Last year, Australia marked the 20-year anniversary of the adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child but with 1,048* children currently in immigration detention, there is little to celebrate. Ingrid Maack reports.

Australians watched in horror last December as we saw televised images of a boatload of refugees swept into the sea off Christmas Island.

Many of us were outraged when we heard of the fate of eight-year-old Seena Akhlaqi Sheikhdost, the orphan boy who, having witnessed his mother and father drown, was returned to Christmas Island the day after his parent’s funeral, instead of being released to family members living in Sydney.

At the time, few of us knew that there were in fact record numbers of children being held in Australia’s detention facilities. In January this year, the numbers peaked at 1,065—more than under the former governments of John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

At last count, there were 1,048* children in detention. And while they are no longer accommodated in high-security Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs), they are housed in other forms of secure detention on Christmas Island, in Darwin, Leonora, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth.

A lesson unlearned

In 2005, after public outcry and agitation from his own backbench, Prime Minster John Howard released asylum seeker children from IDCs into community accommodation and amended the Migration Act to include the principle that ‘children should only be detained as a measure of last resort’.

This change in policy was welcomed at the time by refugee advocates and mental health professionals who had long voiced their concerns about the damaging effects of detaining children.

Despite all this, the detention of children has continued. Indeed, it has escalated.

So how, for a time, did Australia’s return to incarcerating children escape public attention?

How to hide a human rights scandal

According to Kate Gauthier, chair of Chilout (, the issue had largely flown under the radar thanks to the clever wording of our politicians.

The first hint the public had that there were children in detention was in October last year following the announcement by the newly-elected Labor Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, that some families and unaccompanied minors would be moved out of immigration facilities into community- based accommodation by June 2011.

Earlier, Minister Bowen had told the ABC’s Q&A program that: ‘There are no children in detention as such, so there’s no children behind razor wire’. The comments outraged Ms Gauthier, who told Rattler the Government was ‘pulling a swifty’ on the public and ‘playing a game with words’.

Children might not be held behind razor wire but their confinement is obvious, she argues.

‘They have taken this one little word to imply a whole range of changes. As though the absence of razor wire alone can make detention humane or acceptable.

Again… I would remind people that Baxter Detention Centre (now closed), which was a high-security facility did not use razor wire. And Villawood has had no razor wire since Amanda Vanstone was Minister.’

A mother, former news producer and one-time immigration policy advisor to the Democrats, Ms Gauthier is chair of Children in detention is clearly child abuse.

If any other person put their child into that environment, it would be called abuse. If there was a day care centre where children were denied access to a play area, and the play area was nothing but dirt… where there was no shade, and children were allowed access to toys only one hour a week, not only would it be shut down but the people in charge would be arrested,’ Ms Martin–Iverson told Rattler.

A spokesperson for the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN), Ms Martin– Iverson travelled 800 kilometres with a group of 30 activists on the ‘Caravan of Compassion’ to meet with detainees, stage a peaceful protest and deliver toys. The detention facility, located in a disused mining camp in the WA gold mining town of Leonora, was first opened in June 2010 to ease overcrowding at Christmas Island.

Disturbed by the conditions she saw, Ms Martin–Iverson describes the facility as akin to ‘a third world concentration camp’ and the worst she has ever visited.

Speaking to Rattler, she paints a grim picture of what life is like for children and families in Leonora.

‘This is a hostile environment. It is hot, dusty and the guards are aggressive.’

‘As we walked through toward the visiting area, mothers were pushing up against the fences shoving their hands through the mesh. Staff at the centre had tried to block us off by hanging black material over the fences, but the detainees were trying to hand us notes and letters.

The guards warned us: “You talk to anybody but the lady who you are here to talk to and you are out of here”.’ Unlike urban detention centres where detainees are regularly visited, she fears the isolation of Leonora has allowed for ‘a culture of abuse to flourish’.

She claims RRAN has been contacted by people held in the centre with allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.

‘What we have is a situation where guards are responsible for managing the daily lives of children and their families. ‘The parent’s role as caregiver is taken over by what is effectively a penal system.

