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Submission to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

ChilOut (Children Out of Immigration Detention)


ChilOut was established in July 2001 by a group of concerned parents and citizens who felt compelled to advocate and act on behalf of children and their parents living in Australia's immigration detention centres (IDC).

ChilOut believes Australia has an obligation to protect its borders and to require asylum seekers entering Australia to identify themselves and show prima face case as to why they should be extended protection. We do not believe that the sovereignty or protection of our borders is advanced by incarcerating children indefinitely. We strongly advocate children seeking asylum be placed in the community with their parents until their application for protection is assessed.

Until such time as community placement is incorporated into Government policy on the processing of asylum seekers, ChilOut will also advocate for access to appropriate services for children and their parents inside Australia's IDCs.

ChilOut supporters meet monthly with a guest speaker and panel to discuss and better understand issues around the Australian government's current policy on refugees arriving informally. Over the past six months attendance at meetings has averaged approximately 200 people each month, many of them new attendees. Approximately 1400 ChilOut supporters and people interested in the work of ChilOut receive our weekly email updates.

Many ChilOut supporters visit detainees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VDC) regularly, often weekly. As a result, supporters, many of whom are themselves parents, have developed a collective awareness and very deep understanding of the personal reality of the lives of detainees and their families. As Australians and as parents we take for granted the private time we are able to spend with our children, uninhibited, or the knowledge that we can act effectively on our child's behalf to access the services he or she needs. This feeling of responsibility and self-determination in relation to the needs of our children is one that parents in VDC and other IDCs never have the opportunity to experience. It is demoralizing and frustrating for detainee parents. Detainee children are not blind to the hopelessness their parents suffer, and so in turn suffer with them. [1]

Given this, the content of ChilOut's submission necessarily extends to parents' ability to parent, care, protect and provide for their child. [2]

People arriving in Australia without a valid visa and seeking asylum, are breaking Australian border protection laws. The question is, do these laws supercede those of Natural Justice and Australia's obligation to uphold the basic tenets of human rights as set out by United Nations? [3] ChilOut responds to this question with an unequivocal "No". ChilOut believes that it is possible for Australia to assess people as genuine asylum seekers and still allow sovereignty and humanitarianism to co-exist. This is a truism because some nation states (e.g. Sweden) have chosen policies that successfully incorporate both. Furthermore, without respect for human life, suffering and dignity, sovereignty is meaningless.

The following submission addresses those areas identified in the Inquiry's Terms of Reference where ChilOut believes it is able to provide evidence to the Inquiry which will assist the Commission to better understand the quality of life and experiences of children living in Australia's IDCs. Evidence was collected primarily from supporters' discussions with detainees and their own first hand observations of children and their parents living in VDC [4] but also where noted at Woomera IDC and Port Headland IDC. References to VDC are the current arrangements for children as far as ChilOut members are aware as at April 2002. Some arrangements for children in other IDCs might have changed over time.

Some of the stories seemed at first, even to ChilOut members, unbelievable. But ChilOut puts faith in their truthfulness for two primary reasons. Firstly, members have faith in the honesty of detainees, with whom they have spoken and with many of whom members have developed long-standing friendships. Secondly, stories from various IDCs, particularly since immigration detention has been privately managed, of sub-standard conditions, a seemingly deliberate policy of humiliating and demoralizing detainees and instances where detention is clearly punitive, are repeated too often and are too similar in content to be invented or coincidental isolated incidences. [5]

ChilOut recognizes that the task of the Commission in collating a clear picture of conditions within Australia's IDCs is hampered by a lack of transparency in the operations of management.[6] It is hoped this submission might lend weight to the body of evidence that Australia's current policy in relation to asylum seekers who enter Australia without a valid visa is punitive in effect and is contrary to laws of Natural Justice, Australia's obligations under various UN conventions and its own state, territory and Federal child protection legislation.

ChilOut notes that most of its practical efforts are targeted at VDC, precisely because it is very accessible to its supporters in Sydney. As the most visited detention centre, VDC has been made to be the 'showcase' detention centre by DIMIA. Detainees consider themselves relatively better off at VDC when compared to their compatriots at the other IDCs. For this reason detainees in VDC are also more reluctant to participate in any actions that might risk their being removed from VDC. This includes at times a reluctance to speak freely and openly, to give details that might risk their 'case'. ChilOut is aware that it is likely that those detainees most in need of help are out of reach, located in remote IDCs and denied the visits and communications available to detainees in VDC. ChilOut also notes that the increase in visitor numbers at VDC in recent months (through the actions of ChilOut and other groups/organisations, and more sympathetic media portrayal of asylum seekers) has led to an improvement in the morale of detainees (this is supported by direct feedback given to ChilOut by detainees).

Despite the relative ease of access to detainees at VDC, the collection of information for this submission was hampered by the overwhelming environment of security and regulation that prevails within our detention centres. Visitors to VDC are not allowed to take in dictaphones or other recording devices, and obvious signs of note taking and /or interviewing taking place between detainees and visitors can arouse suspicion and result in the intimidating presence of Australian Correctional Management (ACM) guards.

ChilOut is of the opinion that one of the most critical factors of all, in relation to the treatment of children and adults in detention, is the essential conflict that exists between service provision (i.e. care of detainees) and profit. ACM, the private organisation that is contracted to manage Australia's detention centres, answers primarily to its shareholders. This underlines all of its activities and would appear to influence the type of care provided to detainees. The most appropriate form of medical treatment or care is often not provided if it is shown that less expensive alternatives exist. There are many stories told by detainees, of nurses dispensing Panadol for all sorts of ailments (serious and otherwise), and detainees being told to drink more water for a similar range of ailments . [7]

Likewise it is apparent that costly preventative medical tests and procedures are never performed on detainees. ChilOut often receives requests from detainees for clothes as those provided by ACM are only of the most basic type. ACM is eager to accept offers of assistance from charities and organizations for clothing, gifts, books, entertainment etc. for detainees as such donations essentially help the 'bottom line' profitability of ACM. In ChilOut's opinion, it is often only public pressure and the potential glare of publicity that compels ACM to fully comply with their contractual duties to detainees.

