A last resort?
National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
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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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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':
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.
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.
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