8 Primary school aged children in detention

[They are] crying all day long ... tortured by sadness. Take the children out and keep us in.

(Parent of three children, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 2 March 2014)

Drawing of person crying in front of a tree with the caption 'waitin'
Drawing by primary school aged child, Christmas Island, 2014.


In March 2014 there were 336 primary school aged children between 5 and 12 years old living in detention centres on the Australian mainland and on Christmas Island. On average, these children had been detained for seven months.[322] At the time of drafting this report, children and adults in Australian detention centres had been held on average for over a year.[323]

8.1 Needs and development of children at this stage of life

The primary school years mark a key developmental phase. According to the World Bank, children at this age need ‘protection from danger’ and an environment that allows them to ‘make choices’, ‘learn cooperation’, ‘engage in problem-solving ...[and] acquire basic life skills and attend education’.[324]

Despite the best efforts of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to provide services to children, evidence to this Inquiry indicates that primary school aged children face severe impediments to normal development. The information contained in this chapter indicates that it is the detention environment itself that impedes childhood development.

The first and perhaps most fundamental requirement for normal childhood development is protection from danger. Australia has obligations at international law to protect children from harm. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments should take all appropriate ‘measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment’.[325]

Detention environments expose children to danger because children live in close proximity to traumatised adults. Up to 30 percent of people in detention are suffering from ‘severe’ mental health problems including depression, stress and anxiety.[326] Children are living in closed, cramped spaces where incidents of violence, self-harm and psychotic behaviour are common.[327]

In the 5 to 12 age group, three children self-harmed and 18 children threatened self-harm between 1 January 2013 and 31 March 2014.[328]

During one afternoon alone, at a detention centre in Darwin, the Inquiry team observed two adult men exhibiting psychotic behaviours. One man was screaming and crying and had to be restrained on the ground in front of children and others. Another man started screaming and tearing at his clothes and making aggressive gestures to children and families as they queued for food in the dining room.[329]

At Christmas Island and Darwin detention centres, families reported that they spend many hours in their rooms to avoid exposure to distressing incidents. By September 2014, most families had been detained for over a year; many confined in spaces of 2.5 x 3 metres.

They’ve seen a lot. One kid tried to hurt himself, another broke a window. We keep the kids in the room. A lot of people are trying to kill themselves in front of kids.

(Parent of two children, Aqua Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 3 March 2014)

In a Darwin detention centre a 7 year old boy reported seeing a man smash a window and cut his wrists with the glass. After the incident his parents explained:

... the child has started wetting the bed and is being given daily sleeping tablets.[330]

Children have no alternative but to mix with adults when they eat in the dining halls, use communal bathrooms or participate in any recreation activity. Sixty-one percent of primary school aged children said that they did not feel relaxed in detention.[331]

When asked to explain their views on safety, 31 percent of children said that they were scared of the other people in detention, 24 percent were frightened of people self-harming and 13 percent responded that they felt unsafe because people were mentally unwell. Overwhelmingly, children explained that their lack of safety was linked to the mental ill-health amongst detainees. Their responses are at Chart 34.

Chart 34: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: Explain why you feel unsafe

 Explain why you feel unsafe

Chart 34 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: Explain why you feel unsafe. People fighting/scared of the people here 31%, People self-harming 24%, This place makes me mentally unwell 15%, People mentally unwell 13%, Environment unsafe dangerous 9%, Scared of the head count at night 7%, Hurt by officer 4%, Officers always watching 3%, Serco are nice 3%, Other 9%

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 68 respondents (Note: respondents can provide multiple responses)

A father of children on Christmas Island described the exposure of children to suicidal behaviour.

The word of ‘suicide’ is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?[332]

A 12 year old girl whose mother had attempted suicide on Christmas Island wrote a letter to the Inquiry. This child had not eaten in three days and was refusing to leave her room. Her mother was on 24 hour suicide watch at the time of the Inquiry team visit in July 2014.

Some people they are free but I’m not free. I feel upset when I see them. I am 12 years old and my life is really bad and deth [death] I leave in a jail. Why I have a bad life. I think to stay in the room for ever when I go because if I stay in room no eat no drink. I will die. Better I kill myself.[333]

8.2 Emotional health and wellbeing

My child is mentally unwell. Everyone is mentally ill, upset and worried.

