process. Community alternatives to mandatory detention, which
are already used internationally and within the current Australian parole
system, are a much cheaper alternative. Sweden, for example, receives
similar numbers of asylum seekers as Australia and uses detention only
to establish a person's identity and to conduct criminal screening. Most
detainees are released within a very short time. Children are only detained
for a maximum of 6 days. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(2000) "Reception Standards for Asylum Seekers in the European Union".
The Refugee Council
of Australia has proposed a three-tier scheme as an alternative to mandatory
detention. These stages are:
- Closed detention
- Open detention
- Community release
Under this model
and those used by other countries including Sweden and New Zealand, asylum
seekers waiting for their claims to be processed are given freedom of
movement after having satisfied identity and public safety checks. The
threat of absconding is low because it is in the best interest of the
asylum seeker to fulfil their responsibilities and not to jeopardise their
The benefits of this
type of system are obvious. They include:
- Increased sensitivity
to the human rights of asylum seekers
- Affording dignity
to those already traumatised
- Addresses the
needs of vulnerable groups such as children and women
- Increased access
to essential services.
models already in use in other countries include:
- Monitoring -
such as regular reporting to a case worker and the requirement to present
within 24 hours if required
- Guarantor - who
would be responsible for the applicant and be called if the person could
not be located
- Release on conditions
similar to bail
- Open centres with
hostel-like accommodation where people are free to come and go once
their status is determined. This allows gradual integration into society.
The Samaritans Foundation
was involved with the Safe Haven Program in Singleton NSW. This program
provided accommodation and services for the Kosovar refugees. Being involved
in this program, and experiencing the benefits these types of programs
can achieve for refugees, has prompted us to offer our services again
to the government. We recently offered Samaritans resources to care for
some of the unattached minors being held in detention centres across Australia.
However, to date, we have had no response from the government.
free is the only logical step available. Yet it is not acceptable to free
only the children because, as we know from the work of developmental researchers,
to separate children from their parents becomes the catalyst for generating
even more harm. Therefore, the children and their parents need to be released
together. Anything less undermines our own child protection laws in each
State and Territory and also undermines the laws of child development.
In conclusion, we
must face up to our humanitarian responsibilities. These responsibilities
include accepting refugee children and families. The way in which we do
this however, will define us either as a nation with humanitarian values
of inclusion, respect and care for those less fortunate, or as a nation
of exclusion, self-righteousness, and disregard for those in need.
1. Antiss S. (2001)
"Refugee Community Profiles for Service Providers" Auckland:
Auckland Refugees as Survivors Centre.
2. Crossland J. (1995)
"A Manual for Refugee Resettlement Support Groups" Wellington:
Refugee and Migrant Commission.
3. Iredale R., Mitchell
C. et al (1996) "Ambivalent Welcome: The Settlement Experiences of
Humanitarian Entrant Families in Australia". NSW Centre for Multicultural
Studies: University of Wollongong.
4. Muslim Women's
5. NSW Children and
Young Person's Care and Protection Act (1998). NSW Government:
6. Rogalla B (2001)
"Australia's Little Prisoners". Australian Children's Rights
News., no. 28 March 2001)
7. Shadbolt P. (2001)
"Peter Shadbolt in Woomera". The Telegraph: UK 31/8/01
8. Toole M "Foreward
to Refugee Health and General Practice". Melbourne: The Victorian
Foundation for Survivors of Torture inc.
9. United Nations,
"International Conventions on the Rights of the Child". 1959.
10. United Nations,
"International Conventions on the Treatment of Refugees". 1951.
11. United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (2000) "Reception Standards for Asylum
Seekers in the European Union". UNHCR: Geneva.
Updated 9 January 2003.