They are the most vulnerable members of society, yet they are trapped behind bars for indefinite periods with little hope of a future. Camille Howard explores Australia’s practice of placing asylum seeker children in detention, an issue fast becoming a national disgrace.

(This article first appeared in Rattler 110, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to:

It is hard not being affected by the compelling drawings by children living in immigration detention on Christmas Island. Images of children’s crying faces, behind bars and padlocks, playing on stony ground under a crying sun, go to the heart of the biggest concern about children in immigration detention: what impact are our current policies having on children?

Despite the Migration Act stating that children should only be detained as a ‘last resort’, the number of children currently held in closed immigration detention sits at 1,023*. (It was as high as 1,138 in January 2014.)

It’s a startling figure, especially considering this number has grown since 2004, when the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into immigration detention of children found that the closed detention of children was ‘fundamentally inconsistent with Australia’s human rights obligations’.

The same inquiry found that children in detention for long periods are at high risk of serious mental harm. Yet 10 years on, rather than celebrating an overhaul of our immigration detention policies, the Commission has announced another National Inquiry to assess Australia’s practice of placing asylum seeker children in detention.

Professor Gillian Triggs, head of the inquiry and Commission president, is concerned about the short- and long-term health, wellbeing and development of children in immigration detention—a practice she believes breaches international law. ‘I am assessing the impact of immigration detention on children and whether the laws, policies and practices relating to children in immigration detention meet Australia’s international human rights obligations.’

In March this year, Professor Triggs travelled to Christmas Island with a team of medical professionals to assess the facilities first hand. ‘We saw children who were extremely distressed as a result of being in detention,’ she says. ‘The majority of children that I spoke with expressed great sadness that they had almost no access to school education, and there was nothing to do and no toys to play with.

‘It will be difficult to assess the long-term impacts on these children unless we can follow them in their life trajectory. None of these children will be settled in Australia, so assessing the long-term impacts will not be possible within the scope of this inquiry.’

Dr Sarah Mares, child and family psychiatrist, was part of the contingent to spend a week on Christmas Island. She was struck by the isolation. ‘The physical environment is very isolated and it’s very harsh,’ she says. ‘And although they are called alternative places of detention, they resemble prisons. They have high wire fences, no privacy and security gates.

‘When we were there, there were over 300 children on Christmas Island,’ Dr Mares adds. ‘Around about half of those children are aged five or under. That is significant for a number of reasons. There are particular vulnerabilities for little ones, developmentally, but there also tends to very little structured or organised activities for the younger children and that makes them increasingly vulnerable to the adult environment that they are in.’

Children in distress

Of the 200 families visited on Christmas Island, from three different centres, many families have noticed the emotional and behavioural changes in their children since being detained. ‘Many parents mentioned that their children were crying a lot, were increasingly disobedient and were not sleeping well,’ Dr Mares recalls. ‘Some of them were having tantrums to the point of banging their heads and hurting themselves, biting themselves, chewing their nails and their hands. Some who were toilet trained had regressed and were wetting the bed again. Parents also had concerns about children being delayed in their language.’

Dr Mares describes one parent’s distress that their child’s first word was a version of the word ‘officer’. There were also reports of role-playing that involved children acting out detention officers searching people. Or the distress of the boat trip, in which children acted out sitting in a sinking boat and then being saved.

‘The children are really playing out the experiences they are having—which is incredibly normal for kids to do—but for them, their environment is the detention centre environment and that’s what they’re preoccupied with and learning about,’ Dr Mares explains.

The physical impact is significant, too, in this harsh, isolated environment. ‘Significant numbers of children had skin conditions such as infected insect bites and impetigo,’ Professor Triggs says. ‘These conditions were exacerbated by the heat and living in close proximity to others.’

christmas_island_pic_7The centres have very little grass covering the stony ground, so very young children don’t have freedom to explore, and although one centre has a new playground, there is no shade, so it can’t be used most of the day.

‘There’s quite a lot children for other children to play with,’ Dr Mares says, ‘but sometimes that’s not a particularly happy experience if it’s not very structured or if everyone is bored. There’s not very much for children to do.’

