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A last resort? - Summary Guide: Safety in Detention Centres

A last resort?

National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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    A Last Resort? - SUMMARY GUIDE. A Summary of the important issues, findings and recommendations of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

    Safety in detention centres

    Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,

    children have a right to live in a safe environment.

    Throughout the course of the Inquiry, a number of serious

    disturbances occurred in immigration detention centres, including riots,

    fires, hunger strikes, protests, self-harm and suicide attempts.

    In addition, the Inquiry heard that the measures taken to

    address disturbances in the detention centres - such as the use of tear

    gas and water cannons - left children feeling frightened and unsafe.

    During these incidents, children were exposed to a level

    of risk to their physical safety - and, as a consequence, to their mental

    health - that children in the community are unlikely to face.

    Disturbances and unrest

    Unfortunately the environment

    is not very healthy because every day they are witnessing people

    who are going on top of the tree, who are suiciding or just cutting

    their body by blade or jumping, shouting, doing everything violent

    and they are witnessing and they think this is a game they have

    to participate on it. It’s a very dangerous situation and

    we cannot have any control of it.

    Detainee parent, Curtin

    Between July and December 2001, the Department recorded

    688 major incidents involving 1,149 detainees across all detention centres.

    Of these incidents, 321 were alleged, actual or attempted assaults (19

    involved children), 174 involved self-harm (25 involved children) and

    about 30% involved 'contraband, damage to property, disturbances, escapes

    and protests'. Almost 75% of these incidents occurred in the Curtin, Port

    Hedland and Woomera centres, where the largest number of children had

    been detained for the longest periods of time.

    From January to June 2002, there were 760 major incidents

    involving 3,030 detainees across all detention centres. There were 116

    alleged, attempted or actual assaults (16 involved children), 248 self-harm

    incidents (25 involved children) and 52% involved contraband, damage to

    property, disturbances, escapes and protests. Almost 80% of all incidents

    occurred in the Curtin, Port Hedland and Woomera centres.

    The following chronology of major disturbances in the Woomera,

    Curtin and Port Hedland detention centres gives some sense of the environment

    in which the majority of children in immigration detention were living.

    It doesn't provide a comprehensive description of each and every disturbance

    in the detention centres. It has been drawn together primarily from media


    Major disturbances in immigration detention centres: Jul

    1999 - Dec 2002

    Port Hedland
    July 99
    [Not open]
    [Not open]
    Riot and escapes.
    Aug 99
    [Not open]
    [Not open]
    Mar 00
    June 00
    Two days of protests. Approx 480

    detainees walk into town.

    Aug 00
    Three days of riots and fires.

    Tear gas and water cannons used. Approx 60-80 detainees involved.

    Nov 00
    Hunger strike by more than 30

    detainees. Some forcibly fed in hospital.

    Jan 01
          Riot involving approx 300 detainees.   Riot involving approx 180 detainees.

    Hunger strike.

    Mar 01
    April 01
          Riots and fires. Tear gas used. Approx 200 detainees


    May 01
    Riot, hunger strike. Tear gas used.
    June 01
      Riot and confrontation between ACM and approx 150 detainees.

    Water cannon used. Injuries on both sides.

    Aug 01
      Riot, fires and self-harm. Tear gas used. Centre on

    riot alert for more than a week.

    Sept 01
      Protest outside. Water cannons and tear gas used on

    detainees inside.

    Nov 01
      Riot and extensive fires. Approx 250 detainees involved.        
    Dec 01
      Three separate riots, each with fires. Tear gas and

    water cannons used.

    Jan 02
      Hunger strikes, lip-sewing, including seven children.  
    Hunger strikes, lip-sewing.
    Hunger strikes, lip-sewing.
    Mar–Apr 02
      Riots over the Easter period. Approx. 50 escapes, including

    mother and three children.

      Riots and fires involving 150 detainees. Tear gas used.

    Family compound created after these riots.

      Riot involving approx 150 detainees.
    June 02
      Hunger strikes, including 13 children. Escapes, including

    three children.

    July 02
    Riots and fires.
    Dec 02
      Extensive fires.  
    [Not open]
    One fire.

    Disturbances in Woomera

    The Woomera detention centre, which opened in 1999, was the

    site of more disturbances than any other centre. In this relatively small

    and contained environment, children were inevitably exposed to the riots,

    protests and violence that occurred. As one detainee father at Woomera

    told the Inquiry: "They know everything - who cut themselves, who try

    to hang themselves."

    The Inquiry visited Woomera three times - in January 2002,

    June 2002 and September 2002. During the first visit - at a time when

    281 children were detained there - there was a major hunger strike, involving

    a large number of detainees. During this period, more than 30 children

    joined the hunger strike and a number of children sewed their lips. Two

    unaccompanied children swallowed shampoo and disinfectant and one boy

    cut the word 'freedom' into his arm.