(Parent of 7 year old boy, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

The majority of parents reported that their child’s mental health had been negatively impacted by the detention environment.[334]

If you tried to sit and talk to them, they would cry and scream because they are sacred. They are not like normal kids. They have been affected mentally. They don’t make eye contact. If you look into their eyes they are about to cry.

(Mother of four children including two primary school aged daughters, Inverbrackie Detention Centre, Adelaide, 12 May 2014)

Primary school aged children were asked whether they felt their emotional health had been affected by the detention environment. Eighty-seven percent of children identified changes to their emotional or mental health. Their responses are at Chart 35.

Chart 35: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: Do you think your emotional and mental health has been affected since being in detention?

 Do you think your emotional and mental health has been affected since being in detention?

Chart 35 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: Do you think your emotional and mental health has been affected since being in detention? Yes 87%, No 8%, Sometimes 5%.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 183 respondents

Children were asked to explain how detention had affected them. Forty percent of children said that they felt sad and were crying all the time. Twenty-five percent said that they were always worried; 13 percent had problems with eating or weight loss; nine percent reported nightmares; and seven percent were frightened to be apart from their parents. Chart 36 sets out these impacts:

Chart 36: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: What are the emotional and mental health impacts on you?

 What are the emotional and mental health impacts on you?

Chart 36 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: What are the emotional and mental health impacts on you? Always sad/crying 40%, Always worried 25%, Not eating properly/weight loss 13%, Nightmares 9%, Restlessness/agitated 9%, Clinging/anxious 7%, Fighting with others/aggressive 5%, Not able to sleep well 5%, Headaches 5%, Nail biting 4 %, Self-harming 3%, Frightened to be alone 3%, Won't leave the room 3%, Bed wetting/incontinence 2%, Other 12%

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 126 respondents (Note: respondents can provide multiple responses)

Primary school aged children were asked to identify their emotional state at different points in time. The Inquiry team asked children to look at a series of faces and identify the face which best described them (1) in their home country; (2) when they first arrived in Australia; and (3) their mood at the present.

Continuum of mood faces used in Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention

Continuum of mood faces used in Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention. 6 faces from happiest to saddest

Chart 37 illustrates the face that best exemplifies the mood of primary school-age children in their home country. Forty-two percent of children were happy and 29 percent were very sad.

Chart 37: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face when I was living in my home country

 My face when I was living in my home country

Chart 37 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face when I was living in my home country. Happiest face (1) 42%, Crying face (6) 29%, Unsure face (4) 9%, Sad face (5) 8%, Happy face (2) 6%, Neutral face (3) 5%.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 153 respondents

Chart 38 illustrates the second point in time, when children first arrived in Australia. Fifty percent of primary school aged children were happy and only four percent were very sad.

Chart 38: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face when I first arrived in Australia

 My face when I first arrived in Australia

Chart 38 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face when I first arrived in Australia. Happiest face (1) 50%, Happy face (2) 19%, Neutral face (3) 13%, Unsure face (4) 8%, Sad face (5) 5%, Crying face (6) 4%.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 155 respondents

The third and final Chart 39 shows the faces of children after being in detention for a period of time. The numbers of happy children drop from 50 percent on arrival to 15 percent after a period in detention. The numbers of very sad children increase from four percent on arrival to 36 percent.

Chart 39: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face today in detention

 My face today in detention

Chart 39 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: My face today in detention. Crying face (6) 36%, Sad face (5) 23%, Happiest face (1) 15%, Happy face (2) 12%, Unsure face (4) 9%, Neutral face (3) 5%.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 159 respondents

These responses show a clear correlation between the detention environment and deterioration in the mood of primary school aged children.

The mother of a 6 year old girl in Darwin Airport Lodge Detention Centre explained changes in her daughter after 11 months in detention:

My daughter, L has changed dramatically in the last three weeks. We have been in detention for 11 months, and she used to have lots of other children to play with ... Before L was happy ... She was full of life and loved to play to sing and dance in the rain and enjoyed most activities but now she does not like anything. For the past few weeks her moods have become volatile, and she has been wetting the bed, which she hasn’t done for three years ... She’s become hot tempered and loses it frequently.[335]

Some parents expressed guilt at their decision to come to Australia even though the majority reported that they feared for their safety in their home countries.[336]

In Iran I was the only one being tortured, and now my children are being tortured here [in Australia].

