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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

National Investment in the

Eary Years (NIFTeY) Australia, Ltd.


International and

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.

NIFTeY recommends

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

NIFTeY acknowledges:

  • 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

    detained individuals.


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.

These observations,

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.

Disadvantage associated

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.

Other submissions,

(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

deteriorate." (3)

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.

Available documentation

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

health workers.

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

young people.

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.

11. Unaccompanied

minors have access to families and organisations experienced in hosting

and supporting overseas students and exchange students.

12. Unaccompanied

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.