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

the Australian Reproductive

Health Alliance

1. Introduction

The Australian Reproductive

Health Alliance has the following mission statement

1 To promote public

support, both within Australia and internationally, for the improvement

in the well-being and status of women and the development of reproductive

health in families and individuals by means including-

  • the production

    of educational materials;

  • the organisation

    of seminars and workshops;

  • the preparation

    of briefing materials for members of the press;

  • networking with

    parliamentarians, government departments and other interested parties

    as required;

  • the support and

    promotion of alliances of opinion makers with comparable aims and objectives.

2 To promote knowledge,

education and research relating to the development of family planning

and other reproductive health services, paying particular attention to

the needs of Indigenous People, both within Australia and internationally.

3 Where appropriate,

to identify and support specific development projects which promote reproductive

health, and enhance the status of women and girls, either working independently

or with partner organisations.

4 To promote, maintain

and extend the interest of ARHA members in a broad range of issues concerning

reproductive health and its role in development.

This statement was

adopted in line with the Cairo Program of Action (POA), which was the

outcome of the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development. ARHA

was established as a direct outcome of that conference by a group of Australian

citizens, concerned that the Australian Government should meet its obligations

under the POA.

ARHA not only conducts

a wide range of public education programs on population and development,

including youth conferences, but has also been instrumental in establishing

and supporting the Australian All Party Parliamentary Group on Population

and Development.

Attached as an appendix

(appendix 1) to this submission is the latest Annual Report of ARHA, which

gives a broad outline of the work of the organisation.

2. Cairo Program

of Action Obligations.

The Australian government

has agreed under the program of action to increase its commitment to improving

reproductive health through education, information and services. The ICPD

offered a more comprehensive vision of reproductive health than that which

had existed before. The program of action called attention to populations

whose reproductive health needs had often been neglected if not ignored

- refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants and adolescents. The

sections of the program of action relevant to this inquiry are:

7.41. The reproductive

health needs of adolescents as a group have been largely ignored to date

by existing reproductive health services. The response of societies to

the reproductive health needs of adolescents should be based on information

that helps them attain a level of maturity required to make responsible

decisions. In particular, information and services should be made available

to adolescents to help them understand their sexuality and protect them

from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and subsequent

risk of infertility.

7.47 Governments,

in collaboration with non-governmental organizations, are urged to meet

the special needs of adolescents and to establish appropriate programmes

to respond to those needs… Such programmes should include support

mechanisms for the education and counselling of adolescents in the areas

of gender relations and equality, violence against adolescents, responsible

sexual behaviour, responsible family-planning practice, family life, reproductive

health, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV infection and AIDS prevention.

Programmes for the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse and incest

and other reproductive health services should be provided. Such programmes

should provide information to adolescents and make a conscious effort

to strengthen positive social and cultural values.

6.9 Countries should

take effective steps to address the neglect, as well as all types of exploitation

and abuse, of children, adolescents and youth… in particular, countries

should take appropriate action to eliminate sexual abuse of children within

and outside their borders.

The Australian government

is a signatory to the ICPD, and thus has agreed to meet the obligations

outlined above.

3. Implementation

of the Program of Action and its relevance to children in immigration


The detention of

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

of the Child, signed and ratified by Australia. ARHA is concerned that

the conditions of detention are also in contravention to the program of

action of the ICPD.

Detention of children

poses long-term risks to their psychological and social development and

well being, in particular their ability to successfully resettle in the

Australian community.. ARHA's main concerns regarding the detention of

children by the Department of Immigration are:

  • The impact of

    detention on these children's mental health and this implications of

    this for their reproductive health;

  • The exposure of

    children in detention to sexual and other violence, and the risk of

    becoming the victims of sexual assault themselves; and

  • The provision

    of education, information and services to ensure that the children in

    immigration detention attain good reproductive health.

The impact of detention

on children's health and development has been well documented through

internationally published research and backed up by various independent

medical professionals who have visited the detention centres (ABC Lateline,


The medical community

is united in its concern for children in Australia's immigration detention

centres, in particular their access to health care and the impact of detention

on the health and development of children and adolescents (Terms of Reference,

Professional Alliance for the Health of Asylum Seekers and their Children).