(Father of three children, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 7 March 2014)

I feel like I have destroyed my children’s lives. Life is not just about food. My son asks the same question over and over: why can’t we leave here? I’m in pain watching my children here – children are fighting over toys – they aren’t free to do and see what they want.

(Parent, Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, 11 April 2014)

Research into the impacts of immigration detention on children and adults indicates that long term detention has a detrimental impact on the mental and physical health of those detained, be they children or adults. One study concludes that there is a direct correlation between time detained and mental health deterioration.[337]

My child’s emotional state is getting worse as time passes.

(Mother of 9 year old child, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

Evidence to the Inquiry indicates that the movement of people around the detention network can disrupt the ability for children to form social attachments with peers. Inquiry questionnaire data confirms that 74 percent of primary school aged children have been moved at least once to a different detention centre, and of this group, 36 percent have been moved twice.[338] Families may be transferred for medical appointments or moved to Nauru and then brought back to the mainland for medical reasons. These movements happen without notice and children can wake to find that their friends have disappeared overnight.

They take families away in the night. We wake up and our friends are gone and our children are crying. Who would do this to a family? Why do they hate us?

(Mother of 5 year old child, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 15 July 2014)

Families who arrived in Australia on or after 19 July 2013 are subject to transfer to Nauru. There is a level of fear about Nauru as many families have heard about the conditions in the detention centre, the tent accommodation and the heat.

We got told in front of our children that we were getting sent to Nauru and that made us scared.

(Father of three children, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

Some families return to the Australian mainland for medical treatment after living in detention in Nauru. A mother who had been transferred to Melbourne Detention Centre from Nauru reported that her children’s mental health had improved since leaving Nauru. She also noted that her children continue to worry about being sent back to Nauru and ‘can’t sleep properly because of conditions overseas’.[339] Children who are moved from Nauru or Christmas Island to detention centres on the mainland live with the uncertainty that they may be returned to these centres where the living conditions are harsh and the services limited.

He [child] doesn’t sleep well, he has a lot of concerns, he sees a psychologist, and he has a lot of fears about being sent back to Christmas Island.

(Mother of boy, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

Please help me. I need help. Please I don’t happy in this camp. Please I need freedom I am in here 1 years.

(11 year old child, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, July 2014)[340]

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians made the following observation about the appropriateness of detention for children:

The experience of detention for children, parents, and families has a significant and long-term negative impact on the physical and mental health, and development of children and adolescents.[341]

This view was corroborated by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists:

... detention of children is detrimental to children’s development and mental health and has the potential to cause long-term damage to social and emotional functioning.[342]

A 2004 clinical study of children in detention found that all children interviewed met the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Other symptoms included anxiety, enuresis, somatic symptoms and self-harm.[343] All children aged 6 or more had evidence of multiple psychiatric disturbances, with major depression and PTSD being the most common, as well as separation anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, enuresis, problems with eating, sleeping and pain, suicidal ideation and self-harm.[344]

8.3 The role of parents in detention

Detention environments are designed so that adults and children passively receive services rather than manage their own environments. Adults are restricted in their ability to carry out routine parental functions and have limited decision making authority.

In the detention centres of Darwin, Melbourne and Christmas Island, parents are not able to cook, so they line up along with their children for meals each day. Parents are unable to decide what health service their children receive or when. They do not make the decisions about their child’s school education. If school is not available, parents in detention are powerless to change this situation. Parents are not allowed to accompany their children to school and they cannot take their children to the local park. All decisions are made by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection or by Serco officers. A volunteer at the Christmas Island and Darwin detention centres described the deterioration of normal family functioning after long term detention:

After six months I observed families deteriorate in their capacity for self-care; washing less, sleeping through day hours and restlessly at night. Men would stop shaving, women (who previously were meticulous in their grooming as a sign of pride) appeared dishevelled. Food refusal occurred and coherence in thought and speech decreased. After one year, many were losing hope and preparing to harm themselves or act against others.[345]

A number of parents reported that their children no longer respected their authority. Children can see that their parents are disempowered and they witness their parents’ deteriorating mental health.[346]

The kids feel they [security staff] are watching us. The children see us as parents who have no authority anymore; they listen only to the officers. We no longer feel as parents.

