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Submission to National Inquiry
into Children in Immigration Detention from
National Investment in the
Eary Years (NIFTeY) Australia, Ltd.
of early life experience (including foetal influences) on development,
health and well being throughout life
for children and young people in immigration detention
Australian evidence demonstrates the long-term effects of early life experience
on health and well being throughout life. The detention of children and
young people is poses significant risks to normal development. The exposure
of infants and young children to stress either directly or mediated through
the experiences of their parents reduces the likelihood of normal brain
development. The manifestations of these experiences are likely to include
poor physical health, learning difficulties, behaviour disorders, school
failure, risk taking behaviour, mental illness, suicide and criminal behaviour.
Those who have been exposed to such risks in early life are at increased
risk of long-term sequelae such as depression, and post traumatic stress
disorder. These manifestations are of direct concern to the Australian
community both because of the long term costs associated with these problems
in future Australian citizens and the dangers of returning such damaged
young people into the International community.
that Governments in Australia work with the Commonwealth Government and
Opposition parties to urgently review policy on asylum seekers with the
view to increasing community understanding and developing policies that
are both humane and rational.
NIFTeY is the acronym
for National Investment For The Early Years. Its supporters include individuals
and organisations from the fields of early childhood education, community
child health, infant mental health, juvenile justice, child advocacy,
research and adolescent physical, mental health and well being.
1. To promote the
development, implementation and evaluation of strategies in the early
years of life that advance the health, development and well being of all
children in Australia;
2. To advance community
knowledge and the education and support of parents in relation to the
importance of the first three years of a child's life so as to promote
the social, cognitive, emotional and physical well being of all children;
3. To encourage the
provision of resources and services to communities and families where
children are known to be disadvantaged;
4. To promote and
disseminate research relevant to the early years of life, including monitoring
the status of young children; and
5. To value, recognise
and advocate for the importance of the impact of early positive relationships
and experiences in young children's lives.
NIFTeY as an organisation
has access to the combined expertise of practitioners, academics and researchers
in the areas of endeavour that effect the lives of young people and their
families. The members of the organisation are familiar with the huge body
of research literature relating to human development and the effect of
adverse circumstances on life chances. NIFTeY is therefore uniquely qualified
to present a discrete submission and to support the submission of the
large number of organisations included in the Alliance of Professionals
Concerned about the Health of Asylum Seekers and their Children.
In making this submission
- limitations of
knowledge relating to the background and past experience of refugees;
- lack of first
hand knowledge of conditions in detention centres and support services
- apparent support
for mandatory detention and activities designed to discourage further
asylum seekers by the Australian community;
- the underlying
fears of the Australian public, both for themselves and their children,
relating to people they consider "other" in an environment
where they feel they have little control over their own life chances;
- the apparent lack
of support for international treaties by the Australian community and
the desire to be seen as a country that makes decisions that are independent
of international pressures;
- the difficulties
faced by Governments and Oppositions parties in making and supporting
decisions based on evidence without the support of the community - even
though this evidence points to both individual and community harm;
- that the implementation
of recommendations directed to specific groups of asylum seekers (in
this case, the separation of families with children and unaccompanied
minors from other detainees) may have profound adverse effects on other
of early life experience (including foetal influences) on development,
health and well being throughout life.
There is a vast amount
of evidence that early life experience sets the scene for health and well
being throughout life.
based on large population studies, are backed by biochemical and sophisticated
imaging studies of the developing brain demonstrating that adverse circumstances
in early life, including foetal life, result in changes in the patterns
of stress hormone secretion and other neurotransmitters that have a profound
affect on brain development which may be irreversible. Evidence in support
of the irreversibility of some of these outcomes is provided by long-term
follow-up studies of Romanian children adopted into Western homes after
varying periods of time spent in an orphanage - those children with longer
exposure to adverse environments had higher diurnal cortisol production
(1) and poorer developmental and behavioural outcomes (2). Manifestations
of later effects include learning difficulties, behaviour disorders, poor
impulse control, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, risk taking
behaviours (injury, unintended pregnancy, alcohol and substance abuse)
and criminal activities.
with adverse early life experience tends to continue into adult life.
Evidence clearly demonstrates an association of disadvantage with poorer
health including increased incidence of hypertension, heart disease, type
2 diabetes and mental illness.
Children need to
develop in a secure environment with at least one caring adult and to
be exposed to a large variety of positive learning experiences in addition
to the basic requirements for shelter and nurture. They need to develop
peer relationships and feel a strong connection to community and the school
environment. They need to have access to positive role models and to perceive
themselves as valued individuals deserving of respect and able to respect
the rights of others.