    Extensive riots occurred at Woomera during Easter 2002, which

    coincided with a major protest held outside the centre. During the riots:

    • detainees climbed onto roofs, waved banners and

      shouted to protestors and media outside the centre

    • some detainees threatened to set themselves on fire
    • fences were brought down and some detainees used

      fencing, bricks and rocks as weapons

    • tear gas was used on four occasions
    • water cannons were used to subdue detainees.
    Image: Hunger strike at Woomera, January 2002
    Hunger strike at Woomera, January 2002

    Video evidence of the Easter riots shows that some

    children were actively participating in the riots and others were highly

    distressed by what was going on around them.

    Security procedures

    Maintaining safety and security in detention facilities is

    a very challenging task. Some detainees have been violent during demonstrations,

    arming themselves with makeshift weapons and threatening staff. On some

    occasions, fences were pulled down and staff had to prevent detainees

    from escaping.

    It is clearly legitimate for staff to protect themselves

    at times when they are being threatened. However, evidence to the Inquiry

    suggests that sometimes the security measures used compromised the physical

    safety and mental health of children.

    When children are detained in a closed environment, the options

    available to shelter them from those events are limited. Thus the detention

    of children in immigration detention centres simultaneously increases

    the risk of harm to children and limits what can be done to address that


    The use of tear gas and water cannons and the sight

    of detention staff dressed in 'riot gear' caused particular distress to

    children. These experiences featured in drawings that detainee children

    presented to the Inquiry.

    Drawing of water cannons at Woomera by a child in immigration detention
    Drawing of water cannons at Woomera by a child


    immigration detention

    The Department and ACM acknowledged that they had a

    special responsibility to protect children from harm whilst the children

    were held in immigration detention. However, evidence to the Inquiry suggests

    that procedures in place to address unrest in detention centres did not

    sufficiently take into account the need to provide children with special


    Protecting children from harm during disturbances - who has


    That incident [a riot at Curtin]

    really psychologically affected my daughter … she says that

    she prefers to go back and die than stay here in this country. We

    took refuge in this country because of the injustice in our own

    country, but now we see that the situation in here is even worse.

    Detainee mother, Curtin

    ACM and the Department

    ACM, through its contract with the Department, has primary

    responsibility for maintaining security in the detention centres. However,

    ACM told the Inquiry that several factors made it difficult for them to

    fulfil that responsibility. For instance, the Inquiry was told that the

    infrastructure and, in particular, the 'design limitations' of the Woomera

    and Curtin centres made it difficult to protect children from violent


    Whilst families were sometimes given the option to move to

    safer areas before or during a riot or disturbance, there were other times

    when ACM staff would implement a 'lock down' procedure to try and contain

    violence within a particular compound. As a result, parents and children

    were sometimes trapped in the middle of a riot.

    A former ACM Operations Manager spoke of the problems he

    encountered during a 'lock down':

    I was very concerned about children's safety

    when there were riots and disturbances. When there was a riot, the centre

    was locked down and kids were in the thick of it. It was difficult to

    get children out because parents often did not want to be separated from

    them. Staff, particularly nurses, tried their best to keep children safe.

    Even when families were able to move to a safer compound,

    children were not always protected from the psychological impact of the

    riots, either because the disturbances occurred in all the compounds or

    because children were frightened by what they could still see and hear

    going on nearby.

    Image: Blue fire trucks sitting outside Woomera, June 2002
    Blue fire trucks sitting outside Woomera, June



    Both ACM and the Department expressed the view that parents

    of detainee children had a responsibility to prevent their children from

    witnessing riots and other distressing events, particularly when they

    were given the opportunity to remain in their accommodation units or move

    to other compounds.

    The Inquiry accepts that parents have primary responsibility

    for their children in such circumstances. The Inquiry also acknowledges

    that some parents did participate in the demonstrations and, therefore,

    may not have removed their children to a safer place.

    However, the ability of parents to protect their children

    in such situations should be put into context. Within the detention environment,

    parents are forced to protect their children from situations of violence

    that they would only rarely encounter in the community. The frequency

    of major disturbances in detention centres through 2001 and 2002 also

    made it difficult to prevent exposure to violence.

    In addition, parents faced the same problems as ACM

    staff - that is, trying to find a safe place for their children in a relatively

    small, contained environment.

    It is all very well to say that

    parents should be able to keep their children away from that. The

    reality, based on my observations, is that in that environment it

    would be almost impossible to deprive children of the opportunity

    to see that kind of behaviour. Children are drawn to exciting things

    and if the most exciting thing that is happening is something negative

    and destructive, they will be drawn to that as surely as they are

    drawn towards positive exciting things that are available to them.

    Child psychiatrist who treated children

    at Woomera, evidence to the Inquiry

    Inquiry finding

    After considering substantial

    evidence about the safety of children in detention centres between

    1999 and 2002, the Inquiry found that the Commonwealth breached

    the Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to take all

    appropriate measures to protect children in detention from physical

    and mental violence.

    © Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 13

    May 2004.

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