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National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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Submission to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (VFST)



Although it is not possible to precisely specify all the circumstance that lead people to arrive in Australia through people smuggling routes, there can be no doubt that they undertake perilous journeys which put their lives and that of accompanying family members at risk.

Given the very high rates of approval for those who have sought asylum in Australia through these routes, it is reasonable to assume that most detainees have fled their countries for reasons of persecution. Pre-arrival experiences of this nature are bound to influence perceptions of and reactions to the detention environment.

The purpose of this submission is not to document in detail the conditions of the detention environment. Much evidence will be submitted to the Inquiry regarding these very conditions and the extent to which they affect the well-being and recovery of children and adolescents, and indeed to any person who is a survivor of trauma and torture. The VFST was a significant contributor to the Mental Health chapter of the KIDS (Children in Detention Story) submission.

This submission examines the nexus between the trauma experience, the detention environment and the post detention experience thereby highlighting the vulnerability of people seeking asylum in Australia who are first incarcerated and then released with a temporary visa. The submission also explores how services respond to the diversity of need of those with a temporary protection visa released from detention into the community.

This submission examines the nexus between the trauma experience, the detention environment and the post detention experience thereby highlighting the vulnerability of people seeking asylum in Australia who are first incarcerated and then released with a temporary visa. The submission also explores how services respond to the diversity of need of those with a temporary protection visa released from detention into the community.


Impact of the trauma experience

The systematic violation of the individual’s rights, is the legacy of those seeking asylum from persecution.

Persecution and human rights violations are intended to destroy not only the individual but also the person’s family and ultimately the destruction of their community. Acts perpetrated by persecutory regimes create a culture of oppression through violence, deprivation, death, destroying communities and cultural beliefs, exposure to boundless brutality such as execution of children and forcing people to make impossible choices such as who will live or die, stay or flee for safety.

The consequence for those exposed to systematic persecution is the internalising of social and psychological experiences, which in turn leads to the trauma reaction. A state of fear or terror results. People don’t know if they will live or die. Core attachments to families, friends and communities and connections with religious and cultural beliefs are systematically disrupted. Central values of human existence are destroyed.

Trust - the most basic unit of human civilisation - is shattered.

The psychological effects of trauma associated with human rights violations are well documented. Considerable research has shown that circumstances that produce helplessness lead to anxiety, depression and escape behaviours. In regard to traumatic events, it is the experience of helplessness, rather than the ostensibly horrific nature of events which determines the severity of psychological symptoms, including hostility and aggressive behaviours (Horowitz, 1976).

The chronic state of terror under which people are forced to live, being exposed to life-threatening situations or intolerable danger and feeling helpless to act, contributes to acute levels of anxiety that remain long after people flee the persecution. Individuals may experience flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, hypervigilance, poor concentration, psychosomatic symptoms, depression, anger, sadness and, for many, an existential despair borne of the destruction of values once held.

Guilt and shame are common consequences for survivors of torture and trauma. To blame oneself for not having done enough is preferable to reliving the sheer helplessness one felt in a situation when powerless to act or to control one’s destiny. Those who survive human rights violations and life-threatening situations have been forced to make impossible choices that are intolerable to confront.

The psychological effects of trauma associated with human rights violations are well documented. Considerable research has shown that circumstances that produce helplessness lead to anxiety, depression and escape behaviours. In regard to traumatic events, it is the experience of helplessness, rather than the ostensibly horrific nature of events which determines the severity of psychological symptoms, including hostility and aggressive behaviours (Horowitz, 1976).

The chronic state of terror under which people are forced to live, being exposed to life-threatening situations or intolerable danger and feeling helpless to act, contributes to acute levels of anxiety that remain long after people flee the persecution. Individuals may experience flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, hypervigilance, poor concentration, psychosomatic symptoms, depression, anger, sadness and, for many, an existential despair borne of the destruction of values once held.

Guilt and shame are common consequences for survivors of torture and trauma. To blame oneself for not having done enough is preferable to reliving the sheer helplessness one felt in a situation when powerless to act or to control one’s destiny. Those who survive human rights violations and life-threatening situations have been forced to make impossible choices that are intolerable to confront. The psychological impact of pre-arrival experiences will continue, even in a safe environment. However, when the new environment is harsh and uncertain, the negative psychological impact will be exacerbated. People who have been exposed to violence in the past are known to be sensitive to renewed humiliations, uncertainty and anticipated persecution. When anxiety is high there is a tendency to readily perceive threats and worry about outcomes.