(Parent of children, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

We are stressed and can’t provide for our children.

(Father of three children, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

A child psychiatrist and two paediatricians accompanying the Inquiry staff to the Melbourne Detention Centre described parents as ‘demoralised, disempowered and undermined by the uncertainty’ of the detention environment.[347]

My children think I am a liar for bringing them here when I had told them we were coming to a safe new country.

(Father of three children, aged 2, 7 and 10 years old, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

We have no control over the situation here in detention.

(Parent of two children aged 8 and 11 years old, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

...we can’t make the food we want.

(Mother of 7 year old boy, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

In a submission to the Inquiry, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians made the following observation about detention environments on families.

Normal family function is undermined by dehumanising management practices, difficult living conditions and restricted freedom of movement. Child health and safety is jeopardised by inadequate accommodation facilities, poor hygiene and sanitation and a lack of safe recreational spaces for children.[348]

8.4 Physical environment of detention and resources

Children in detention have limited access to toys and recreation spaces such as playrooms, libraries and playground equipment. Children are not free to leave the centre or to explore new places. Many families described the lived experience as monotonous and prison-like. When primary school aged children were asked to describe detention in three words, 22 percent described it as a ‘prison’, 30 percent described it as a ‘sad place’ and 30 percent described it as a place of ‘no freedom’.[349]

I feel like I am in a prison. I am so bored and sometimes I think of killing myself.

(12 year old child, Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, 11 April 2014)

Regular visitors to the Melbourne Detention Centre report that ‘[t]here are no bikes, no scooters, no play equipment and during school holidays the children stay in the detention centres because excursions were considered a risk’.[350]

The living arrangements in detention differ from location to location. The most restrictive living environments are on Christmas Island.

Families on Christmas Island live in converted shipping containers and the majority of these rooms are 2.5 x 3 metres. These rooms can contain up to four family members.[351] Each room contains a bunk and mattresses on the floor. The bed arrangements occupy the majority of the space.

At Construction Camp and Phosphate Hill Detention Centres, two families share a toilet and shower that adjoins their room. Families living in Lilac and Aqua Detention Centres on Christmas Island shared common bathroom facilities with everyone in the centre.

There is a share bathroom and shower with the whole camp. There are limited times for men and woman to use the bathrooms. They locked the women’s bathroom for the AHRC visit and now women have to use the men’s. Children make a mess because there is no potty. We put a container in the room for the children to pee because we can’t get toilet access. There are lots of containers in rooms. Four people in one small room, bunk for kids and mattresses on the floor. Four square metres.

(Parent of two children, Lilac Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 6 March 2014)

Children detained in Melbourne and Darwin live in similar accommodation, being converted shipping containers filled with beds and little space for anything else. At Melbourne, families live in rooms of approximately 2.5 x 3.5 metres. At Darwin the rooms are slightly larger at 3 x 3.5 metres. These are extremely cramped spaces for energetic children but are the only private space for families.

According to Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health Elizabeth Elliott who accompanied the Inquiry team to Christmas Island, the environment can contribute to physical illness:

The cramped, contaminated and overcrowded living conditions on Christmas Island not only restrict motor development but facilitate the spread of infections. We witnessed many children with respiratory infections and there had been outbreaks of gastroenteritis. We repeatedly heard the refrain ‘my kids are always sick.’ I have significant concerns about the safety of children who develop serious illness in this remote, tropical environment – an emergency medical evacuation could take at least 10 hours.[352]

The Inverbrackie Detention Centre in Adelaide comprises 75 houses. Sydney Detention Centre also provides houses. Unless the houses are occupied by a large family they are usually shared with other families. These houses provide a friendlier environment for children. Families have some privacy and while they may share a kitchen space, they are able to cook and eat together. Nevertheless, there are reminders that Inverbrackie and Sydney are detention centres. There are four head counts per day and people are not free to leave the fenced communities.

