A new report by an international research body has called for detention of refugee children to be outlawed and for all countries to “ensure the rights and liberty” of children affected by immigration detention.
Australian immigration detention figures released on March 25 showed that even after the federal government “completes” transferring children to “community detention”, hundreds of underage asylum seekers will stay in immigration detention centres.
As of March 14, 1023 children were held in “all forms of detention”, the immigration department said. There were 544 children in varied types of “community detention”, and 59 were waiting to be transferred.
But 420 asylum seeker children were still locked in Australian detention centres, often for long periods in remote areas. Of these, 254 had no parents or family with them.
Children in detention that are known to refugee advocates include an eight-year-old Vietnamese refugee, part of a group of children and young adults held in detention for about 10 months.
Three children of a Tamil couple are held at western Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Even though Australia has determined them to be refugees, they can never live freely in Australia due to an adverse “security check”.
An early childhood worker with whom I once visited Villawood described the children as severely withdrawn, deprived of stimulation and lacking “the carefree esteem of most young children”.
The International Detention Coalition (IDC) released its long-awaited policy document on March 21. Captured Childhood is an investigation into the detention of refugee and migrant children in several countries, including Australia.
The report's conclusions were unequivocal.
“It is never in the best interest of the child to be detained,” said IDC researcher and contributor Dr David Corlett, who hosted the SBS documentary Go Back To Where You Came From.
“The impact is always negative and the outcomes are better for the state, the children themselves and their families when community based alternatives are used.”
The report was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 21 with more than 40 recommendations and a five-step policy to develop alternatives to detention of asylum seeker and migrant children. It also launched a campaign to end the detention of children globally.
In Australia, members of campaign group ChilOut (Children Out of Detention) presented the report to immigration minister Chris Bowen at parliament house.
The IDC, a body of more than 250 organisations in 50 countries, interviewed children held in a range of detention conditions, including young children that were locked up in the now-defunct Woomera detention centre and a teenager held on Christmas Island for a year.
Compiled over four years, much of the report's research came from Australia because of its “long-standing practice” of detaining asylum seeker children.
The report said asylum seekers were likely to experience trauma, fear and instability before arriving in Australia, and detention “may cause and/or exacerbate mental health problems”.
But children have particular vulnerabilities, the report said. And detention can damage or jeopardise children's development and physical health.
IDC interviewed children who had been detained in Mexico, the US, Greece, Malta, Israel, Turkey, Malaysia and Australia. The painful, frightening and often violent experiences in detention, and the profound psychological and physical effects, are often described in the children's own words.
Children develop problems in detention such as “separation anxiety, disruptive conduct, nocturnal enuresis, sleep disturbances, nightmare and night terrors, sleepwalking and impaired cognitive development”.
“At the most severe end of the spectrum, a number of children have displayed profound symptoms of psychological distress. Others can experience more general distress, including mutism, stereotypic behaviours and refusal to eat and drink.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder also affected many child detainees. The report said there was compelling evidence that “all symptoms significantly correlate with length of detention”. Children’s emotional and behavioural problems tend to worsen over the time they are imprisoned.
Two decades of mandatory detention in Australia under Liberal and Labor governments has led to many thousands of children being locked up, sometimes for long and legally unlimited lengths of time.
An Australian case featured in the report describes the experience of Afghan siblings held in the notorious Woomera detention centre in outback South Australia. Thirteen-year-old Alamdar, described by a psychologist as a “child of … superior artistic talent” but “suffering deep depression”, and his 12-year-old brother witnessed horrific self-harm and eventually took to cutting themselves and sewing their lips together.
Last May, Australian Medical Association president Paul Bauert told ABC Online: “We’re having some terrible cases that we’re needing to treat in Darwin of children as young as four and five being part of hunger strikes. We're having children under the age of 10 self-harming, attempted suicides.”
Parts of the report condemn many of Australia’s refugee policies. A case focused on the brutal conditions of detention in Malaysia, where the Labor government has been trying to deport refugees including children for more than a year.
Captured Childhood also condemned the contracting of immigration detention centres to private corporations that also run prisons, as is the case in Australia. “There is a danger [of] the immigration detention centres being managed along the lines of prisons,” despite the fact that refugees and asylum seekers commit no crime by entering Australia to seek asylum.
And the report did not give unreserved approval to so-called community detention, saying it was still a form of administrative detention, and detainees held in community detention suffer “extended periods of uncertainty with associated mental health implications”.
Another long-awaited report on Australian detention was handed down by a parliamentary committee on March 30. Led by Labor MP Daryl Melham and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the committee recommended that “where possible” and “if practical” the time refugees could be kept in detention should be limited to 90 days.
This is already ALP policy, and has been criticised by the Australian Medical Association as “child abuse”. AMA President Dr Paul Bauert said children should be detained for no longer than three days.
The report did call for Bowen to be stripped of his guardianship of unaccompanied minors.
Yet immigration minister Chris Bowen said on The Punch website on March 26 that his child detention policy was “working well”.
When he met with ChilOut members at parliament he told them “the only barrier for getting children out of detention faster is the availability of housing and support services”. He said “this is not a matter of throwing resources at the problem”.
But his government has thrown resources at private prison-firm Serco, which has reportedly received more than $1 billion to keep detention centres running.