(supported by NIFTeY) will provide detailed evidence supported by references
from the International and Australian literature. Even so, it is likely
that these references will represent only a small fraction of the evidence
available. "Developmental Health and the Wealth of Nations - social,
biological, and educational dynamics" edited by Daniel Keating and
Clyde Hertzman provides an outstanding coverage of the subject, including
a comprehensive list of references.
for children and young people in immigration detention
While some of the
families with children, and even some unaccompanied minors, may have come
from a position of relative economic privilege in their country of origin,
it is obvious that families willing to leave their familiar environment
and support systems and risk their own lives and that of their children
to travel to another country are trying to escape from adverse circumstances.
It is known that a number of individuals have witnessed the death and
maltreatment of family members and have themselves been subjected to maltreatment.
It is also known that some asylum seekers come from countries where circumstances
prevent adequate nutrition of children and young people and educational
opportunities are minimal. It may be assumed then that newly arrived children
and young people need urgent attention to ameliorate the effects of past
experience and prevent long-term damage.
While it is impossible
to confirm the damage inflicted on children and young people by their
passage from their country of origin or during their stay in countries
along the way, we have the unchallenged evidence that these children and
young people have traveled on the last leg to Australia on crowded, unsafe
vessels in an atmosphere of apprehension and violence. It is on record
that children and young people have witnessed the firing of warning shots
from our own defense forces in the vicinity of the vessels in which they
were traveling and would have witnessed the apprehension and confusion
of adults with whom they traveled. Whilst some children are less vulnerable
to the impact of stress by virtue of temperamental characteristics and
intellectual capacity, the key for others lies in the parental capacity
to buffer social stress in their lives and offer them a positive path
in dealing with that stress. Garbarino (writing in relation to children
exposed to community violence) states that adults are a crucial resource
for children attempting to cope with danger and stress - "So long
as adults are in control of themselves and present children with a role
model of calm, positive determination, most children can cope with a great
deal of chronic stress associated with community violence. Whilst they
can be traumatised by their experiences, the adults around them will be
able to serve as a resource and support them in their rehabilitative efforts.
However, once adults begin to deteriorate, to decompensate, to panic,
children suffer." (3). This is not surprising given the importance
of the images of adults contained in children's social experience. Traumatised
children need help to recover from their experiences. Emotionally disabled
or immobilized adults are unlikely to offer children what they need.
The literature on
early childhood is very clear - stress transmitted from parent to child,
including the child in utero and the infant has a detrimental effect on
normal neurological development (4,5). There is also evidence that exposure
to and experience of trauma may distort values. Garbarino warns that unless
children can be given a moral and political framework to process their
experiences, "traumatised children are likely to be drawn to a range
of groups and ideologies that legitimise and reward their rage, their,
fear and their hateful cynicism. This is an environment within which gangs
(and one might well add, terrorist networks) flourish and community institutions
It is on record that
a number of children of asylum seekers ended up in the sea and needed
to be rescued. Most Australian parents, even without the benefit of the
evidence from the world scientific and sociological literature, would
consider these to be damaging experiences for children and young people
and would wish to take measures to immediately place their children in
an environment where they could be reassured of their safety and protected
from further stress.
NIFTeY has no direct
knowledge of the processes undertaken by immigration officials (acting
both within Australia and "off shore") to care for these children
who have been subjected to such experiences. It is known, however that
a number of these families with children and possibly some unaccompanied
minors were transported to detention centres in countries outside Australia
against their wishes and possibly without accurate knowledge of their
final destination. It is apparent that children of distraught, fearful
and angry parents are likely to experience severe trauma.
of families in detention in Australia make it clear that children and
young people have witnessed violence between detainees and security officers,
violence between detainees, attempted break outs and episodes of self
harm. Such experiences are likely to result in damage to children extending
into adult life. Expected manifestations include impaired learning ability,
behaviour disorders, risk taking behaviours, criminal activity, mental
illness and long-term health problems.
Agencies that have
had access to detention centres have reported that children in detention
centres do not have adequate facilities for play, education or provision
for the nutritional needs of young children, that health care is less
than optimal, sport and recreation facilities are absent or inadequate
for young people and that health and well being is dependent on individuals
whose expertise is in controlling prison inmates and who could not be
expected to understand the needs of children, particularly children who
are at increased risk in so many areas. These agencies include the Commonwealth
Ombudsman, the University of NSW Centre for Refugee Research, the Refugee
Council of Australia, South Australian Department of Human Services and
the Parliament of Australia Joint Committee Inquiry into Immigration Detention
Procedures. A number of reports are available (6, 7, 8, 9). In addition,
there have been a number of media statements from individuals who have
worked in detention centres including psychologists, nurses and other
NIFTeY contends that
no child or young person within Australia (or sent "off shore"
by Australian agencies) should be subjected to conditions known to have
long term, potentially irreversible damage. Quite apart from Australia's
obligations relating to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child or other international treaties to which Australia is a signatory,
the prevailing Australian concern for children and young people and the
actions by Australian Governments to promote and protect the health and
well being of children and young people in other contexts are sufficient
to justify urgent action for children and young people in detention.