ChilOut is very grateful to have the opportunity to submit the following to the Inquiry. The stories used as the basis of this submission are only some examples of the extraordinary way Australia treats children and their parents arriving without visas. This submission has been prepared on the understanding that the Commission will receive many submissions from professionals and other non-government and community groups.

ChilOut is also deeply grateful for the Commission's commitment to confidentiality of names and details of detainees. One of the difficulties ChilOut faced in preparing this submission, however, is that there are a comparatively small number of children and parents living at VDC. Even the most cursory reference has the potential to reveal the identity of a detainee. The fear experienced by detainees in relation to being identified as speaking out, except in some extraordinary cases, is very strong. Consequently, in some of the stories included in this submission, the real names of the detainee/s in question has/have been changed (respecting their right for anonymity) but further verification can be provided on request.

If the Commission does require further details of cases documented below it should not hesitate to contact Ms Junie Ong, ChilOut Co-ordinator on 0412 397788 or (02) 9365 2659 who will be able to provide further information.


Access to education that is age appropriate and comprehensive is essential for the intellectual and social development of a child.[8] A significant proportion of children in Australia's IDCs will eventually be integrated into the Australian community. Of these, most will have spent between six and 36 months in detention.

Almost all will be children for whom English is their second language. These children released into the community will bear the scars from persecution and suffering in their homeland, the often-hazardous journey to Australia and incarceration once they arrive. It is crucial they be given the opportunity to achieve the academic standards as children living in the community. It should be noted that under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Australia is obligated to provide education for children regardless of refugee status and the likelihood of a child's application for refugee status being accepted. [9]

Children interviewed at VDC of primary school age reported that they receive English, maths and art lessons. When asked about other key learning areas of the primary curriculum such as science, they answered in the negative. [10] [11] No classes are offered in their culture or language. [12] The importance of children being taught their first language, particularly grammar, being crucial to them mastering a second language, is well documented in educational literature.

For young people of high school age, only English at a very basic level and art were offered. The consequences for these young people in not having the opportunity to achieve educational standards of peers living in community, place them at even greater risk than younger children who might be able to "catch up". If integrated into the community, young people will not only be coping with years of missed educational opportunities but also with the normal difficulties of adolescence, including social development and exploring issues of sexuality and relationships.

Primary school children reported some forms of assessment. Whether this is compatible with assessments used by the departments of education in each state and territory was unable to be established.

Ideally, if the CRC was to be implemented, primary school children would be assessed by the standardized testing available to other children in the state or territory such as basic skills testing in NSW. For children recently arrived the test might need to be modified. It or another comparable test would help teachers direct the work of the children and be a way to verify that a comprehensive education was being delivered to children living in IDCs.

One 16 year old girl said that only English had been offered to her. She is articulate and obviously very capable, but had been in detention for over 18 months with no immediate hope of release. [13] She had hoped to attend university, an unlikely outcome for her in later life due to the limited access to education while at VDC. [14]

Education is not compulsory for young people over the age of 15. A young man (17 years) who has now been in various IDCs for two and a half years does not attend the English classes available to him. He is angry and frustrated and one gets the distinct impression that this is one of the few acts of resistance available to him.

Research indicates that effective learning for children cannot take place in an environment where the majority of adults are severely depressed and on medication. Children in IDCs do not live in an environment conducive to learning. Rather the detention environment is characterised by lethargy and boredom, depression, anger, conflict and violence. Children in detention lack the strong family encouragement for education, and the active interest and participation by parents that is essential if they are to progress.

Under the convention young people over 16 years should have access to education or training that prepares them for work. Particularly for those young people who will eventually live in the Australian community, this is essential if they are to become active and independent members of that community. For those who will be repatriated, such training will enable them to return to their own country or a third country better prepared for the hardships that attend re/integration. By all accounts work based training is unavailable for this group. [15]

An interstate supporter reported that at another IDC a program was "established" through which children incarcerated in the IDC were able to attend school in the local community. However, parents reported being told by ACM staff that if they allowed their children to attend school externally, the children would be vilified because the Australian community was "racist" and had been led to believe that most asylum seekers are "criminals". As a result, parents, understandably, held their children back from attending the program. This is just one of the many difficulties ACM, a private company, seems to have in implementing government policy and programs for asylum seekers. In this particular case the guards by their discouraging remarks to the parents, failed to encourage/facilitate the parents' educational ambitions for their children. They stymied a choice that would have not only had educational benefits for the children but also allowed them to escape the oppressive atmosphere of an IDC, experience something approaching 'normality' and engage with Australian children facilitating understanding on both sides. [16]

Library facilities have improved at VDC as increased attention has been given to the poor level of services available to detainees. However resources are limited in both English texts and culturally appropriate material. [17]

The simplest and most cost effective remedy for most of these inadequacies in VDC's education programs would be that children attend schools outside the IDC, as recommended in the CRC. The NSW Teachers Federation also believes that "it is essential that school age children be able to attend public schools in the local area. For example, the Chester Hill Intensive English Centre and Chester Hill High School are literally across the road from the (Villawood) Detention Centre and there are a number of nearby primary schools. For those at least 15 years old, one of the nearby TAFE Colleges may be more appropriate." [18] However, to date such a program has not been implemented for children at VDC.