Families at all detention sites complained that the regular head counts invade their privacy and that the night checks at 11pm and 6am can frighten primary school aged children. A worker who conducted these night checks on families described the responses of children in the following terms:

Children who were awake while these checks were being conducted would just look at you when you enter their room. I assume they don’t understand why it is being done.[353]

Dr Sarah Mares, a child psychiatrist who accompanied the Inquiry team to Christmas Island, noted that the night time head counts ‘add to the disturbed sleep in children and adults which is very common’.[354]

A volunteer who regularly visited the Darwin detention centres offered the Inquiry an illustration of how some of the staff at the detention centres consider the place to be a prison.

Yesterday my family and I visited a 9 year old [at] Wickham Point for her birthday. One of the small gifts we took for her was not allowed, air-dry clay. After losing the astonished look on my face I asked why on earth she could not sculpt with plasticine and I was told it is because they can use it to copy keys. A SERCO Officer (seemingly in charge) came in to tell me that he has worked in prisons long enough to know what people will do. I pointed out that the birthday girl is not in prison.[355]

8.5 School education

The most important thing is my study. I want to be a doctor. I need to go out of the centre to study.

(11 year old girl, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 2 March 2014)

The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires Australia to provide children in detention with access to the same level of education as any other child in Australia with similar needs (Article 28). Article 22(1) requires that appropriate efforts be made to cater to the special needs of asylum seeking and refugee children.

School opportunities differ dramatically for children in detention depending on where they are detained and whether they arrived on or after 19 July 2013.

Up until recently, children on Christmas Island had almost no school education, while children in mainland detention were able to attend school if they had been enrolled.

According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 24 children aged between 5 and 12 years were able to attend school on a part-time rotational basis on Christmas Island.[356] The Department also reported that schooling was unavailable for large portions of 2013.[357] Evidence to the Inquiry indicated that most children on Christmas Island had schooling of not more than two to four weeks over an eight month period and that this was for two hours each day with a snack break.[358]

Our friends are going to school in Iran and we are not ... [child crying]. This was a mistake to come to Australia.

(9 year old girl, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 2 March 2014)

[Our child age 7 has had] one week of school for the whole seven months. Some other language groups are going more often. When we complain, Serco says they don’t know why Vietnamese children go to school less.

(Parent of two children, Lilac Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 6 March 2014)

The poor satisfaction with education provision on Christmas Island is reflected in Chart 40.

Chart 40: Responses by primary school aged children and their parents to the question: Are you satisfied with you/your child’s ability to learn?

 Are you satisfied with you/your child’s ability to learn?

Chart 40 description: Responses by primary school aged children and their parents to the question: Are you satisfied with you/your child’s ability to learn? On mainland detention: Yes 83%, No 8%, Not sure 9%. Christmas Island: Yes 0%, No 100%, Not sure 0%.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 144 respondents

At the Inquiry’s first public hearing, the President of the Commission expressed concern that the children on Christmas Island had been without adequate schooling for many months. This concern was shared by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. A senior Departmental official stated: ‘it’s not adequate to the needs of the children there and we are working very hard to address that as quickly as possible’.[359] In its submission to the Inquiry, the Department noted that the Government had allocated $2.6 million in the 2014-15 Commonwealth budget to ensure that full time schooling was available to children detained on Christmas Island.

The Commission acknowledges the infrastructure and logistical challenges of providing education on Christmas Island but notes that there were places in detention on mainland Australia (particularly the Darwin detention centres) where these children could have attended school.

In July 2014, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection negotiated an arrangement with the Western Australian Catholic Education Office to provide education to children on Christmas Island. Most of the children who will benefit from this schooling have been in detention for 10 to 12 months. For many of these children, this will be the first full-time school education that they have received since arriving in Australia.

The Department reported to the Inquiry that all school aged children detained on Christmas Island are now attending school through a newly constructed learning centre opened on July 2014 and operated by the Western Australian Catholic Education Office.

School can be a protective factor for children who are unhappy in the detention environment:

As soon as I leave that gate, I feel happy.

(13 year old child, Blaydin Detention Centre, Darwin, 12 April 2014)

She is still worried that at any time she might have to go back to Christmas Island and school will stop.

