A last resort?
National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
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Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,
all children living in Australia - including children held in immigration
detention - have a right to the 'highest attainable standard of health'.
The Convention also states that children escaping conflict, torture or
trauma have a right to special help to recover 'in an environment which
fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.'
A child's mental health affects every part of his or
her life. For instance it can stop children from enjoying healthy relationships
with family and friends, it can hinder their ability to learn and it can
undermine their enthusiasm to play. In other words, a child's mental health
is strongly linked to his or her overall well-being.
The Inquiry received a wide range of evidence which
indicated that detention has a significantly detrimental impact on the
mental health of some children. While children who were detained for short
periods of time may not have been greatly affected, evidence from the
primary records of mental health professionals who treated children in
detention showed that the longer children were held in detention, the
more their mental health deteriorated.
Whilst children in detention did receive some support
and help from mental health professionals, many experts told the Inquiry
that the detention environment made it virtually impossible to meet the
mental health needs of children and their families. This was because the
source of many of the problems was the detention environment itself.
The Inquiry heard numerous examples where State mental
health and child protection agencies, as well as independent experts,
repeatedly recommended that children be removed from detention to protect
their mental health. By April 2002 most unaccompanied children were removed
from detention centres following these recommendations - but the recommendations
were not implemented for children in detention with their parents.
Mental health experts, many of whom had treated children
in detention, told the Inquiry that child detainees had experienced, amongst
other things, clinical depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and
various anxiety disorders.
Children in detention exhibited symptoms including
bed wetting, sleep walking and night terrors. At the severe end of the
spectrum, some children became mute, refused to eat and drink, made suicide
attempts and began to self-harm, such as by cutting themselves. Some children
also were not meeting their developmental milestones.
Recovery from past trauma
More than 92% of children in detention have been found
to be refugees. This means that most, if not all, children in immigration
detention are likely to have been affected by significant traumatic episodes
before they arrived in Australia.
However, the Inquiry received evidence that the trauma
children experienced before they arrived in Australia does not account
for the extent of mental health problems they demonstrated in detention.
In fact, the evidence was clear that immigration detention centres were
not an environment where they could recover from their past persecution
The detention environment
Children, parents, child protection authorities and
psychiatrists all agreed that children are deeply affected by witnessing
violence in the detention centres, such as riots, fires, suicide attempts,
incidents of self-harm and hunger strikes.
An atmosphere of fear and violence can cause extreme
anxiety in children, which can cause them to relive past traumas. It can
also lead some children to copy the behaviour they see around them.
The atmosphere of violence was compounded by other
factors associated with life in a detention centre, such as living in
a closed environment and the uncertainty surrounding visa applications.
In the early stages of detention, before a primary
determination is made on a visa application, detainees are generally hopeful
that their application will be successful and their time in detention
short. However, as weeks and months pass without any news on their visa
application, or if the application has been rejected, detainees grow more
depressed, anxious and fearful.
Breakdown of families
Experts agree that strong, effective parenting is crucial
to the well-being and healthy development of a child. However, being in
detention can severely undermine the ability of parents to care for their
Parents in detention spoke of their frustration at
being unable to maintain normal family arrangements in detention, such
as cooking their own food, providing discipline or celebrating birthdays
or other special days.
Parents also said they felt guilty in bringing their
children to Australia - instead of finding freedom and a new home, they
were being held in 'a prison'.
The Inquiry heard that parents in detention who were
previously very effective and competent became depressed in detention,
which meant they were unable to play with their children, read to them,
supervise them or look after their safety. In some cases, parents also
found it difficult to manage their children's behaviour in the detention
A parent's depression can lead to children taking on
an 'adult' role - children would care for a parent or younger siblings
and discuss issues with detention centre staff because they had stronger
English language skills than their parents.
Child welfare experts told the Inquiry that it was
very harmful for children to take on these roles. Not only is the behaviour
'developmentally inappropriate', it also means they sacrifice their own
needs and try to offer a level of care to others that they are not really
able to give.
Mental health problems suffered by children in detention
Children detained for lengthy periods have experienced
significant mental health problems. A study by mental health professionals
(the 2003 Steel report) of 20 children from a remote detention centre
who had been detained for an average of 28 months found that:
In April 2002, the South Australian child welfare authority
made the following report on a 13 year old boy who had been detained for
Children in detention also self-harmed - they have
sewn their lips together, attempted to hang themselves, swallowed shampoo
and detergents and have cut themselves. Between April and July 2002, one
child detained at Woomera made four attempts to hang himself, climbed
into the razor wire four times, went on hunger strike twice and slashed
his arm twice. Records from April 2002 report this boy saying:
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