Detained refugee children suffer behind bars

Really for refugee rights, Easter 2011, Sydney. Photo by peter Boyle.

A letter written by a 10-year-old girl in detention in Darwin drew national attention on April 24 and voiced the “sad, depressing and hopeless” lives children and young people experience in detention.

The note, hand-written in Vietnamese, was given to a local community visitor from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network.

It said: “As each day passes, we feel heavy-hearted and lacking any sense of hope. We have no way of knowing what our future holds for us.”

The girl and her teenage brother arrived with a bigger group of young Vietnamese refugees in May last year. The group of about 28 young asylum seekers, many of whom are orphaned, have been held in three different detention facilities for a total of more than a year. They were moved from low-grade residential detention in Adelaide to the Darwin Airport Lodge detention centre in February.

“All the Vietnamese living here have done so for over one year,” her translated note said. “They feel very sad, and do not know what else they can do …

“Our lives in this place is extremely depressing, we are suffering and lack any sense of a future. We don’t know who will help us.”

A few weeks ago a similar note was passed to refugee advocates during protests outside the Airport Lodge. Also a 10-year-old from the small group, the young refugee admitted to cutting her hand “three times”.

“But nobody know that.”

Their situation has grown rapidly worse since they were moved to the Airport Lodge, where the unaccompanied youth live with more than 300 detained refugees, other children and many families.

About eight of the group are under 12. Some are siblings and cousins, others are completely alone. They live in cramped motel-style rooms where some have to sleep on a mattress on the floor, with a tiny bathroom, one desk and a mini-fridge. Meals are shared in a huge mess hall and Serco guards are stationed around every corner.

Their wellbeing and health is constantly at risk. Levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm and exposure to suicide are as severe as in higher security detention centres. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) says that given the “arbitrary nature and prolonged periods of detention,” it is appropriate to notify child protection if a child has been held for longer than three days.

AMA Northern Territory president Dr Paul Baeurt told DASSAN that if the child's wellbeing and safety is still at risk after 30 days, it should be reported again.

DASSAN spokesperson Rohan Thwaites told Green Left Weekly that “hearing a voice from inside detention through the notes has a strong impact”. He said the immigration department said it would “look into it”, but the “ridiculous excuses it gives for locking up children needs to be questioned”.

The immigration department has said the children were moved from the Port Augusta residential housing near Adelaide to Darwin because of “safety concerns”. A spokesperson told on April 24: “This cohort has a poor record of escapes and absconding from detention, including community detention.”

But there have also been wide reports of children in detention being mistreated. On Christmas day last year, Serco and the immigration department refused to allow donated gifts from community groups into detention. In particular, crayons and texters were banned apparently because children would draw on the walls.

Contrary to Serco’s policy, children are frequently referred to be their “boat number” rather than their name. When I applied to visit two Vietnamese girls in the Airport Lodge over the Easter weekend, Serco staff sent out a different young woman, with a similar name. We asked Serco to find the two we had originally asked to meet as well and when we gave their names they said: “No, what’s their boat number?”

Most children attend school, but several have been assessed as over 18 by Serco and so do not get any schooling. Several of the Vietnamese youth say they are between 15 and 17, but Serco puts their ages between 18 and 21.

They cannot go to school and leave the centre only to attend church each Sunday.

Further, the private-contractor that provides health services in detention, International Medical and Health Services, told a recent parliamentary inquiry it does not run pediatric services or provide specialist care for children because those are not in its contract.

AMA representative Peter Morris told the inquiry a nine-year-old asylum seeker attempted suicide in Darwin detention last year and up to 33% of children in detention suffered depression.

Despite spending more than a year in detention, these children and young people are often mystified about their cases and the department of immigration refuses to consider any real alternatives, ignoring the self-harm, physical distress and psychological trauma.

The immigration department said they were being “well cared for,” but Thwaites said the public must challenge the system.

“The guardian of this child and all children in detention is the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship [Chris Bowen]. The minister cannot act as jailer and act in a child’s best interests as their guardian at the same time.”

He said despite the terrible situation the young author of the note is hopeful. “She’s hoping, I think as we are, that she can be removed out of detention so that she can start to live in the community and not be subject to incidences of self-harm and suicide and all the other things that come with being detained.”


days of rage and horror

Thanks for the article Jay. We may not win this battle but we are surely on the right side of it. The harm done to these children will haunt us for generations to come.

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