Previous loss and grief also can lead to heightened sensitivity to ongoing separations, with worst outcomes being anticipated.

Without adequate and appropriate assistance, the effects of experiences of torture and trauma can lead to chronic health problems and have deleterious trans-generational consequences for children. Children may be affected in a multitude of ways. Poor nutrition, exposure to violence, undergoing periods of isolation and separation, loss of one or both parents and siblings, or parents who are severely traumatised as a result of their own experiences of torture all combine to affect children’s physical, psychological and emotional development. In the case of trauma, it is often felt that children have a natural resilience or that they forget past experiences as they grow up. Neither of these beliefs is true (VFST, 1996,Dyregrov, Gjestad and Raundalen, 2002).


Intrinsic stressors characterizing detention

The physical environment and the quality and range of amenities varies from centre to centre but certain characteristics would apply to most detention centres. They are:

  • Restrictions and control over everyday behaviours such as when and what detainees can eat.
  • Severe physical conditions such as extreme temperatures in remote centres.
  • Confinement as a result of severe physical conditions and confined spaces for accommodation.
  • No voice or representation to authorities apart from processing of applications.
  • Deprivation of freedom and rights to ordinary privileges.
  • Routine, monotony with little meaningful activity.
  • Lack of privacy: the extent to which there are invasions of privacy such as head counts several times during the night is a matter of dispute.
  • Anonymity: the degree to which detainees are required to identify themselves by their number rather than by their name at meal times and during checks at night is also a matter of dispute.
  • Disconnection from community in the case of remote locations.
  • Limited access to information especially news of family left behind.
  • Limited access to outside world.
  • Limited recreational facilities.
  • Lack of autonomy: eg permission needs to be sought to obtain medical attention.
  • Inability to control exposure to riots, hunger strikes, self-harming behaviour.
  • Limited school hours for children and adolescents.
  • Limited protection from victimization by other detainees.
  • Communication regarding health and protective issues is compromised by unavailability of external interpreters

Other detention conditions are less concrete, in particular the policy environment. Awareness that mandatory detention is being used as a deterrent to others would be experienced as unjust.

Prolonged detention would be experienced as a sentence for which no crime was committed.

Future security is completely uncertain.

Even if people are determined to be refugees, only temporary protection with no right to family reunion can be secured at best. For detainees who are not determined to be refugees, there is no prospect of release from detention unless they are deported.

In summary, detention exacerbates the trauma response for those who have escaped persecution and human rights abuses. This occurs in many ways, in particular:

  • Ongoing deprivation of freedom.
  • Profound sense of injustice and of not being heard.
  • The almost complete sense of powerlessness in their situation.
  • Seeing the health and well-being of children deteriorate in detention and the guilt and pain associated with this.
  • The secrecy, isolation and management strategies that are part of the current detention situation.
  • The inordinate length of time spent in detention for many refugees seeking asylum.

Disempowerment of families

The act of mandatory detention and loss of freedom combined with the physical conditions of the detention centres result in a situation that undermines the capacity for families to function as a viable supportive unit. Parents are limited in their ability to provide the practical and psychological care required by their children as a result of their experiences of conflict, flight and a perilous journey.

Detention places people in situations remote from community supports, in harsh (for those unused to it) climatic conditions and in some instances, stuck in the ‘middle of nowhere’ behind at least two rows of high fences and razor wire. People are thrown together in that there is no choice about whom they share the compound with.

Depending on the detention centre, there may be a number of separate compounds within the one centre – separations based on the stage of processing.

The reality of detention for families is stark. The playground for children may be a vast area of dust and heat – or mud and cold. People have to share space – sometimes only with family, often with others, and being unable to determine with whom. The difficulties for parents in being able to effectively set limits on where and with whom their children roam, is evident. Time weighs heavily for everyone. The daily challenge of trying to communicate across languages – the impotence of not being able to make yourself understood, especially when the needs of your child are involved. Even though there may be classes or activities, sometimes it is too hot to do anything. More often than not, the consequences of their refugee experience and exposure to trauma and violence affects how they feel and therefore their capacity to take up the opportunities. Grief associated with separation or loss of loved ones can result in anxious attachments with clinging behaviour, jealousy, anger and constantly being afraid of losing the parent or parents (VFST 1998). Children with anxious attachments exhibit separation anxiety.