Physical Health of Children

Children at VDC who have been visited in the recent past appear to be in reasonable physical health. A nurse is available most days. All referrals to the visiting doctor must be made through this nurse. Concerns have been raised by parents who, having requested an appointment with the doctor to see their children, have been screened out by the nurse. This is one of the many examples of the difficulties faced by parents living in detention with their children. As noted in the introduction most of these difficulties arise from the disempowerment of parents and their inability to access the services they believe their children need. [19]

In 2001, a 14month old baby arrived at Woomera IDC weighing11 kg. Seven months later she weighed 10 kg. Childcare professionals say the descriptions of the condition of some of the children, even if they were not physically ill, can possibly be ascribed to a condition known as "failure to thrive". [20] This baby's 10 year old brother wets his bed four to five times a night. He has dark rings round his eyes that one would not expect to see on a normal healthy Australian child.

Tooth extractions occur on a regular basis if more than the most basic of dental procedures are required. The reason appears to be that ACM considers any other procedure would be too costly. [21]

The Treatment of Pregnant Women and Mothers

One of the greatest concerns in relation to sub-standard physical health of parents and children is the treatment of pregnant women in IDCs. Although the following relates to women in VDC, the validity of these stories is strengthened by very similar reports from other IDCs. The details of these examples are deeply disturbing and again raise questions about the appropriateness of government policy being "contracted out" to a private organisation, which clearly has no commitment to appropriate training and awareness of cultural sensitivities - indeed basic human emotional needs.

A lactating mother asked if a ChilOut supporter could provide her with some food for her baby. When asked why she reported that the evening meal was at 5pm and breakfast was at 7am the next morning. A lactating mother needs to eat regularly, every 2 to 3 hours during the day, in order to produce enough milk for her baby and to satisfy the overwhelming hunger so many lactating women experience. This mother had to resort to stealing food from the dining room to take back to her room. This was an embarrassment to her, and caused her some stress.

"F's" Story

F and S arrived in Australia at Ashmore reef in March, 2001, after fleeing persecution in Iran. F, who had been constantly seasick and suffering abdominal cramps throughout the five-day voyage, was eventually flown by helicopter to hospital in Darwin. The couple were later transferred to VDC.

Several months later, after a difficult pregnancy, F gave birth to a baby in a Sydney hospital. Her husband was not permitted to be with her. F did not speak English and no-one on the hospital staff spoke her language.

A suicidal young mother too ill to care for her baby was left in VDC for nine days until a top State psychiatrist demanded her release. F was rushed to Bankstown Hospital in a serious condition after Dr Louise Newman examined her late March, 2002. A prominent paediatric psychiatrist also examined the baby on the same occasion. [22]

F's baby remained behind razor wire, being cared for by her father S, and other detainees. F was suffering from multiple infections including long-standing gynaecological problems, dehydration, conjunctivitis, an abscess in one breast, and severe post-natal depression, Dr Newman said. "F had been prescribed excessive amounts of medication including sedatives, late last week, which did not address her post-natal depression, while other conditions worsened,' Dr Newman said. "She cannot care for her baby. She is so depressed and weak, she has given up. She is suicidal. "The stress of being in detention, where outbreaks of violence in a bleak environment contribute to the stress load of being a first-time mother in a strange land, is too much."

The baby is exposed to chronic stress and shows early signs of emotional neglect.' Dr Newman described the baby as having "hyper-vigilant eyes". F herself said occasionally she was so sad she had forgotten where she had put her baby down. The baby readily went to strangers and other detainees and did not appear to seek her mother out in a group of people. The baby readily accepted affection from other people and had no fear of strangers.

A prominent paediatrician said F and the baby had not established a close bond, due the extraordinary stress of detention.

On Monday March 17, F said she went to the Villawood medical centre to keep an appointment with centre physician Dr Regina Greenwood. F says that despite having a written appointment slip, she was told she did not have an appointment and she would have to return on Wednesday. F refused to leave and insisted she did have an appointment. She said a member of the medical staff told her ``Well, you can wait here until Wednesday.' Humiliated, F returned to her room in an agitated state and lashed out in anger, breaking three windows. S said that night a member of the nursing staff had visited them and had apologized for the abrupt way F had been treated.

S said his wife, who had been sad and had cried easily for months, stopped eating and drinking from March 17, accepting only a little tea daily and was constantly in a very distressed state, crying continually and hyper-ventilating. She was too weak to breast feed or care for the baby, he said. She stopped wanting to care for the baby.

F said her weight, which was 55kg when she arrived in Australia, almost eight months pregnant, has dropped to 43kg.

Detainees, including S, repeatedly telephoned their supporters (in the outside community) to ask for an ambulance to be sent to VIDC because they felt her condition was so bad. Many supporters then lobbied ACM and DIMIA for action to be taken on behalf of F. ChilOut supporters that visited F will testify to her deteriorated condition at this time. As no action was taken by ACM or DIMIA, ChilOut had to resort to legal intervention to get clearance from DIMIA to enable an independent medical opinion on F's condition. The ACM doctor refused to cooperate with the independent medical team. ChilOut also believes that NSW Ambulance Service records from this time would show that requests had been made by supporters of F for an ambulance to take her to hospital. However it is understood that the ambulance service could not respond because DIMIA/ACM had not authorised such action to be taken.

Before Dr Newman intervened, F was taken twice to the VDC medical clinic, once carried in a chair by detainees because she was too weak to walk. Despite the visits to the clinic, she did not improve.