She says Serco* [the private contractor hired by the Government to run detention centres] is first and foremost a security company.

‘It is run like a penal system—it is not set up to support children and families.’

At Leonora, parents are not allowed to cook for their families or walk their children to and from school.

‘Imagine you are a child, and you are living in a detention facility. Your school is only two and a half blocks away but your parents can’t walk you to school.

Every morning you are piled into a bus and driven those two blocks with guards.

‘At the detention facility, you do not have free access to the playground and soccer pitch. Guards escort you to those areas and watch you play. There is no shade.

‘As a parent, you don’t have any control over what food is served and you don’t have the activity of cooking or cleaning for your family.

‘There are no cooking facilities in the demountables. You are not allowed a broom or cleaning supplies because you could use them as weapons.’

Ms Martin–Iverson explained that one of the purposes of the Caravan of Compassion visit to Leonora in January was to deliver $2,000 worth of donated toys to children.

‘Understanding the conflicts that these children have come from, we knew many would be traumatised and have experienced loss. We wanted to ensure there was a comfort item—a blanket or stuffed toy—for every child there.

However, they were on the receiving end of extreme hostility from Serco officials, who refused to distribute the toys.

‘I spent four months harassing Serco and in the end had to threaten legal action. Their argument was that they were going to create a toy library for all families to access. My argument was that if you do not understand the difference between a child owning and loving their own stuffed toy, and taking it to bed with them each night, and going into a building where they can sit and hold that toy for one hour a week, then you are not a fit person to have a child of your own, much less be in control of anyone else’s child.’

She says the majority of the asylum seekers at Leonora are Afghans with others from Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

‘These people are fleeing oppressive regimes or war zones. They are traumatised.

Many have seen family members killed… And look at the environments in which we place these unfortunate lost souls and children!

‘As a visitor, over time, you watch people fall apart. One father who spoke with us, said: “Our ten year olds are like six year olds, our six year olds are like three year olds, our three year olds are like babies.

‘Another parent told us: “Our children are wetting their beds, they’re telling us they want to die”.

‘The children who come out of these environments are never the same. It is not even controversial to say that Australia’s detention centres are mental illness factories… We are damaging already damaged people.’

Chilout, a group of concerned parents and citizens which was formed more than a decade ago and recently revived.

She explains that many of the Government’s ‘Alternative Places of Detention’ (APODs), such as the Asti Hotel in Darwin, are not purpose-built for housing people for long periods, but that families are detained there for up to six months while awaiting visa processing and security clearance.

Due to the heat, children and families spend most of their days indoors and the car park where children play has no shade and no grass, she says.

‘They are fenced in and watched over by guards. Some children are now going to school (after months of waiting) but not children under five. These three and four year olds have few toys and no organised educational resources or activities. There is no playgroup, no early childhood education and there is nowhere for them to play.

‘Would you like to play in a baking hot, Northern Territory car park? And as a parent, can you imagine being stuck in a hotel room with a two-year-old child for months on end?

‘We are talking about families who have been through trauma. These children may have witnessed family members taken away at night or killed. We are not talking about children who have a normal level of emotional resilience.’ Children over 15 are not sent to school but have some on-site English lessons. Adults, however, have little recreation, she explains.

‘This is further impacted by what we call “anticipatory trauma”. They don’t know when their visa case will be heard and whether they will be sent home.

They have nothing to do but sit and fret.’

Who are the people in these detention facilities?

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, they include: ‘babies, toddlers, young children, unaccompanied teenagers, pregnant women, parents who have lost children, and children who have lost parents.’

The Australian Human Rights Commission has also voiced concerns about the impact of detention facilities on the health, education and psychological needs of children. Representatives have visited detention facilities in both Darwin and at Leonora in Western Australia.

Commission president Catherine Branson QC, visited the Asti Hotel in September last year, and released a statement in which she outlined her concerns about the consequence of ‘prolonged and indefinite’ detention on people’s mental health.

She said the Commission had met with detainees, including children who had been traumatised by events in their home country or who had attempted self-harm while in these facilities.

Sadly, we know from recent history that detention of children can cause serious mental illness and depressive disorders in children.