Daily routines that families are used to cannot be sustained because of the regimentation of the detention centre.

When and how meals are provided and the inability of parents to be able to acquire food outside the regimented times for their children – particularly young children – means that they are unable to respond to the needs of their children in the most basic sense.

Parents are also unable to protect their children from exposure to a vast array of events that would normally be situations they would not want their children involved in. Not only do parents have to deal with their own sense of powerlessness in this situation but have to live with the knowledge that their own children see them as being powerless and unable to protect. Opportunities for privacy and intimacy between husband and wife are also difficult. The cumulative stresses associated with the sense of powerlessness over their family life combined with a sense of hopelessness about refugee processing decisions being made would affect the psychological well-being of parents and children.

Studies have identified that the level of stability and coherence in living arrangements, loss of or separation from family members, the level of family functioning, the parents’ own responsiveness being affected by trauma, and parental depression are all factors that influence the child’s response to traumatic events. Parents who are traumatised may become aggressive, perpetuating a lack of safety (Wraith 1995, Pynoos, Steinberg & Wraith 1995, VFST 1996, 1998, Maksimovic & Pittaway 2001) or their preoccupation with their own situation may make them less available to their children to assist them to deal with their worries and feelings (Dyregrov, Gjestad and Raundalen, 2002). “Post trauma disturbances in parental responsiveness and impairment in parental role function are a major source of secondary stress for children.” (Pynoos et al, 1995, p78).

The longer children remain in environments where they are exposed to violence the greater the risk of significant impacts on developmental achievements (Pynoos et al, 1995, McCallin 1992). In an examination of children in the detention centres of Hong Kong, McCallin identified five significant factors effecting the emotional well-being of children in detention. These were:

(1) the length of time in detention,

(2) by whom they were being cared for,

(3) the age of the children,

(4) their prior experiences of trauma, and

(5) the detention centre in which they were living.

Children who were in detention for longer periods had significantly higher scores on the stress assessment schedule as the “effect of length of stay appears to result predominantly from increased exposure to traumatic events within the detention centres…further exacerbated by feelings of isolation, detachment and loss of confidence that are apparent in children who have experienced high levels of trauma.” (McCallin 1992 p16).

These findings are supported in a study by Rumbaut of settlement of Indo Chinese refugee adults and children. Rumbaut found that “psychological distress was consistently linked to conditions of powerlessness and alienation un buffered by networks of socioemotional support” and that there was a positive correlation between greater degree of family loss, separation and longer time spent in refugee camps and higher distress scores (cited in Riser and Silove, 1993, p86).

While the primary focus of McCallin’s study was on unaccompanied and attached minors, examination of the difficulties experienced by children in the detention centres who were with their parents (accompanied children) identified that they were also experiencing difficulties and could not rely on their parents to provide care and safety. These children also had significantly high scores on the stress assessment schedule positively correlated with the duration in detention. “The children feel that their parents are powerless in the face of the stronger, organized elements within the camps.” (McCallin 1992 p16).

A study undertaken by Raundelen (cited in VFST 1998) emphasised that parents’ failure to protect their children from danger during traumatic events lead to children feeling betrayed. In detention, children are exposed to riots, conflict between ACM officers and detainees, conflict between detainees, adults or adolescents engaged in attempts at self harm or dangerous behaviour, potential physical or sexual abuse by other adults, and most recently hunger strikes. In detention, the parents’ capacity to protect their children from exposure to these events is diminished and the situation is often out of their control.

The study by McCallin concludes that children in detention without parents or with tenuous relationships with caregivers, are the most vulnerable with severe long term psychological and psychosocial consequences. Significantly, the study finds that children who are with their parent/s also show a deterioration of emotional well-being over time. Families can only do so much to meet the needs of their children in a negative situation such as detention.

Theoretical models of social support operate in the assumption that there is a context of normality and stability from within which support is derived to mediate the effects of negative life events. In situations such as prolonged detention, characterised by violence and dehumanisation, it is unrealistic to expect such a model to operate…those who are the givers of support (the parents) also need support themselves. The parents should be affirmed in their role and traditional social support models encouraged and supported as a resource for the children.” (McCallin, 1992, p22).

Children are already seriously affected by their experiences of trauma and the journey to Australia. Detaining children has profound consequences on their development and psychological well being. Detaining parents of children also has a profound impact on children as they see their parents increasingly affected emotionally, psychologically and in their capacity to respond to their children’s needs the longer they are detained. Parents are in a powerless position within detention and are unable to protect their children from ongoing psychological harm.