A DIMIA spokesman said F was not improving because "she refused to self-medicate". However this is not unusual behavior in someone who is severely depressed and suicidal, and no account seems to have been taken of her mental state at the time. In an affidavit tendered to the Federal Court of Australia last December, to appeal their asylum application rejection, F told of her fears of trying to bring up her child in detention. "It is dangerous in here. I have witnessed many times men fighting. [My baby] saw this too. There is no escaping it," she said. "I worry (the baby) will be damaged growing up behind bars. At night officers bother us...they barge in, turn on the lights to see and count. They are loud and verbally abusive...(the baby) has become a child that wakes from the slightest sound."

F was also fearful of the behaviour of other children in VDC who "…are very aggressive and hit and bite each other".

F remains in Hospital, receiving psychiatric care. After weeks of separation, her baby has been allowed to join her and the mother and baby's relationship is much improved, the paediatric psychiatrist said.

Dr Newman said F was only now receiving the treatment she deserved in the first place. "She has a long road to recovery. Long-term psychiatric care looks probable. "...Mandatory detention is state-sanctioned trauma. The results are drastically obvious."

This story begs the question: At what point in is the Australian community responsible for detainees who are so severely damaged by their incarceration?

'L's story

One of the most extraordinary stories is that of [name deleted] a woman of Indian extraction from Malaysia. She overstayed her visa and was detained at VDC. While there, she fell in love with [name deleted], from [place deleted] She married [him] and soon fell pregnant. Intelligent and articulate, [she] expressed her concerns for her unborn child and what would happen to her family. Authorities told her she would be allowed to have her child in Australia.

Advanced in her pregnancy at 8 months, [she] was shaken from her sleep at four in the morning. Half asleep and confused, she was told she was being deported. Late into her pregnancy, dishevelled, distressed, still in her nightdress and shoeless, [she] was transported to the airport. [23] There was no opportunity to farewell her equally distressed husband, who was placed in Stage 1, considered the worst of the detainment areas at VDC. [24]

More generally, breast-feeding mothers were observed, to be under particular pressure. Apart from the difficulty in finding quiet, private places, they were often suffering stress and showed signs of depression. Any woman who has breast-fed understands the importance of being relaxed when breast feeding. [25] They would also understand the hunger that arises when breast-feeding. The unavailability of food between meals and the prohibition of taking food from the dining room makes this experience for women very difficult.

For new mothers, detention is a particularly difficult environment. The lack of support, feelings of self-doubt, frequently undiagnosed and untreated depression, disempowerment, feelings of failure and uncertainty make normal bonds of attachment between mother and child very difficult.

Further, the pressure placed on the relationship between mother and father/ husband and wife is severe. Fathers are powerless to access support and assistance for their wives and children and experience very real feelings of worthlessness and shame.

Women with gynecological problems are simply not treated unless their condition is obviously life-threatening. Again, as with dental treatment, it is considered too costly.

Moral and Social Development of Children

A day in life of a detainee is very basic. They wake, eat, either attend limited education available or simply "kill time". Many of the incidents which provide some insight into issues of appropriate behaviour, social and moral development occur during the ritual of meal times and around food, the most basic of needs.

In detention children are forced into an environment that does not cater for their needs. [26] Because there are such significant gaps between meals, adults at one centre asked if children could take food back to their huts. Guards would not allow this because they said 'parents would only eat the food themselves'. The result was that children took to "stealing" food from the kitchen under their clothing. Children living outside IDCs usually graze through the day. Children in detention either go hungry or use their own initiative to access the sustenance they need.

A five year old child was crying from hunger. His/her parents asked guards if they could have some food for the child. They were refused. Later that night one of the other detainees witnessed a female guard taking leftover pies from dinner for a cat who lived at the Centre.

Many guards seem unaware that as adults in charge of children they need to role-model appropriate behaviour and language. It is a sad indictment of Australia's detention policy that by all accounts the first English words children living in detention learn are obscenities. This is because these are so commonly used by guards in communicating with each other and with all detainees.

Ironically, at Port Headland one observer (a detainee) witnessed a child asking for more food who had not said "please". The guard's response was to shout, using obscenities. On occasion, when children were given fruit, guards would throw the fruit at them, as if the children were animals, rather than hand it to them. On one occasion a guard threw an apple to an adult detainee. The detainee threw it back again and a fight broke out. A group of children witnessed this event and began throwing food at the guard.

When children do want special foods and their parents are unable to access them for their children, the children become distressed in a way that would seem completely exaggerated to an outsider. They have so little ability to control any part of their lives and their parents have little more.

The food on the whole is of a poor quality and the types of food do not vary for adults and children; it does not recognize their special dietary needs. [27]

Safe Places for Children

In many centres, particularly in the new arrivals areas at Woomera, Curtain and Port Headland, there are no special places for children, away from adult conversation and behaviours. [28]

Most children living in detention are exposed to regular incidents of violence, abusive language, all aspects of an adult world from which children living in the community would be shielded. In many of the other IDCs fighting between ACM guards and detainees and among detainees, suicide and accidents occur daily.

Apart from problems to do with basic needs such as eating, children's moral and social development is stunted by their severely limited lack of physical space. One of the questions children in IDCs ask, which allows us to understand how life inside VDC restricts their development is "What is behind the fence?"

Many guards do not recognize the special needs of children in the way that they behave and speak with children. [29] Children living in detention are treated in the same way as adults. One example related to ChilOut supporters was a small girl who was longingly watching an officer eat an ice cream in front of her. The guard became angry that the child continued to focus on his ice cream and told her to "Get lost". The child began to sob.