(Mother of 6 year old girl, Blaydin Detention Centre, Darwin, 12 April 2014)

For the most part, children in detention on mainland Australia who were able to attend school were satisfied with the educational experience. Eighty-three percent of parents and children reported that they were satisfied with school.[360]

An Australian Government-funded mental health and wellbeing initiative for primary schools describes the benefits and protective factors that school provides vulnerable children:

A sense of belonging to school is an important protective factor for children’s mental health and wellbeing. It helps to reduce the impacts of risks that children may be exposed to. School staff can help children gain a sense of belonging to school by taking an interest in their wellbeing, and by relating to them in ways that are consistently respectful and caring. This can provide children with a sense of stability and security through periods of stress and challenge.[361]

The lack of school for children on Christmas Island may have had impacts on the health and wellbeing of these children. Only a longitudinal study of these children will determine whether there are developmental, educational and mental health impacts as a result of one year without school or any other structured activity.

8.6 Excursions out of detention

Although excursion opportunities were advertised at the Melbourne Detention Centre, few children and families had been outside except for school or medical appointments. When asked if they were able to leave one family replied:

Are you kidding me? They [the children] beg me to go to a park!

(Parent of three children aged 6 months, 8 years and 11 years, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

We haven’t been out to the community of Australia to see what it is like.

(11 year old boy, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

We are never allowed out of the compound, except for medical visits. We were supposed to go on our first excursion, our daughter was very excited, and then it was cancelled.

(Father of 10 year old girl, Melbourne Detention Centre, 7 May 2014)

The submission of a former professional working in detention centres on Christmas Island described the desperation of children to leave the centre:

As I observed children who would come to the gate, whether it be leaving for an excursion to see parts of the island or to go to a dentist appointment, simply leaving the confines of the detention centre was a bonus.

There were numerous situations when due to high numbers or an error in paperwork, a family would wait at the gate to leave. Once the time came to leave, they would be told 'no sorry, you can't go'. Children would not understand the reasons behind this and often have a tantrum or walk away crying.

The department who managed activities decided to create a backup list for activities so if people on the original lists didn't attend, then people on the back up list could attend. I witnessed children on a back-up list to attend school wait for 2 hours at the gate, in the hope that they would be allowed to go. This would also apply to other excursions and activities.[362]

Chart 41 shows that primary school aged children across the detention network had very few opportunities to leave the centres.

Chart 41: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: How often have you left the detention centre for an excursion? (Excluding for school)

 How often have you left the detention centre for an excursion? (Excluding for school)

Chart 41 description: Responses by primary school aged children to the question: How often have you left the detention centre for an excursion? (Excluding for school): Never left 19, 1 time 36, 2 times 20, 3 times 11, More than 3 times 34, Other 9.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Children and Parents in Detention, Australia, 2014, 129 respondents

I went with my 5 year old son to the recreation centre. They frisked us to check we have not stolen toys. It was degrading so we prefer not to go.

(Mother of 5 and 7 year old children, Christmas Island detention centre, 5 March 2014)

8.7 Findings specific to primary school aged children

Detention is disrupting the normal development of primary school aged children and is damaging their emotional health and social development.

There are unacceptable risks of harm to primary school aged children in the detention environment.

The lack of school education on Christmas Island for primary school aged children who arrived in Australia on or after 19 July 2013 has had negative impacts on their learning and may have long term impacts on the cognitive development and academic progress of these children.

At various times primary school aged children in detention were not in a position to fully enjoy the following rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

  • the right to the highest attainable standard of health (article 24(1)); and
  • the right to enjoy ‘to the maximum extent possible’ the right to development (article 6(2)) and the associated right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development (article 27(1)).

    Detention has a negative impact on the health and development of primary school aged children both directly and through its effect on their parents. Primary school aged children become aware that their parents are disempowered in the detention environment, and may witness their parents’ deteriorating mental health.

    The Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged States parties to support parents to fulfil their responsibilities towards their children and avoid harmful ‘distortions in children’s care’ (See General Comment No 7, paragraph 18).

    Detention also restricts opportunities for children to develop through play and exploration. Primary school aged children in detention have limited access to toys and recreation spaces such as playrooms, libraries and playground equipment. The children are not free to leave the centre or to explore new places, and have very few opportunities to leave the centres other than for school.
  • the right to be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence (article 19(1))

    The Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasised in General Comment 7 (at paragraph 36) that ‘[y]oung children are especially vulnerable to the harm caused by...being surrounded by conflict and violence or displaced from their homes as refugees, or any number of other adversities prejudicial to their wellbeing.’ The Committee explains that this is because:

    Young children are less able to comprehend these adversities or resist harmful effects on their health, or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. They are especially at risk where parents or other caregivers are unable to offer adequate protection...young children require particular consideration because of the rapid developmental changes they are experiencing; they are more vulnerable to...distorted or disturbed development, and they are relatively powerless to avoid or resist difficulties and are dependent on others to offer protection and promote their best interests.
    Detention environments expose primary school aged children to harm because they are forced to live in confined living arrangements in close proximity to adults suffering from mental health problems including depression, stress and anxiety, where incidents of violence, self-harm and psychotic behaviour are common.
  • the right to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age (article 37(c)).