Dr Mares admits there are activities and outings available to families, but says what looks like quite a busy timetable actually is very limited at a practical level. For example, across the road from one of the centres, called Construction Camp, there is a recreational facility with a pool and other sports facilities, as well as a crèche. Families are given the opportunity to visit the crèche once a week but Dr Mares says there is a limit on how many families can go. There are also other excursions organised, but there is limited space available on the bus.

‘So although these things are organised, either not many people access it or they are very infrequent,’ Dr Mares says. ‘So in the eight months that many families had been there, they might have been to the swimming pool once.

‘Even the school-aged children were having very limited opportunity to go out for structured education, so that means all of the kids in the compound were around with not very much to do. And I think that really added to the level of boredom and distress, and chaos.’

christmas_island_pic_9Family suffering

Professor Triggs and Dr Mares both speak of the pervasive distress of the parents of children in detention, and worried over the severity of it. ‘Many parents expressed feelings of depression and hopelessness about their situation and feared their imminent move to offshore detention facilities,’ Professor Triggs says.

‘Parents talked about their inability to be parents to their children because they were unable to cook for them, provide them with education, toys or any stimulation. A lot of parents spoke of their fears that they had ruined their children’s lives by bringing them to an uncertain future and most parents feared their own depressed state would negatively impact on their children.’

Dr Mares fears the effect this depression also has on the children. ‘Children are very aware and sensitive to it,’ she says. ‘And it’s very hard for parents, no matter how devoted or competent they would have been in the past, it’s pretty much impossible for them to adequately care for or protect their children in that environment.’

Coupled with not knowing how long they are going to be on Christmas Island—most of the families had been there between six and nine months—Dr Mares says families are incredibly distressed.

The long-term impactchristmas_island_pic_4

When asked about the long-term impact detention is likely to have on families in detention, Dr Mares quickly points out that it will also be dependent on the experiences these families have encountered before, such as in their former countries and their journey to Australia, and their resilience in dealing with these issues.

‘There is very clear evidence that the longer detention persists, the more harmful it’s likely to be. And that’s not only the direct effects on the children from missing out on key developments they need to have, but also in being exposed to experiences they should be protected from.’

They also run the risk of missing out on crucial periods in early development for laying down basic foundations for language, literacy and play.

‘If kids miss out on that, either because they are deprived of adequate environment or because they’re over-exposed to adult distress, then that really disadvantages kids for the rest of their development,’ Dr Mares says. ‘The longer detention goes on, the worse it is for kids—and that’s because of the impact on the kids and also the impact on their families and caregivers.’


* Department of Immigration and Border Protection: Immigration Detention and Community Statistics, 30 April 2014.

Drawings by children in immigration detention, Christmas Island, courtesy the Australian Human Rights Commission.


A question of law

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way…
– Maiden speech to federal parliament, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, 2008.

Fast-forward six years and the promise in this speech contrasts to his department’s blunt and unsympathetic decree that any asylum seekers who arrive by boat—‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’—will not be settled in Australia. Worse, this also includes babies born in Australia to asylum seeker parents.

This point, says Jacob Varghese, principal of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, is legally flawed. His firm’s social justice practice is fighting to ensure that babies born in Australia to detainee families are not recognised as unauthorised maritime arrivals per the Migration Act.

‘That’s a category created by the Act to cover people who arrived in Australia by boat without a visa, effectively. We say the babies are not in that category because they didn’t arrive by boat, they were born here,’ he says.

Depending on the circumstances of their families, Mr Varghese argues that if they are not unauthorised maritime arrivals, babies born here are either exempt from being sent to Nauru or Manus Island, eligible for a protection visa or, in the case of children born to ‘stateless’ parents, legally entitled to Australian citizenship.

Babies born offshore, Mr Varghese adds, would not fall into any of these categories, as they would be subject to the laws of those countries in which they were born. ‘But we’re not aware of refugee babies being born in those places. The asylum seekers tend to be brought to the mainland if they are pregnant, for care.’

After babies are born here, at around four to six weeks of age, they are then taken to Christmas Island or Nauru, with their families. It’s this current treatment that Maurice Blackburn is fighting to change, starting with the case of ‘Baby Ferouz’.