A 23 page transcript of an interview with a now released detainee describes how he witnessed a burly guard kick a 4-year old toddler away from a fence when she was playing too close to it .[30]

Exposure to Inappropriate Language and Behaviour [31]

More serious allegations concern children being exposed to inappropriate sexually explicit language and behaviour. A five year old boy witnessed a male guard and a woman (the observer was unsure as to whether this was another guard or detainee) kissing and fondling. The child later asked another child to "Suck my big penis".

Detainees report that when guards were in full riot gear, their behaviour changes dramatically. The language used during periods of unrest when riot gear is in use, is particularly offensive. In one incident at Port Headland IDC, children witnessed an aggressive interchange between guards and detainees where the guards were overheard saying to detainees that they would "…put our batons up your ass". Children, six and seven, were later found replicating the behaviour and language of the guards.

In another example of inappropriate language, two children (aged six and seven) were observed singing a take on the theme song to Titanic, to a female guard as she walked past, "Every night I see you, I fuck you…" Her response to them was "Your dicks are too short for my pussy". When the observer asked why she had spoken to the children in that way she replied "I had so say something." This is a simple and yet so very poignant example of the complete lack of understanding this guard had of the appropriate way to interact with children. Another adult familiar with children might have looked shocked, feigned offence and/or counseled them on the inappropriateness of their language. Yet she chose to interact with them as if they were part of her peer group. This seems to be a very common observation by detainees in relation to the way in which most ACM staff interact with children living in IDCs.

One of the children at VDC, a young girl, suffers from constant nightmares. This experience has been communicated to ChilOut members by a number of parents of children living in detention. One young man, 17 years, who has been living in detention for two years and eight months, was asked "What do you dream about?" Until a year ago he said he was still dreaming of home. Since then all of the dreams he remembers are set inside detention centres and are usually centred on a plot involving conflict and violence.

One detainee told of a story relayed to him by a detainee transferred from Port Headland, about an Afghani woman who had been raped by a guard in front of her child. ChilOut has no further detail on this incident. The detainee reporting this story to the author of this submission is well known to ChilOut members and would be considered by all accounts to be a deeply caring and honest person.


One of the most difficult aspects of caring for children in detention for parents is that they are constantly on tenterhooks about their applications for asylum and their lack of ability to impact on the circumstances in which they and their children find themselves. Parents in this environment sometimes struggle not to extend the anger, frustration and shame they feel into their relationship with their children.

In witnessing bashings and violence by guards of detainees, parents are poorly equipped with answers as to what crime the victim of this violence has committed.

The availability and wide use of anti-depressants in IDCs is of particular concern. One of the detainees reported that use of anti-depressants (including valium, arapax, temazipan and Zoloft) extends to some parents. His observations were that these medications are freely available, prescribed without counseling or other ongoing support services and/or follow-up. Again, ChilOut has no other information about this situation but feels it is an issue that requires investigation.

Issues Relating to Young People

An area not specifically covered in the briefing papers but one which arose out of general discussions with detainees was of the opportunities for adolescents to explore in any way their developing sexuality and relationships. By all accounts this was simply not possible in an IDC environment. At VDC, young men and women in the Centre are physically separated by fencing between blocks. Apart from having a very limited peer group with which to socialize, private space does not exist. Regular visitors to Villawood will attest that young men, 15 to 17, seem particularly depressed, angry, sometimes very withdrawn. Many will have regular thoughts of suicide. One of the possible reasons for this is their inability to express their needs or have access to normal social interactions and environment through which they can develop an understanding and a sense of themselves as individuals.

Within the restricted space of VDC there is a visible reminder to the children that their already severely limited freedom might be taken away altogether. At VDC the romantically named "Juliet Block" is feared by all of the children. It is the area young people, mainly young men, are sent to for "time out". This does not only include violence, but verbal abuse and assisting others who you believe to be at risk due to action by guards. Children at VDC largely felt that punishment by being isolated in this block is unjust and disproportionate to their "crime".

The story of two young brothers, 15 and 16 at the time shows clearly the inhumanity towards children, young adults and parents. They went to the aid of a friend and his father during an altercation with ACM guards. As a result they were both jailed for 17 days, their parents for three months. The parents and sons were transported to the various jails while the younger members of the family, a sister 6 years and brother approximately 10 years at the time were taken on a picnic. When the little ones returned, they were joyous because they thought their parents and brothers had finally received visas. They were soon told by another detainee about what had actually occurred. The brothers were returned to the IDC only to be placed in an isolation block for another 17 days by ACM guards before being reunited with their siblings.

Unaccompanied Minors

There are currently no unaccompanied minors living at VDC. However ChilOut has taken a special interest in this group. Unaccompanied minors are the most vulnerable people living in detention, particularly in relation to their care and protection and being able to access their legal rights as minors.

The Submission has already outlined the difficulties faced by parents in accessing services for their children, caring for them in an environment dominated by tension and violence and the risks their children face each day. ChilOut is aware that care and responsibility for unaccompanied children is sometimes taken on by other adults or families living in the IDC, but to accept this as sufficient presupposes that these guardians do or are able to fight for the rights and needs of these children in the same way their parents might.

The following stories illustrate clearly the vulnerability of these unaccompanied children.

A young girl with her little brother are unaccompanied minors in Woomera IDC. For many weeks after their arrival, the young girl would get dressed, dress her little brother and they would sit outside waiting for immigration officials to come and interview them so they would be released. No one ever came. They were two of the unaccompanied children that just get "screened out" because they do not know to invoke the magic words to seek asylum, they just became invisible people. No one knows they are there or could be there indefinitely. When a visiting lawyer reached out to this young girl, she just melted into her arms sobbing that no one had held her in such a long time.