NIFTeY makes this
submission as an individual organisation with particular interest and
expertise in the early years of life.
1. Gunnar R, Morrison
SJ, Chrisholm K, Schuder M. (2001). Salivary Cortisol Levels in Children
Adopted from Romanian Orphanages. Dev Psychopathol. 13(3):611-28.
2. Rutter M. (1998)
Developmental Catch-up, and Deficit, Following Adoption after Severe Global
Privation. English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) Study Team. J Child Psychol
Psychiatry. May:39 (4):465-76.
3. Garbarino JG &
Kostenly K (1998). What Children Can Tell Us About Living in a War Zone.
In J Osofsky (ed) Children in a Violent Society. Guilford, New York.
4. Perry, BD et al
(1995). Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaption and Use-dependent
Development of the Brain: How States Become Traits. Infant Mental Health
Journal 16 (4), 271-291
5. Perry BD. (1999).
Memories of Fear: How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States,
Feelings, Behaviours and Thoughts from Traumatic Events. "Splintered
Reflections - Images of the Body in Trauma" edited by J Goodwin and
R Attias. Basic Books
6. Commonwealth Ombudsman
(2001). Report of an Own Motion Investigation into the Department of immigration
and Multicultural Affairs' Immigration Detention Centres. Report under
section 35A of the Ombudsman Act 1976.
7. Centre for Refugee
Research, University NSW (2001). Surviving War, Surviving Peace. Research
and Development Monograph Number 1. ISBN # 1876565 24 1
8. South Australian
Department of Human Services (2000). Findings of South Australian Investigation
of Woomera Child Sexual Abuse Allegations
9. Joint Committee
on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (2001). Completed Inquiry 1: Visits
to Immigration Detention Centres. Government publication
1. Governments recognise
the likelihood of profound detrimental effects of detention on the development,
health and well being of children and young people, particularly those
cared for by parents who have also been traumatised, and the consequences
for Australian society both through the subsequent reception of damaged
young people into Australia or the return of these alienated and disturbed
young people to the international environment.
2. Political parties
work together to reduce the apprehension of the Australian community and
endeavour, by a co-operative approach, to foster a humane and rational
response to the plight of asylum seekers.
3. Families with
children and unaccompanied minors remain in detention for the minimum
period required for health and security checks.
4. Families members
arriving at different times or by different means are re-united immediately
after health and security checks are completed.
5. Families with
children and unaccompanied minors are housed separately from other detainees
while in detention.
6. Families with
children and unaccompanied minors in detention are maintained in facilities
close to amenities, services and volunteer agencies. That is they be not
sent to remote locations either in Australia or "off shore".
7. Detention centres
housing young people and families with children are equipped with play
areas and sport and leisure facilities, preferably supervised by volunteers
or professionals with experience in early childhood or activities for
8. Families with
children and unaccompanied minors, while in detention, are not subjected
to prison conditions such as regimentation of meals and leisure time,
invasion of personal space, searches and exposure to violence.
9. Pregnant women
and women with young babies have access to community support services,
particularly those provided by and for women from similar cultural background
on a frequent and regular basis.
10. Children of families
and unaccompanied minors in detention have access to early childhood education
and schooling within the general community including utilizing existing
education and support facilities for new arrivals in Australia. Current
financial impediments preventing this from happening in some States need
to be addressed.
minors have access to families and organisations experienced in hosting
and supporting overseas students and exchange students.
minors and other young people in detention have access to educational
computer programs produced either in the country of origin or by other
international relief agencies.
13. Pregnant women
and women with young children experiencing the effects of trauma and abuse
or demonstrating evidence of mental illness receive urgent treatment by
mental health professionals and intensive support from available community
members from related cultural background.
14. Services to identify
and treat children and young people suffering the effects of trauma and
dislocation are available as soon as practical after arrival in Australia.
15. Children and
young people with health problems or disabilities are promptly assessed
and receive management that is commensurate with that of the general community
including consideration of cultural influences.
Updated 30 June 2003.