Friday, January 21, 2005

A case study of child abuse in Australia

by Jessica Perini

"The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."

Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37(b)

In Australia, children are imprisoned in immigration detention centres for months and sometimes years. These centres have been found, time and again, to be wanting by any number of human rights standards.

During 2001 representatives from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) made many visits to immigration detention centres around Australia. By the end of that year it had received numerous reports of abuse and harm to children and adults held in such centres. In November 2001 HREOC announced that there would be an inquiry into the treatment of children held in immigration detention.

In May 2004 HREOC published its report, ‘A last resort?’; the result of two years of investigation which included interviews with detainee children and their families from all immigration detention centres including those on remote islands off the coast of Australia. It had also received reports from organisations representing detainees, human rights and legal bodies, members of the public, religious bodies, state government agencies and a range of non-government policy and service-providing organisations. Inquiry staff also interviewed medical care professionals, teachers and guards who had been involved with children in the centres.

The resulting 900-page report contained overwhelming evidence that holding children in detention centres was cruel, inhumane, damaging and absolutely contrary to Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC).

An overwhelming majority of the children (over 90 per cent) were found to be refugees and now live in Australia. But what damage was done during their average 20 months in immigration detention can only be gauged over the years as they grow.

A submission to the inquiry by the South Australian Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service based on studies of 20 children reported that every single child had seen an adult self-harm, often their own parents and all of those children had a parent with a major psychiatric illness.

Of the children between six and 17 years of age, it found that:
• all the children reported thoughts of self-harm;
• 80 per cent had acted on these impulses;
• 70 per cent had anxiety disorders;
• 50 per cent had persistent severe somatic symptoms, particularly headaches and abdominal pains.

Of the children under five years of age, it found that:
• 50 per cent showed delayed language and social development;
• 30 per cent had marked disturbances in behaviour and interaction with parents;
• 30 per cent were diagnosed with severe parent–child relationship problems, particularly separation anxiety and oppositional behaviour.

This was only one of the 346 submissions received by the inquiry.

The report recommended that the government release the children and their families no later than four weeks after its tabling in parliament. The government rejected the major findings and recommendations contained in the report. It also rejected the view that Australia’s system of immigration detention was inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under CROC.

As of January 2005, eight months after the release of the report, there were still at least 90 children in immigration detention. This is despite the fact that human rights abuses continue to be reported, by visitors to the facilities, medical health professionals, the press and politicians.

The Australian government has fought cases against the human rights of children all the way to the High Court and won. These cases have confirmed that children and their families can remain in immigration detention indefinitely, and without charge.

A child who came to Australia without his parents described detention as a slow spiritual death:

“…if I had stayed in Afghanistan of course they would have killed me maybe in an hour or two but I ended up in here so physically they are keeping me alive but emotionally and spiritually they are killing me.”

First published in Chapter 13 of Parenting for a Peaceful World
by Robin Grille see


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