Monash University Professor of Psychiatry, Professor Louise Newman, has been campaigning for better health for asylum seekers for more than a decade. She also chairs an independent health group (Detention Health Advisory Group) advising the Immigration Department.

Professor Newman told Rattler she is seeing many of the same sorts of mental health issues amongst teens and children as she did in what she describes as the ‘dark days of Woomera and Baxter’.

‘Teenagers are displaying anger, frustration, depression, self-harming behaviours and signs of post-traumatic stress.

Many children show signs of developmental delays because they have been under-stimulated by the environment.

She says anyone who works with children or in child protection knows how important a child’s first three years of life are.

‘Children require stimulation, emotional direction and well-adjusted parents, but mandatory detention is a system that undermines that.

‘These are the children of stressed and often depressed parents. It is not just the child that suffers it is the entire family unit—and it can last for years.’ Sadly, she is still treating children who were at Woomera when they were young and have ongoing psychological problems.

While she welcomes Minister Bowen’s proposed release of children, families and unaccompanied minors into the community, Professor Newman says the concern is the time this has taken and that for many the ‘damage has already been done’.

‘We are urging the government to move as quickly as possible,’ she says.

Out of sight but not out of mind

As we now know, from the current number of children in detention, even the best of intentions of a Government are reversible.

There are growing calls to formally legislate against the detention of children, by amending the Migration Act, to ensure the incarceration of children doesn’t continue.

As George Williams, Professor of Law at the University of NSW, recently wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Australian law leaves the detention of asylum seeker children to government and the political process. This is a matter of great concern: the protection of children should be put beyond the politics of the day.

‘The law should be changed to respect the rights of vulnerable children while their claim to refugee status is assessed. It should ensure that children are detained as a last, and not first resort, and then only for a limited time at a place appropriate to their needs and age.’

Part of Chilout’s role is to lobby Government on the children in detention issue, but Ms Gauthier says her efforts have fallen largely on deaf ears.

‘Many politicians don’t want to rock the boat. They like to pretend that the detention of children is not happening.

When you say you’re imprisoning thousands of children they become very uncomfortable.

‘These are often parents themselves … but what they are doing is child abuse. It is not our job to make them feel better because they are engaging in institutional child abuse. They have the power to stop this and they don’t!’

Australia has a poor track record when it comes to institutional child abuse, and as Ms Gauthier says, the Government may one day find itself apologising to this group of children or faced with a class action.

‘Given we know what happened with Aboriginal children, and we know what happened with the child orphans from Great Britain… now we have a third wave of children. It’s happening right now, right under our noses.’

The story so far

Australia currently holds 1,048* children (aged under 18 years) in immigration detention.

  • Of these 1,048 children, 156 are detained in the community under residence determinations, 742 in alternative temporary detention, 24 in immigration residential housing and 126 in immigration transit accommodation. 658 of those children are detained on Christmas Island.
  • An Australian record of 1,065 children was reached in January 2011— higher than the numbers under the governments of John Howard and Kevin Rudd
  • Almost half of the children in detention arrived without their parents. Many of these unaccompanied minors are war orphans.
  • According to DIAC figures, 98 per cent of unaccompanied minors are boys.
  • Of the 658* people in detention on Christmas Island, 242* are children. Here, women and children live in the ‘Construction Camp’.
  • While school-age children (5–15) attend school, no child under five has access to an early childhood program while in detention.
  • Children who are aged 16 and 17 do not go to school but get some English tuition within detention facilities. Many miss out.
  • Children are transported to school under guard via bus. Parents are not allowed to walk them to school.
  • Children have only limited access to play areas. Most outdoor play areas lack shade and grass.
  • Children risk significant mental harm the longer they are detained.
  • The Government has said it aims to have the majority of children and family groups out of immigration detention facilities and into community-based accommodation by June 2011. (* According to, Immigration Detention Statistics Summary. Department of Immigration and Citizenship as at 15 April 2011.)

* According to, Immigration Detention Statistics Summary. Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) as at 15 April 2011.
* Serco is now under investigation by a Government-appointed review and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 98, Winter 2011

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