The story below was received from a supporter in Western Australia.

"I have been supporting a 16 year old [words deleted] boy from Afghanistan who is in detention at Port Headland detention centre. I am [words deleted].. from Iran and a mental health worker and was asked to support him, as he has been profoundly depressed and suicidal over the last few weeks. He is unaccompanied, and was sent to Australia by his mother and uncle to escape persecution from the Taliban. He arrived in a boat in [word deleted] and has been in detention since then. His father was taken by the Taliban two years ago and last that he knows he was in [word deleted] prison, but it looks like that he is now dead. He has no contact with any of his family. The red cross have told him that they can't help him find his mother and younger brother who are in [words deleted]…Afghanistan. He believes that all his family are dead (as there was heavy bombing in that region) and hence is extremely distressed and has become suicidal seeing no point in living. Each time I speak to him he cries uncontrollably. He also has developed a stutter (speech impediment) because the traumas he has suffered and hence does not fit into the prison environment with the other children. He has gone on a hunger strike since sat but has contracted with me that he would not harm himself on great insistence and pleading from me."


ChilOut has developed the following recommendations based on evidence presented in its submission. These are not in any way designed to preempt the findings and recommendations of the Commission. Rather they are a reflection of ChilOut's understanding of the major issues facing children and parents living in detention, with suggested strategies to reduce the ultimately inhumane environment used to detain asylum seekers in this Nation.

1. Education

1.1 All children (to 15 years) living in immigration detention should have access and be strongly encouraged to take up free, comprehensive education in the community. ACM, and State/Territory/Federal Governments should ensure that children have all the necessary supports in place for this to be a safe and positive experience. This includes resources in IDCs for children to complete work away from the classroom. [32]

1.2 Children should have access to English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching and resources and classes in their own language.

1.3 Young people over 15 years be offered education in a community setting and the support they need to take up this opportunity.

1.4 Young people should be offered vocational training in the community, for example access to TAFE programs with the possibility of accessing higher education.

1.5 Library facilities need to be comprehensive, including texts in the language groups of children living in the IDC.

2. Physical Health of Children

2.1 Parents should be able to arrange appointments with visiting doctors directly.

2.2 If parents believe their child requires specialist treatment, a doctor independent of VDC management should attend.

2.3 Dental care should be comprehensive, focused on prevention and all interventions should be appropriate and aimed at children and young people retaining teeth.

2.4 Families should be assigned a caseworker trained in supporting parents and their children, and external to IDC management, who could monitor and advocate as appropriate on behalf of the family.

3. The Treatment of Pregnant Women and Mothers

3.1 All pregnant women living in IDCs should have access to full antenatal care by a trained midwife (or obstetrician if the pregnancy or birth are likely to include complications) who visits the IDC if women are uncomfortable traveling to the hospital. Ideally some effort would be made to establish a relationship with midwives likely to attend the birth, especially if a woman is in Australia without her partner.

3.2 If a woman's partner is in Australia, in the community or in an IDC, he should attend the antenatal session and birth with his wife/partner.

3.3 Women should have a female interpreter available on-site during the entire labour and birth.

3.4 Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should have access to food between meals.

3.5 Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should have a diet developed in consultation with health professionals to ensure that they are receiving necessary levels of nutrition.

3.6 Babies and their mothers should have access to baby health clinic services either on site through a visiting program or in the community. Such a program would assist in identifying any difficulties the mother might be having with regard to her new role, her own health and mental health and would ensure that the child is developing as it should.

3.7 Women should have access to culturally appropriate care, including specialist care, in relation to their gynecological health. They should have access to and be encouraged to use these services. Women seeking these services and refused by IDCs, should have the option of requesting an independent assessment of their health needs.

4. Moral and Social Development of Children

4.1 Children have access to food between meals

4.2 Food for children should meet all of their nutritional needs and be of a quality that encourages healthy eating habits. It should be food children enjoy eating.

4.3 All IDC staff receive training in dealing with children, including use of appropriate behaviour and language

4.4 IDC staff involved directly with children receive specialized training in the special needs of children.

5. Safe Places for Children

5.1 IDC staff should be trained in and required to speak appropriately to children and their parents, when children are present.

5.2 IDC Staff should be trained in behaviours appropriate around children. They should be required to adhere to these at all times and regardless of circumstances. The well-being of children should be a priority.

5.3 IDC staff should act professionally in front of children in relation to their relationships with other staff members and/or detainees.

5.4 Children should under no circumstances be exposed to incidents that involve full riot gear worn by guards. Ideally they should be in a safe place at all times, in which case exposure to violence will be minimized.

5.5 Children should have access to counseling services. Referrals should be made by independent doctors and/or social workers.

5.6 Children who do witness acts of violence should have access to counseling services.

6. Parenting

6.1 Parents should have access to support services which assist them in parenting their children, including counseling services.

6.2 Parents should have all possible opportunities to make decisions about the care and protection and needs of their children.

7 Young Adults

7.1 Young people should have access to independent counseling services if and when they need them.

7.2 Young people should have opportunities to mix with other people their age in a safe environment that is age appropriate.

7.3 Young people should never be isolated in anyway from the family, friends and other detainees. Isolation is not an appropriate form of punishment. Detention is not intended to be punitive.

8. Unaccompanied Children

8.1 Special provisions should be made for unaccompanied children to ensure that they have a high level of care and protection and receive the level legal representation to which they are entitled.

1. Article 3(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter CRC) states that: "In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration". This "best interests" rule means that children have a right to "grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding" (Preamble to the CRC).