Ferouz was born in Australia to parents who are stateless, that is no country accepts them as citizens. Mr Varghese’s firm is arguing that as he was born here, Ferouz is not an unauthorised maritime arrival and is therefore entitled to Australian citizenship.

Maurice Blackburn has taken its case to the Federal Circuit Court, which will determine whether or not Baby Ferouz, and 25 other babies now represented by the law firm, are indeed unauthorised maritime arrivals. (The 26 families have been granted permission to stay in Australia until the Ferouz case is heard later this year.)

‘The government will probably rely on a strange thing in the Migration Act, which says if you arrive by sea you’re an unauthorised maritime arrival. Then it goes on to define arrival by sea as meaning arrival by any means other than arriving by aircraft. We say that’s not effective.

‘We say the legislation only defines some of the circumstances in which someone can arrive by sea, but the words “arrive by sea” have to have some meaning—and being born here does not fall within any natural meaning of those words.

‘If the court says the babies are not unauthorised maritime arrivals, that should apply to everyone. It should stop each of the babies getting sent to Nauru, in the short-term, and the next step will be working out what each of them can do next in terms of trying to settle in Australia—and get out of detention on Christmas Island.’

If the case of Ferouz is successful in the courts, other babies born here have a potentially brighter future, depending on their circumstances. ‘We think those who are stateless will have a good claim for citizenship, and those that are not stateless, if they are at risk of persecution, will have a good claim for a protection visa.’

No place for children

In terms of what he’d like to see changed, Mr Varghese has a few priorities. ‘The number-one priority is that the government shouldn’t allow kids to go to Nauru, or Manus Island,’ he says. ‘The United Nations inspectors who saw it last year said it wasn’t a fit place for children and that the conditions are inhumane.’christmas_island_pic_6

Next he wants to see children out of detention on Christmas Island. Having spent time there, Mr Varghese says it is not a suitable place for babies, though admits some alternatives are worse. ‘Christmas Island is terrible for babies,’ he says, ‘but Nauru, as far as we can tell, is worse.

‘Christmas Island has very sparse medical services, certainly no specialist medical services, and there’s not a whole lot by the way of social workers or community workers who can visit and advocate and pay attention to these families. If they must be in detention, then detention in Adelaide, Melbourne or Perth would be much better for managing their care.’

Finally, he wants kids out of detention altogether. ‘All the evidence is that detention can do irreparable damage, psychologically and physically. And whatever policy the government wants to pursue in terms of stopping the boats, if it involves treating children in a way that causes them permanent damage, that’s too high a price to pay.’

Unfortunately, legal remedies are pretty constrained and narrow. ‘There is a big gap between what the law can achieve and what ought to happen,’ Mr Varghese says. ‘At this stage, stopping kids going to Nauru is something we think we can do, so we’re focusing on that.

‘In terms of the broader goal of getting kids out of detention, ultimately that’s going to have to involve changes to the law. I think Australians should all understand what is happening. I think the government gets a lot of positive press for stopping the boats, but I don’t know whether Australians appreciate how vicious they are being in order to achieve that outcome, and that the victims include very vulnerable children.’

What services can do

  • Write to your MP (regardless of political affiliation) raising your objections as an educator to detention for children.
  • Hold a fundraiser to raise money and donations of stationery, learning material or toys for organisations like ChilOut (
  • Mention children in detention in your service newsletters so parents
  • become advocates as well.v
  • Celebrate Refugee Week and World Refugee Day, which usually runs mid-June.
  • Get involved with groups who are advocates for detainees.  Visit for those in your area.

(ChilOut is a not-for-profit organisation seeking to increase public awareness by providing accurate information showing what is happening to children inside Australia’s immigration detention facilities.)


One Response to “A system of cruelty”

  1. Editor says:

    The case of Baby Ferouz has been decided by the Australian Federal Circuit Court, which found the baby was indeed an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’, therefore was not entitled to apply for a protection visa. Lawyers for Maurice Blackburn have vowed to continue to fight for Baby Ferouz and the others they represent. See more at:

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