Extreme psychological states

There are no systematic studies of people in Australian detention centres but studies of prisoners and young people in detention or remand have shown that conditions of confinement, lack of control over the environment and monotony, alone, lead to extreme psychological states of despair, self harm and/or aggression.

The sense of injustice would be strong in any detention environment which unduly restricts freedom for a protracted period. In any country, the deprivation of liberty and freedom of movement, and confinement to a small physical area, is linked with sentencing for criminal behaviour or extra judicial detention associated with political oppression. Incarceration may serve a government’s interests but could not be perceived as justified by those incarcerated because they have not been convicted of any crime. Short periods of detention may be accepted as just because they serve the readily understood purpose of processing, but beyond that, any fair-minded human being could not accept the privations which come with detention.

Children do not have the capacity to comprehend their environment in terms of justice, but adolescents have “moral antennae”. Once they reach the age of twelve their ability to think abstractly develops. They scrutinise adults for their fairness and react strongly to unfairness.

Research has shown that children exposed to inescapable violence over years develop the belief in adolescence that revenge is the best way to obtain justice (Garbarino and Kostelny, 1993). The potential for retributive justice combined with identification of the aggressor, which is another way to deal with chronic feelings of helplessness, can lead to the perpetration of violent acts. Although the Australian detention environment is not responsible for earlier exposure to violence, the bewilderment of detention for those innocent of crime can precipitate the desire to avenge previous injustices where previous exposure to violence has been great. Where aggressive behaviour is legitimised by family, peers or other influential figures, the probability of acting out against others increases.

Most young people, however, carry their feelings of unfairness and frustration within and are vulnerable to acting against themselves. Self- harm and suicide can become the only way out.

Tatz (2001), analysing the causes of Aboriginal youth suicide, calls for understanding such behaviour in terms of a long history of powerlessness and existential crisis rather than in terms of mental disorder. He quotes the French writer Albert Camus who wrote “people are simply tired and have had a gutful of the hypocrisy of life, the meaninglessness of life, the purposelessness of life, and they see no horizon, and they see no means of altering such horizons as they have.” This quote captures the meaning of existential despair which can lead to suicidal behaviour. It highlights the predicament of young people in detention, as well as adults, a predicament borne of history as well as of harsh current circumstance. A simple summary of the causes of suicide amongst young people in custodial settings, including remand, is offered by Liebling and echoes the view of Tatz.

“It is the combined effects of feelings of hopelessness, their current situation and the fact that they cannot generate solutions to that situation that propel the young prisoner towards suicide.”(Liebling, 1992, p234).

Humiliation and the degradation associated with anonymity are the other feelings to fuel passivity, self- harm and violent protest. They are common amongst refugee survivors of torture and trauma, as a legacy of violent invasions against the body or the sanctity of certain values. They are particularly harmful to long term mental health when the survivor has had to face impossible choices which have led to harm or threat of harm coming to family, friends or colleagues. The guilt and shame can undermine the will to survive once escape itself has been successful. Humiliation and shame are reinforced for detainees by the political environment and the voices of political leaders who firmly lay the blame for the detainees’ predicament on them.

Prime Minister Howard (The Today Show, January 25, 2002) has openly spoken of wanting to deter asylum seekers by providing an inhospitable environment.

What can detainees make of being used to deter others or of publicity which highlights their possible links with terrorism, apart from feeling demonised and dehumanised?

All detainees, whatever their background, will have fled, leaving family members and friends vulnerable to hardship at the least, and vulnerable to more substantial dangers, in certain countries and circumstances.

Decisions to flee are therefore fraught with continuing anxiety about people left behind. Detainees feel threatened by discovering that they are unable to secure safety for others. They feel guilty about this as well. Inability to contact relatives left behind and inform them of their safety is a severe prohibition and gives detainees no means to be reassured or evaluate the impact of their actions. Again, this can lead to self punishment for guilt over having made what is felt to be the wrong decision or anger toward the source of frustration.

Options to deal with stress

There is no doubt that, in part, experiences of helplessness and injustice in the country of origin, motivate people to flee, despite the risks involved. Once in detention, renewed feelings of helplessness and injustice will inevitably fuel attempts to exert some control, at least in some detainees. In a normal environment attempts at control can be adaptive and manifest in responses such as creating a hospitable home environment, and acquiring skills. Where options for adaptive control are unavailable, various behaviours emerge such as passivity, submission, withdrawal, excessive help seeking behaviour, self-harm and in some instances violent protest. These are all attempts to escape from the emotional states described above, as well as a form of communication.