    Primary school aged children in detention live in a state of uncertainty about their future. They are subject to practices which can cause them to feel scared, such as the head counts which are conducted four times a day, including at night. They are also aware of the Government policy that those families who arrived on or 19 July 2013 are subject to transfer to Nauru at any time, and this exacerbates their sense of uncertainty and fear for the future.

The failure of the Commonwealth to provide education to primary school aged children on Christmas Island between July 2013 and July 2014 is a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, article:

28(1) States Parties recognize the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all.

The Commission notes that article 28(1) provides that the right to education can be achieved progressively. However, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear that ‘States need to be able to demonstrate that they have implemented [article 28(1)] “to the maximum extent of their available resources”’ and that ‘States are required to undertake all possible measures towards the realisation of the rights of the child, paying special attention to the most disadvantaged groups.’(See General Comment No 5, paragraphs 7 and 8).

Section 8.5 in this chapter describes in detail the lack of education provided to primary school aged children on Christmas Island for the year between July 2013 and July 2014.  A senior officer of the Department acknowledged during the Inquiry’s first public hearing that this was not adequate to meet the needs of the children detained there.

There were options readily available to the Department to address the children’s educational needs that were not taken. One option was moving the children to the Australian mainland so that they could access education in the same way as other children detained there.  Another option was providing the necessary level of education on Christmas Island, which was not done until July 2014. 

The failure of the Commonwealth to take either of these measures for a year is a breach of article 28(1).

The Commission notes that all school aged children detained on Christmas Island are now attending school full time, consistent with article 28(1).


