Friday, June 10, 2005

Four years of children in detention

by Jessica Perini

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner’s deadline to release all children from immigration detention. One year has passed, another precious year in the lives of these children, and 70 children are still imprisoned, without charge, many without any knowledge of a date to be released.

This time last year, June 2004, as a member of ChilOut (Children Out of Detention), I felt optimistic. I hoped that if the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report were heeded (and how could it not be?) children would immediately be released from detention. Perhaps we could have a year of wonders; a year when everything we’d worked for would come to fruition? As at June 2004 ChilOut had been working for almost three years to release children and their families from immigration detention.

Foreigners are often shocked when I tell them that in Australia, children are imprisoned in immigration detention centres for months and sometimes years without charge. Lawrence, a friend, who is here for only a week, talks with me about the publication of the HREOC report.

“So how did the inquiry into children in detention come about?” Lawrence asks me.

“By the end of 2001 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission had received many reports of abuse and harm to children and adults held in immigration detention centres. Representatives from HREOC made many visits to detention centres around Australia. In November 2001 the Human Rights Commissioner announced that there would be an inquiry. During the next two years the Commission 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.”

Lawrence, a teacher, consults his pupils about everything, so I’m not surprised when he asks, “What about the kids themselves, did anyone talk to them?”

“Yes. Inquiry staff interviewed the detainee children and their families from all immigration detention centres including those on remote islands off the coast of Australia. They also interviewed medical care professionals, teachers and guards who had been involved with the children.”

At this point my astute foreign observer asks, “So they uncovered all this abuse. Why don’t they publish something to tell everyone what they found?”

“Patience my friend. I’m getting to that bit. In May 2004 HREOC published its report, ‘A last resort?’. It was over 900 pages long and contained overwhelming evidence that holding children in detention centres was absolutely contrary to Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

“So your government was publicly shamed and forced to release the children and then the minister responsible was sacked?” My foreign observer asks.

I laugh and then realise that my laugh sounds bitter, “Children are still being detained. And no the government was not shamed and the minister is now Australia’s Federal Attorney-General.”

“But that’s not a demotion!?”

“No it isn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

“So what happened to the children?”

“An overwhelming majority of the children (over 90 per cent) were found to be refugees and now live in Australia.”

“Wow. You say 90 per cent?”


“Who counted that 90 per cent of them were proven to be refugees? Was it you pro-refugee groups?”

“No, the government did. Those are the government’s numbers. The government also counted that these kids had spent an average of 619 days in detention.”

“Six-hundred and nineteen days? That’s like one, two…almost two years.”

“Yep, that’s right. One of the submissions 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. If you bare with me I can quote you some statistics from that submission.”

“Yeah, please go ahead.”

I pick up the submission and read:

“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.”

“That sounds pretty bad,” Lawrence says as he lights up a cigarette.

“Hey I thought you gave up?”

“I only smoke when I’m upset. Please go on.”

“Well this was only one of the 346 submissions received by the inquiry.”

“So, the solution is pretty simple then. Detention is really screwing with these kids’ minds, so release them. It’s not rocket science.”

“Yes, that does seem logical. The report did in fact recommend that the government release the children and their families no later than four weeks after its tabling in parliament.”

“So, what did the government say? Were there apologies? Did anyone get the sack? Were people sent to jail?”

“I’ve got the press release here. I’ll read it to you, word for word:

“The government rejects the major findings and recommendations contained in this report. The government also rejects the Commission's view that Australia's system of immigration detention is inconsistent with our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

“They said that?”

“In those exact words, yes.”

“So they didn’t admit liability?”

“No, they didn’t. But later in 2004 the minister released a statement saying that only one boat child was left in detention.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic!? What a victory for you.”

“Actually, no it wasn’t. The minister did not count the boat arrival children imprisoned in Nauru, Christmas Island or the Port Augusta Residential Housing Project, nor did she count children who arrived by plane imprisoned in Villawood, Maribyrnong and Baxter detention centres.”

“Really?! But I mean surely…Well what about the courts, surely they can do something?”

“Well there are pretty significant gaps in our laws that mean this system of detention can just keep on going. The Australian government has fought cases 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. The government has also changed legislation to make it much harder to appeal to some of the courts.”

“That’s so awful. How can they do that? I suppose they can do whatever they like. Now that the anniversary is coming round, what has the government done to improve the lives of these kids?”

“Just a few days ago that question was put to the head of the Department of Immigration, Bill Farmer and he said:

"We have had no specific directions from the minister about the HREOC report."

He also said, “We also learnt lessons from our own operations and if there's an idea that we think should be implemented we will look at that seriously and do what we can to implement it.”

“When asked to give examples of any changes that had taken place he couldn’t or didn’t provide any.”

“He didn’t provide a single example of something to make the lives of the kids better?”

“Not one.”

“But that’s disgusting. How can a whole department, in the wake of a 900 page report, ignore all its major findings and recommendations?”

“To tell the truth I don’t rightly know. What I do know is that we can’t make better what we don’t acknowledge. If we can’t admit that the system is wrong and we continue to surreptitiously release children from detention how can things ever change?”

Lawrence snuffs out his cigarette and looks me square in the face, “You’ve just got to keep going. Keep telling people. One day the right person is going to hear and things will change.”

After almost four years of battling to release children I would forgive anyone their need to bow out of the fight. But no matter how tired we are the detained children are even more tired, imprisoned without charge or time limitations. Their childhoods slip away so quickly.

Visit us at

To read the report of the national inquiry into children in immigration detention 2004 see (last accessed 9 May 2004)

For more information on the legal aspects of children in detention read Norden P (2004) (last accessed 9 May 2004).


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9:35 am  

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