Which of these behaviours actually emerge will depend on a range of factors in addition to those considered.

  • History of political activism.
  • Provocations such as mistreatment by officers.
  • Fragmentation of self.
  • Group influences.
  • Legitimisation of violence as honour, revenge.
  • Stage of development.

The last factor warrants special consideration in regard to unaccompanied minors, most of who have been adolescents. In adolescence, there is the propensity to experience intense emotions of disappointment, rage and shame with poor self-regulation of emotional states.

When such emotions are combined with the developmental demands of identity formation, forging a future and integrating sexual urges, the young person can literally not know where to turn to deal with what is typically experienced as confusion or turmoil. Peers and role models are sought as a guide to ease the distress. These are normal processes but in an abnormal environment, distressing emotions will lead to acting out behaviours which in a percentage of cases, will be destructive. There is also the sheer fact of restlessness which arises from inactivity during the day and sleeplessness at night, which can fuel acting out.

Self-injury is not peculiar to the young but it has been described as a sub-culture in young-offender institutions (Liebling, 1992). Toch (1992) surveyed an institution for young offenders with a population of 1054 men. 7.7% had injured themselves during their stays which averaged 17 months.

People who injure themselves are called “slashers”, “cutters”, with their “tramlines” and “scratches”. They are called “manipulative” and “attention-seeking” (Liebling, 1992). Such words obscure the pain of isolation and helplessness they experience and their desperate need for relief.

Staff-detainee relationships

Detention centres are run by ACM and to date there has been little or no access to the conditions of their contract. One would expect considerable variation in the way in which rules are enforced, an observation which has been made for prison settings (De Rosia, 1998). It is impossible to know to what extent officers act coercively or perform their jobs with professionalism and dignity.

The political climate and media reports which describe detainees as illegal queue jumpers, whose acts of protest such as lip sewing are portrayed as barbarous (cite newspaper articles), would reinforce the perception that detainees have no right to have sought refuge in Australia. Such government and public attitudes have to influence the attitudes of detention officers and would mitigate against dignified and fair treatment. The lack of understanding of self- harming behaviour and other forms of protest also reinforces the view that the detainees are not like us as evidenced by a statement made by Minister Ruddock on the Sunday Program (5 May 2002). He responded to a question by the reporter regarding self-harming behaviour, stating: “I’am saying that people who self harm are certainly behaving in a way which we would regard as unacceptable in the Australian community.”

Once behaviour is labelled as manipulative and horrific, there is further justification for potential mistreatment. Of course, violent or elf-destructive behaviour has to be responded to at many levels for the safety of both detainees and staff, but the appropriateness of such responses requires lose scrutiny.


Those released from detention with a temporary protection visa are in the situation of knowing that their refugee claims have been accepted but they continue to face an uncertain future.

Although some basic needs may be met with temporary visas, the circumstance of complete uncertainty about the future,separation from family members for many years if not forever, fears for their family’s safety, guilt about impossible decisions which had to be made and a political climate which is un welcoming and punitive, mean that the most fundamental conditions for well-being are difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil.

The goals of recovery when working with survivors of persecution, are to restore safety and control, begin to rebuild attachments and connections with others, assist the survivor to find meaning and purpose to life and to restore dignity and value.

Much of this is not possible when refugees who seek asylum continue to live in a state of uncertainty, with the threat of forced return (a temporary visa means that there is ongoing threat of return), guilt about having some sense of safety (albeit somewhat intangibly) when family and friends at home continue to live with violence and threat to survival, and to be constantly exposed to unjust practices in what is supposed to be a ‘humane country’. The building of trust and hope and meaning to life is very difficult in the face of these constant reminders about the refugee journey and the perpetual state of humiliation at not being believed.

The condition of the visa that bars them from family reunion leads to despair. On a TPV they are unable to bring family, many of whom are at ongoing risk and danger overseas, to the relative safety of Australian protection. Their impotence in this situation mirrors the powerlessness they felt during their refugee experiences. The guilt associated with having to continually live with remaining here in relative safety, while family remain unsafe, is likely to result in depression and chronic despair for many. Some are unable to bear this guilt and shame and may take extreme measures to assuage their guilt. This can include self-destructive behaviours or a decision to return home with the risk of renewed persecution.