2. The CRC recognises that all actions concerning child asylum seekers must respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents and families to provide direction to a child in the exercise of her or his rights (Articles 5, 9 and 18 of the CRC). The CRC recognises the family as "the fundamental group of society" and recognises children's rights in the context of parental rights and duties. Furthermore, the UNHCR points out that "the more trauma or stress the parents or care-taker has been subjected to, the greater the danger that children risk neglect or abuse". The same document cautions that care needs to be taken to ensure that parents are able to nurture their child and that if the parent seems powerless in detention, "then the child's greater developmental need is for the parent to receive help" (UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch4).

3. Treaties that have been ratified by Australia, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, are binding on Australia in international law. Such treaties' implementation in Australia are monitored by United Nations treaty bodies, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child or the Human Rights Committee. However, the fact that Australia has ratified a treaty does not automatically incorporate it into Australian domestic law. Only when treaty provisions are incorporated into Australian law do they create enforceable rights in Australia. However, courts should interpret a law to be consistent with the provisions of a treaty that Australia has ratified. Other international documents referred to in this submission such as United Nations Rules, General Comments by treaty bodies, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines, United Nations General Assembly Declarations and publications by United Nations agencies are not binding on Australia as a matter of international law. They are, however, persuasive in interpreting treaties and contain goals and aspirations reflecting globally accepted standards of common decency.

4. ChilOut's submission is focused on children detained at VDC. By all accounts, VDC seems to be Australia's least inhumane IDC environment. However ChilOut members in contact with children and parents in other Australian IDCs regularly email regarding their care and treatment. The stories have been incorporated into this submission where appropriate and the relevant IDCs noted.

5. In speaking with former refugees in Australia's IDC or processing centres as they were referred to prior to privatisation, there is a marked difference in the treatment of asylum seekers. It would seem that previously the focus was very much on processing. Since the Federal Government's current policy's preoccupation with visible deterrence, the nature of treatment of all detainees by IDC staff has changed.

6. This lack of transparency in the management of IDCs is in contravention of Article 3(3) of the CRC which states that: "Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision". This article requires Australia to set standards and to ensure these standards are met in all institutions, services and facilities through appropriate monitoring (see also R. Hodgkin and P. Newell, 1998, Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations Children's Fund, New York, p45). ChilOut understands that Australia has already introduced standards for its detention facilities in the form of Immigration Detention Standards (IDS) outlined in the current (1998) contract and the new 2002 contract. However while DIMIA sometimes undertakes internal reviews of the private contractor's implementation of these standards it is apparent that DIMIA is not independent enough. IMIA would appear to have the same interests as ACM (or whoever shall win the new tender) in minimizing complaints about IDCs. There is no financial or other incentive to bring complaints out into the open and no independent body to ensure they are remedied. At present there is no independent body in Australia charged with monitoring IDCs with the power to compel changes to detention practices where they are warranted. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman as well as Parliamentary committees and Ministerial advisory groups can inspect detention facilities with prior Ministerial approval, but cannot compel changes to detention practices. They would appear to be toothless, token watchdogs while DIMIA in contrast is judge and jury in assessing its own performance and compelling itself to remedy any breaches it might find of its own standards.

7. This is depicted in one of the drawings by children at Woomera IDC (available on request).

8. Article 29(1) of the CRC opens by stating that "the education of the child shall be directed" to the "development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential". The same article stipulates that child asylum seekers must attend primary school. Primary education should include as a minimum literacy and numeracy (CRC, General Comment 1, Para 9). In its General Comment on the aims of education, the Committee on the Rights of the Child states that every child has a right to an education "designed to provide the child with life skills, to strengthen the child's capacity to enjoy the full range of human rights and to promote a culture which is infused by appropriate human rights values". In paragraph 2 it says, education must be "child-centred, child-friendly and empowering".

9. The CRC guarantees the right to education for all children in Australia regardless of nationality or immigration status and regardless of how the child arrived in the country. It provides that all asylum seeking children, even those who have had their applications for refugee status rejected, are entitled to similar education as other children in Australia. Accepting educational standards for asylum seekers which are below that of Australian children would seem to be discriminatory as outlined in the CRC, Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Belgium, UN Doc RC/C/15/Add.38, 20 June 1995, Para 9. Also see Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Denmark, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.33, 15 Feb 1995, Para 14.

10. This breaches Article 29 of the CRC, education must include literacy, numeracy, and human rights, democracy and peace education especially for children fleeing from conflict.

11. Primary school children living in the community in NSW are taught seven key learning areas: English, Maths, Personal Development and Health (including sport and PE), Creative Arts (including drama), Human Society and Its Environment, Science and Religious Education (scripture in public schools is not compulsory but must be offered if teachers are available).

12. This contravenes Article 30 of the CRC, and UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, Chs4 and 9, which maintain that at least part of the child asylum seekers' education be in their mother tongue to preserve their cultural identity.

13. The young woman referred to here is an excellent example of the outcome of Australia's detention policy. As a minor, she did not choose to come to Australia and will now be returned to her country of origin, her chances of rebuilding her life in that country are severely damaged by her limited access to education during her time in Australia's IDCs. Not only does Australia have a responsibility under various conventions to provide her with appropriate access education, as a matter of conscious and of policy which does not effectively make people who we return to their homelands to become economic refugees and so continue the cycle.

14. This contradicts Article 28 of the CRC which states that 'different forms of secondary education' (including vocational education) must be available and accessible to every child. It also contradicts Article 30 of the CRC, and UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, Chs4 and 9, which maintain that at least part of the child asylum seekers' education be in their mother tongue to preserve their cultural identity.