Dr Louise Newman, Chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College

of Psychiatrists Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that

"like so many other childhood disorders, without timely detection

and appropriate intervention the problems can only magnify in later life".

(RACP/RANZCP media release 17/8/2001)

A report by the Ombudsman

published in 2001 found that detention is an unhealthy environment for

children. While in Australia's detention centres, children witness acts

of violence, hunger strikes, incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide,

and sexual assault. Independent medical professionals who have visited

the detention centres have reported that the majority of children in detention

are distressed, and suffer from panic attacks, nightmares, sleepwalking,

disruptive conduct, impaired learning development and in some cases constant

weeping, refusing to speak, and threatened self-harm, including suicide.

In addition, there have been several reports in recent years of a number

of children being subject to alleged assaults by adult male detainees

and allegations of sexual assault on children (ABC Lateline, Commonwealth

Ombudsman 2001). The lack of separate facilities for children and their

families plays a large role in this. Research has shown that asylum seekers

in detention show a significantly higher levels of depression, suicidal

ideation, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and panic attacks than asylum

seekers, refugees and immigrants from the same country living in the community

(Kisely et al 2002).

Medical professionals

and refugee advocates who have visited the detention centres have expressed

concern over the level of health services available. Access to medical

services after hours has to be negotiated through correctional centre

staff; medical and health professionals employed by the detention's management

may not be experienced in dealing with torture and trauma victims; interpreter

services are not always available (Sultan and O'Sullivan, 2001).

Adolescents have

particular reproductive health needs. This is the time when young people

need information and confidential advice and support on the changes that

are occurring in them, and new experiences they are having. Research has

found that services must be youth-friendly, or young people will not use

them (UNFPA). In particular, this means that staff must be sympathetic

to the needs and concerns and experiences of young people at a time in

their lives when they are rapidly changing. Staff must also be non-judgmental

and maintain confidentiality. Given the criticisms of health services

in general in Australia's detention centres, ARHA is concerned that appropriate

reproductive health services for adolescents may not be provided.

4. Conclusions

and Recommendations

There are compelling

reasons as human beings to ensure that the reproductive health of children

in Australia's detention centres is looked after. However, there are other

compelling reasons too. 84 per cent of asylum seekers in Australia are

found to be refugees and thus resettled into the community (Edmund Rice

Centre for Justice and Community Education, 2001). Thus the vast majority

of children who have been held in detention will end up in the Australian

community. The Australian community and health systems will then have

to deal with the consequences of detention: the long-term sexual and reproductive

health problems as a result of psychological trauma and distress or sexual

assault. These children will carry the effects of their incarceration

with them throughout the rest of their lives, a price that will be paid

by the Australian community. There can be no excuse for the current treatment

of children (or indeed adults) in detention centres. ARHA urges the Human

Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to advise Government that such

incarceration is unnecessary, indefensible and inhumane.



doctors concerned over detention of children", ABC Lateline, 19/03/02

available online <>

"Child Health

Specialists Call for the Release of Children and Their Families from Australian

Detention Centres", RACP/RANZCP media release, 17/8/2001 available

online <>

"Debunking the

Myths about Asylum Seekers", Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community

Education, 2001 available online <>

Kisely S, Stevens

M, Hart B, Douglas C, "Health Issues of Asylum Seekers and Refugees",

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 26 (1) 2002

Program of Action,

International Conference on Population and Development, available online


Report of an Own

Motion Investigation into The Department of Immigration and Multicultural

Affairs' Immigration Detention Centres (Commonwealth Ombudsman, March

2001), available online <>

Sultan A and O'Sullivan

K, "Psychological disturbances in asylum seekers held in long term

detention: a participant-observer account", Medical Journal of Australia

175 (12) 2001

Terms of Reference,

Professional Alliance for the Health of Asylum Seekers and their Children,

available online <>

UNFPA Responds to

Adolescents & Youth, available online <>


Updated 30 June 2003.