A sense of hopelessness, frustration and anger characterise responses to the powerlessness and discrimination experienced by refugees with a temporary protection visa. This has a cost to mental health and also to the capacity of parents to respond to the needs of their children.

Parents, particularly fathers, can feel ashamed at being unable to provide for their wife and children. Children and young people can sense the despair felt by their parents and feel equally despairing and helpless. This will in turn, impact on their capacity to cope with school and the establishment of friendships and social supports. Depression can also characterize the psychological state of children and young people who are living in the community with a temporary protection visa.

Almost daily, people with TPV’s have been exposed to media portrayal of them as “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, “unwanted”, undesirables who throw their children overboard, Muslims who hate the West, vandals, terrorists, and many equally demonising and derogatory descriptions. A consequence is that those with a TPV will feel that the community does not accept or understand them and their situation. The wider community has stereotypical and xenophobic attitudes reinforced, further alienating the general community from the asylum seekers. While there are counter arguments to these attitudes and the publishing of positive stories about those seeking asylum, the weight of negative media attention is far greater. The environment into which people are released from detention, therefore, is not conducive to acceptance and supportive assistance from the public.

The VFST has had contact with many families released from detention centres. Our experience is that families deteriorate further in the community. Whilst still in detention, the focus had been on getting out. Once out, they begin to experience the loss associated with an uncertain future. It is hard for many people to see the point of struggling to learn English and apply for jobs, facing the potential rejections that all this entails. Parents can feel useless as they can see that they have no rights in the way that other people living in Australia do. This sense of being without rights is quite pronounced for some because everyone they meet does have rights, and they feel their second class status very acutely.

People came to Australia trying to achieve safety for themselves, and particularly their children. They cannot, however, offer this and this realisation impairs their confidence. We have observed them to become withdrawn. Children expect their hardships to be over once released but instead notice their parents are ineffectual and remote. Their hopes for being a family are not realised and so the children too become withdrawn, where they had been happy on release.

At times parents are unable to respond to their child’s needs, especially with younger children, when the child’s behaviour is more demanding, aggressive or distressed. This in turn exacerbates the child’s impression that the parent’s are unavailable. Paradoxically, not being able to contain the child’s behaviour results in an increase in demanding behaviour from the child which can diminish the parent’s sense of hope that the child will improve and life will get back to normal. It is a vicious cycle of building distrust and despair for both child and parent.

The situation is compounded for children and adolescents who have been separated from one or more family members. The degree of withdrawal of these children is intensified. They cannot learn and are observed by teachers to be isolated and shut down. From a counseling perspective it is almost impossible to deal with their problems because the pain of separation is so intense that they are in a non-feeling state. They cannot talk about their problems because it would expose them to feeling the pain of separation much more acutely.

These reactions, linked to the temporary nature of their stay and the fact of separation, would have prevailed whether they had been in detention or not.

Nevertheless, it is also the experience of having been in detention that has eroded any sense that they mattered to anybody. They do not find it easy to accept help because they have internalised distrust and wariness of people. This results in difficulties for the counselor trying to engage and support children.

In several cases children and parents we have seen have been seriously traumatized by events in detention. The nature and extent of symptoms reflects particular experiences in detention. Examples include: children having nightmares about things that happened in detention and children speaking about violent events which occurred in detention; some report experiences of treats being deliberately withheld from them. In a city-based detention centre, children have been permitted to go to school or the occasional excursion but that has exposed them to detention officers accompanying them, picking them up and sometimes, there were more guards than individuals in the party/group. This has caused humiliation for the children and for the parents too.

Children once released still ask questions regarding what they had done wrong to be treated this way, as they can only comprehend such events in terms of them having done something wrong.

It is also our belief that some children continue to act in extreme ways as a way of coping. In detention they had learned to cope when angry or frustrated, in a maladaptive way. In the present, they still resort to extreme withdrawal or doing things like rejecting food.

Normally it is possible to restore safety for children, even if their long-term safety is not secured, because they will accept what adult figures, counselor, parents, teachers, can provide. But the experience of detention makes them distrust those reassurances. This is particularly damaging because essentially there are children who sense they are not safe any more and this is well known to make them particularly vulnerable to remembering disturbing experiences of any kind – in detention or pre-arrival.