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[323]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary 31 July 2014, Australian Government. At http://www.immi.gov.au/About/Pages/detention/about-immigration-detention.aspx?tab=3&heading=immigration-detention-and-community-statistics (viewed 1 September 2014).
[324]The World Bank, Early Childhood Development, What is Early Childhood Development? Development Stages. At http://go.worldbank.org/BJA2BPVW91, (viewed 11 August 2014).
[325]Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 art. 19(1). At http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/dfat/treaties/1991/4.html (viewed 1 September 2014).
[326]International Health and Medical Service, Health Data Set: July - Sept 2013, Version 1.04, 2014. At http://www.immi.gov.au/About/foi/Documents/FA131200935.pdf (viewed 2 September 2014).
[327]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Item 12, Schedule 3, Incidents in facilities where children are held, First Notice to Produce 31 July 2014.
[328]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Deaths, Self-harm and Incidents, Item 11, Document 11.1, Schedule 2, First Notice to Produce, 31 March 2014.
[329]Australian Human Rights Commission visit to Blaydin Detention Centre, File note, 12 April 2014.
[330]Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, Submission No 222 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 5. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[331]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014. Responses of primary school-aged children to question: Since being in detention is it true that you are relaxed in current living arrangements? 137 respondents
[332]Name withheld, father of children at Christmas Island Detention Centre, Submission No 233 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/Submission%20No%20233%20-%20Name%20withheld%20-%20Father%20detained%20with%20children%20on%20Christmas%20Island_0.pdf (viewed 2 September 2014).
[333]Name withheld, 12 year old child from Construction Camp Christmas Island, Letter handed to Inquiry staff, Inquiry visit to Christmas Island July 14-15.
[334]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Response to question: Do you think the emotional and mental health of your children has been affected since being in detention? Primary school aged children across the detention network, 183 respondents.
[335]Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, Submission No 222 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 9. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[336]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Response to question: Reasons for coming to Australia, Parents across the detention network, 399 respondents.
[337]J P Green, K Eagar, ‘The health of people in Australian immigration detention centres’, Med J Aust 2010; 192 (2): 65-70. At https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2010/192/2/health-people-australian-immigration-detention-centres (viewed 10 September 2014).
[338]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Responses to question: Have you been in any other detention centres in Australia? Primary school aged children across the detention network, 216 respondents; Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Responses to question: How many times has this person been moved between centres in total? Primary school aged children across the detention network, 186 respondents.
[339]Dr G Paxton, Consultant Paediatrician; Dr S Tosif, Senior Paediatric Trainee; Dr Sanjay Patel, Consultant Child Psychiatrist; Expert report to the Human Rights Commission after the visit to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation site, 7 May 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/expert (viewed 10 September 2014).
[340]Name withheld, 11 year old child from Construction Camp Christmas Island, Letter handed to Inquiry staff, Inquiry visit to Christmas Island July 14-15.
[341]Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Submission No 103 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 1 At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[342]Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Submission No. 48 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[343]S Mares and J Jureidini, ‘Psychiatric Assessment of Children and Families in Immigration Detention: Clinical, Administrative and Ethical Issues’. (2004) 28 Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health pp 520-526.
[344]S Mares and J Jureidini, ‘Psychiatric Assessment of Children and Families in Immigration Detention: Clinical, Administrative and Ethical Issues’ (2004) 28 Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health pp 520-526.
[345]Name withheld, Christmas Island and Darwin Volunteer, Submission No 114 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/Submission%20No%20114... (viewed 2 September 2014).
[346]Dr G Paxton, Consultant Paediatrician; Dr S Tosif, Senior Paediatric Trainee; Dr Sanjay Patel, Consultant Child Psychiatrist; Expert report to the Human Rights Commission after the visit to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation site, 7 May 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/expert (viewed 10 September 2014).
[347]Dr G Paxton, Consultant Paediatrician; Dr S Tosif, Senior Paediatric Trainee; Dr Sanjay Patel, Consultant Child Psychiatrist; Expert report to the Human Rights Commission after the visit to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation site, 7 May 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/expert (viewed 10 September 2014).
[348]Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Submission No 103 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 1. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[349]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Responses to question: Three words to describe detention, Primary school aged children across the detention network, 168 respondents.
[350]C Karapanagiotidis, P Curr and Sr B.Arthur, Second Public Hearing of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, Melbourne, 31 July. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/Mr%20Karapanagiotidis%2C%20Ms%20Curr%20and%20Sister%20Brigid_0.pdf (viewed 1 September 2014).
[351]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Item 8, Schedule 2, First Notice to Produce 31 July 2014.
[352]Professor E Elliott, Paediatrics and Child Health, Expert assisting the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, Email correspondence 25 September 2014.
[353]Name withheld, professional working in immigration detention, Submission No 84 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 1. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 3 September 2014).
[354]Dr S Mares, Child Psychiatrist; Expert report to the Australian Human Rights Commission after the visit to the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centres, March 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/expert (viewed 10 September 2014).
[355]Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, Submission No 222 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, pp. 4-5. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 2 September 2014).
[356]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Item 11, Schedule 2, First Notice to Produce, 31 July 2014.
[357]Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Item 11, Schedule 2, First Notice to Produce, 31 July 2014.
[358]Dr S Mares, Child Psychiatrist; Expert report to the Australian Human Rights Commission after the visit to the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centres, March 2014. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014/expert (viewed 10 September 2014); Name withheld, Professional working in immigration detention, Submission No 84 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p 1. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/Submission%20No%2084%20-%20Name%20withheld%20-%20Professional%20working%20in%20immigration%20detention.doc (viewed 8 October 2014).
[359]Ms K Pope, First Public Hearing of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Sydney 2014, 4 April 2014, p 12. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/DIBP%20and%20IHMS.pdf (viewed 30 September 2014).
[360]Australian Human Rights Commission, Inquiry Questionnaire for Parents and Children in Detention, Australia 2014, Response to question: Are you satisfied with your / your child’s ability to learn? Primary school aged children across the detention network, 144 respondents.
[361]Kids Matter, Building protective factors: Suggestions for school staff, website. Australian Government Funded. At https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/families/about-mental-health/mental-health-basics/building-protective-factors-childrens-mental (viewed 2 September 2014).
[362]Name withheld, professional working in immigration detention, Submission No 84 to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, p.1. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014-0 (viewed 3 September 2014).