15. "Practical knowledge and skills relevant to economic opportunities should be provided for older children" (Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch 9). Certainly higher education is not offered in any form. In not providing this training Australia is in breach of the CRC. Article 28 (1)point (d) stipulates that all signatory states will: "Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children". It also breaches article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states that signatories shall take steps to "include technical and vocational guidance and training programs, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual".

16. UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, general comment 13, Para 2 (6) (a).

17. Rule 41 of the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty provides: "Every detention facility should provide access to a library that is adequately stocked with both instructional and recreational books and periodicals suitable for the juveniles, who should be encouraged and enabled to make full use of it." Furthermore, under article 28(1)(a) of the CRC from the time of their arrival in Australia, the child asylum seeker's primary education must be free, including the provision of necessary books to participate in primary schooling. A similar provision is also stipulated in the UNICEF Implementation Handbook, p387.

18. Pers comm. Phil Bradley, Assistant General Secretary of the NSW Teachers Federation.

19. As in footnote (1), the CRC repeatedly emphasises that States party to the Convention, such as Australia, shall respect the responsibilities and duties of parents. See for example Article 5 and Article 18, CRC. On the particular matter of parents trying to access health care for their children, IDC staff should be supporting parents in line with the General Comment 14 of the Committee On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, Para 22 on the need to "ensur[e] access to child-friendly information about preventive and health-promoting behaviour and support to families and communities in implementing these practices."

20. International consensus on standard measurements of a child's health and nutritional status is by assessing the individual child's growth against standard weight-for-height, height-for-age and weight-for-age charts such as those produced by the World Health Organisation, taking into account cultural and geographic differences in child development. See World Health Organisation, WHO Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition,, 8 August 2001

21. According to Rule 49, United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and Rule 22(3), Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Australia should ensure that preventive and remedial dental health care is available to all child asylum seekers reducing the need for extractions.

22. In many of the cases reported by ChilOut supporters, conditions that begin as issues of physical health ultimately become ones of mental health in the forms of depression, poor attachment by infants, reoccurring thoughts of suicide etc.

23. It is common practice to deport detainees in the early hours of the morning, when other detainees are asleep and access to legal advice, support and translation services is severely limited.

24. In its haste to deport [the woman] the government appears to have contravened most conventions covering pregnant women which stipulate that appropriate measures must be taken to ensure their well being (including their emotional well being) such as Article 24 (2)(d) of the CRC and Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. On the importance of maintaining a pregnant woman's emotional well being see UNHCR, Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch4. For an Australian reference see "The Health of Young Australians" report, endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers Conference in 1995.

25. Article 24 (2) (d) of the CRC enjoins Australia to provide appropriate post-natal health care for mothers including support for breastfeeding. UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch5 states that breastfeeding should be promoted as "this method of nutrition provides complete, hygienic food for the healthy growth and development of infants", and includes an obligation to "promote the stimulation of lactation of mothers..." The apparent lack of support in Australian IDCs for breastfeeding mothers contravenes these guidelines. One breastfeeding mother approached visiting ChilOut members requesting food because of her extreme hunger. ACM's prohibition of food been taken from that IDC's dining area even for snacks in the 14 hour gap between dinner and breakfast would have contributed to this woman experienced by this woman.

26. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Guidelines on Protection and Care, Ch 5 the cultural acceptability, palatability and digestibility of the food provided to refugee children must be considered, in addition to its nutritional quality.

27. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Guidelines on Protection and Care, CH 5 the cultural acceptability, palatability and digestibility of the food provided to refugee children must be considered, in addition to its nutritional quality.

28. Article 37 of the CRC states that "every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults" although of course still maintaining "contact with his or her family..." While UNHCR Guidelines do not specify that children and their families must be separated from single adult detainees they do imply that they be free to remove themselves if they so wish. For example the UNHCR Guidelines on Protection and Care, ch5 provide that children and families must have sufficient space to allow them a minimum degree of privacy in order to maintain some semblance of family life. Detention facilities should be designed with a view to ensuring families' and children's personal security. Also the lack of spaces specific to children also contravenes Article 31(1) of the CRC that stipulates that age-appropriate play and recreational spaces and activities be provided for children.

29. There appears to be very little direction given in international conventions on appropriate training for staff guarding children in detention. This may be because of the expectation that children will be kept in detention as a last resort and for the shortest possible time (two expectations that Australia clearly ignores). However it is clear from the evidence presented in this submission that staff in Australian IDCs are woefully ill-equipped to look after children. The alleged continuing degrading treatment of children by IDC guards means that Australia fails to meet minimum international standards on humane detention of children which prohibit the ill-treatment of children. Article 37 of the CRC provides that: " No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments" The prohibition of torture or ill-treatment is also found in article 7 of the ICCPR and in articles 1 and 2 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). It contravenes repeated injunctions to put child asylum seekers well being ahead of any other consideration including the cost of training staff. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, Guidelines for Periodic Reports, Para 35, stipulates that the "best interests" of the child be put before "budgetary allocations". The one place training is mentioned is in UNHCR guidelines on Unaccompanied Children (Para 5.7) which state that the appointed guardian of unaccompanied minors "should have the necessary expertise in the field of child-caring so as to ensure that interests of the child are safeguarded...". However as far as ChilOut is aware, the official guardian of unaccompanied minors in Australian IDCs, the Minister for Immigration, lacks any formal qualifications in the field of childcare.

30. Available on request.

31. Because Australia has decided to detain children, it is directly responsible under Article 19(1) of the CRC to ensure that it takes "all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse". Article 34 of the Convention requires Australia to "protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse"

32. For example it would not be appropriate for children to travel to school in a vehicle with uniformed guards.

Last Updated 9 January 2003.