There are various ways in which children have expressed their sense of being second class citizens. For example, in group sessions with adolescent students in a school, when asked to make their nametags they asked if the ‘numbers’ from the detention centre was required. In discussion with teachers, who have young people with TPVs in their classes, they have identified that these children are more withdrawn and troubled than other refugee children who have arrived with permanent visas. Teachers have observed that parents too are more wary of them as teachers, and of the attention shown, perhaps because they do not know what they can trust about it.

Teachers themselves are affected by knowing that there is no certain future – for the young people or the parents – and consequently they find it difficult to assist the child who has been separated from a parent with no prospect of reunion.

The full extent of long term mental health effects of what we have described is unknown at this time. However, the difficulties in the present pose many challenges for children, adolescents, parents and service providers, which they are unlikely to meet.

The services

Asylum seekers and people with TPVs require a holistic approach to care that encompasses food, shelter, income through work or some form of benefit, access to physical and mental health care, legal representation, as well as social connections within their communities (however defined).

Many service providers would want to assist those with TPVs and those seeking asylum to avail themselves of what they need in order to be able to meet at least basic needs – shelter, food, clothing and education. After all, those granted a TPV have had their refugee claims upheld.

The temporary protection visa conditions give people access to Medicare, the Centrelink Special Benefit payment, the right to work and the right to live freely within the community. On the surface this would seem to be an adequate response by government, in that those with a TPV have access to income, health care and the capacity to acquire food and shelter. In reality, however, there are a number of factors that mitigate against those with a TPV from establishing themselves within the community.

Without opportunity to learn English, individuals will perpetually be in a disadvantageous position for employment, participation in mainstream society, being able to advocate for themselves and to become increasingly independent. Access to interpreter services provided by the Commonwealth Government through the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) is also not free – to clients or service providers. In effect, this maintains people in a powerless and vulnerable position in relation to accessing services and the capacity to act independently.

People have the right to work. They do not have access to assistance in getting employment other than the self-access resources. Without English or the opportunity to learn English, these self access facilities are of limited use.

Limited English, no active assistance in finding employment, the temporary nature of their visa, the impact of the negative media coverage in relation to those with TPVs, and the limited access to other supports, act against them finding employment. The fact that some do is testament to their survival skills and resourcefulness.

Provision of settlement assistance to all newly arrived migrants – whether arriving under the Humanitarian Program or the Family Migration Program – is acknowledged as being crucial to link people with a vast array of services essential to successful settlement and participation in society. The National Population Council (1988) defined settlement as:

the process by which an immigrant establishes economic viability and social networks following immigration in order to contribute to, and make full use of, opportunities generally available to the receiving society. (NPC, 1988).

The Commonwealth Government, through funding services to provide such assistance, recognises that contributing to successful settlement soon after arrival is a cost-effective measure. As stated in the Victorian Integrated Settlement Plan 1994- 1999, produced by the then State Intergovernmental Settlement Committee (SIGSC) coordinated by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (now Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs):

To assist migrants in the process of establishing themselves within the Australian community, government aims to ensure that services are provided which enable migrants to successfully make the transition from one country to another. A fundamental assumption in planning for settlement services is that migrants are entitled to benefit from the same services as the rest of the community. Barriers to access therefore need to be addressed and strategies developed to achieve an outcome which makes services equally responsive to migrants’ needs. (SIGSC, 1994, p4).

The Commonwealth Government expressly denies those on TPVs access to settlement services funded through DIMIA’s Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) and through the Community Settlement Services Support (CSSS) grants funding. Through IHSS funding, torture and trauma services are allowed to assist those with TPVs in accessing health services and provision of limited assistance in dealing with symptoms related to their trauma and torture experiences. Without access to systematic provision of settlement services, however, the capacity to benefit from such assistance is diminished.

Some State governments have responded positively to the plight of people with TPVs. The Victorian Government has ensured that people have access to State-funded services such as public housing, education for children and young people and access to hospitals and community health care, although funding has not increased to accommodate the needs of the group. One of the difficulties regarding access is that individuals may not know of the services that do exist and even more importantly, how to access them.

Because the settlement service support environment is being forced to establish dual systems – one for the ‘legitimate’ humanitarian arrival who comes with a permanent visa and one for the ‘temporary refugee’ who does not have access to the formal settlement service system – there is fragmentation in service provision and an inevitable duplication of networks.

Coordination is more difficult because workers are trying to expand their role to be inclusive of refugees with TPVs, rather than to have a legitimised role that identifies what services are needed and establishing a systemic response. This places pressure on workers who also have to deal with feelings of frustration and anger at how the system is discriminating against a vulnerable group of individuals who are, in fact, refugees. By actively not funding agencies to provide settlement assistance to those being released into the community with a TPV, in effect the Commonwealth Government is consciously setting up barriers to access. A probable outcome is that individuals and families will not know about or use services that could support them, would be less able to establish economic viability and social networks and would not make the transition from

their own country to Australia. The costs to individuals, and in particular children, are enormous.

The school environment

For children and adolescents the primary source of normalisation is the school setting. Through our work in schools, from observations of and interactions with students and in discussions with teachers, it is apparent that children and adolescents on temporary protection visas have difficulty adjusting to the school environment.

Trauma reactions of young people impact on settlement into a new school system and the transition is made more difficult by the recent detention centre experience. The time spent living in detention centres without access to comprehensive educational services means educational input, disrupted by experiences are further compromised. This compounds the difficulties for children and adolescents in adjusting to the school environment.

Additionally, these factors can pose challenges for teachers to work with. The detention centre experience coupled with the conditions of the temporary protection visa affects particularly the process of forming relationships. There is a sense among many students that long-term relationships cannot be forged because of the uncertain future as well as the experiences of multiple losses. Teachers also report finding it difficult to assist children who seem very anxious.

Acceptance by the wider school community is further hindered by adverse media coverage. For example, reporting regarding the “Children Overboard” incident and events on September 11th has created a sense of disharmony. In one school, children from all ethnic backgrounds have been called “Arabs” as part of the new name taunting that happens in the school-yard.

For many refugee young people the consistency provided by school assists in the settlement process. For young people with TPVs their despair and lack of hope about the future affects their capacity to engage in what school can offer. To learn well requires not only that adolescents, children and their families know about and access educational programs but that they also have the capacity to remain as participants within existing systems. The difficulties experienced by children and adolescents holding TPVs are further exacerbated by a lack of knowledge by mainstream schools of the dilemmas facing students who are holders of TPV’s.


On release from detention centres, people with temporary protection visas have certainly gained safety and one aspect of freedom. It does not take long for people to realise, however, that the pressures and constraints of detention have been replaced with new pressures associated with settling into the community but with only limited access to services and supports. The current policy environment, coupled with the negative image portrayed in the media of those who seek asylum in the process they have, serve to exacerbate any trauma which was already compounded by the detention experience. The act of mandatory detention and consequent loss of freedom, combined with the physical conditions of the detention centres, result in a situation that undermines the capacity for families to function as a viable supportive unit. It is extremely difficult for parents while in detention centres, to be able to provide the practical and psychological care required by their children as a result of their experiences of conflict, flight and a perilous journey. The physical conditions of a detention centre contribute to the disempowerment experienced by parents in particular but also their children. Having risked all to seek protection they are then detained because mandatory detention is implemented as a general deterrent to others trying to also seek protection through the same means.

Until detention is dismantled it is also critical that a number of strategies be implemented.

1. While children and young people and their families are being held in detention, opportunities need to be created and sustained for children/young people to study, have places where they are able to be involved in age and gender appropriate activities, and to provide opportunities for them to express themselves.

Creating possibilities for parents to be able to regain authority within their family and to participate in a more meaningful way within the detention community is necessary.

2. Strategies that contribute to minimizing harm must also be considered. In order to ensure that the best interests of the child are at the forefront, a number of factors must be incorporated:

  • The importance of parents and children being together for the psychological well-being of the child.
  • The need to protect children from arbitrary detention and to keep any deprivation of liberty as brief as possible.
  • Children have already experienced multiple separations through the process of fleeing their country and being placed in detention. Proposals to separate children and mothers from fathers will compound grief reactions, anxious attachments and separation anxiety.

3. There would be benefits in ensuring that those released from detention have access to the range of settlement services that support their establishment in the wider community. Access to English language learning, free access to interpreter services, assistance with employment-seeking activities, legitimate settlement assistance and increased resources to work with children and adolescents in the school setting would positively contribute to mental health. Without a coordinated service response, the risks that those on a TPV will remain marginalised and unable to participate more fully in society are inevitable. The cost to them individually and to the wider community is profound. The cost to the healthy development of children and adolescents is even more concerning.


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Last Updated 30 June 2003.