Feature: Mandatory Detention Is Child Abuse
BY SARAH STEPHEN
From Green Left Weekly, June 5, 2002.
The government is responsible for “institutional child abuse”, according to a May report by two Melbourne organisations — the Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace (CCJDP) and the Western Young People's Independent Network.
The paper, titled Damaging Kids, was a submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) national inquiry into children in immigration detention. Initiated in January following a two-week hunger strike at Woomera detention centre, the inquiry begins public hearings this month and will present its findings to federal parliament at the end of the year. More than 200 submissions have already been received.
The CCJDP report is a damning critique of the detention environment, particularly its effects on children. It concludes: “Such abuse has arisen because of the disregard for the human rights of asylum-seeker children by successive Australian governments since 1992. This institutional abuse is a human tragedy which will leave a legacy of scars for a generation because Australia's immigration detention centres further damage children, who have already suffered considerable trauma and persecution in their home countries.
“As adults, they will struggle to come to terms with their compounded suffering. The human cost of the Australian government's violation of the human rights of asylum-seeker children is incalculable. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has shown it uses inappropriate, unprofessional and dangerous means in handling the best interests of the children in its care.”
The CCJDP report cites 264 incidents of self-harm recorded by DIMIA over an eight-month period in 2001, arguing that “rates of self-harming amongst adults is so widespread and high, it can be said that there is a culture of carnage in DIMIA institutions”.
On May 29, immigration minister Philip Ruddock announced his department had made a 208-page submission to the HREOC inquiry, detailing the facilities available at detention centres. Ruddock argued: “My department's submission clearly shows Australia meets its duty of care to those in detention, including children.
“For example, education programs and activities have been enhanced across the centres and amenities have been improved. Children now spend more time outside the detention facility with more trips and excursions and a greater number of children are participating in outside schooling options.”
But the only “improvements” to the appalling conditions in the detention centre is the superficial make-over which has taken place at the Woomera and Curtin detention centres in advance of a UN visit.
The immigration department's submission states that it “aims to provide education services which are generally comparable with that provided in the community”.
The May 13 Sydney Morning Herald reported that, according to documents obtained from the minister, teenagers aged from 13 to 17 are taught for just one hour per day, four days a week — hardly comparable with education received by Australian children. NSW education department CEO Ken Boston, told the SMH: “There are 26 young people [in Villawood detention centre] of school age, most of them illiterate, many who have never been to school… They're on Australian soil, and a world-class education is literally on the other side of the fence.”
The Damaging Kids report cites the case of a woman and her three children who spent nine-and-half months in Maribyrnong detention centre. She had a protracted battle with the immigration department to arrange for her four-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to attend school outside the detention centre. The son, who speaks English fluently, was offered only correspondence schooling or the option to participate in daily English classes. Through his mother's persistence, he was eventually permitted to attend the local school.
The report quotes WA inspector of custodial services Richard Harding's recounting of his visit to Curtin a year ago: “A glossy brochure indicated that children were receiving five hours' [education]. In reality they were receiving one hour's education. Teaching took place between 9 and 10am … The so-called `education program' was largely a charade though doubtless five hours' full education was being paid for … by the Canberra-based `monitors'.”
The immigration department submission argues that it “takes seriously Australia's international human rights obligations, including those contained in the [UN] Convention on the Rights of the Child”. It argues that the best interests of the child are served by keeping children in detention with their families, rather than releasing them alone.
An 18-year-old who had spent four months in Woomera detention centre, told the CCJDP: “It's not just young people that shouldn't be in the detention centres — no one should be there. These people are escaping wars, trying to get a better life and then they are placed in places like Woomera.”
In its submission to the HREOC inquiry, the immigration department states: “It is Australia's sovereign right under international law to determine which non-citizens are admitted or permitted to remain and the conditions under which they can be removed.”
mandatory detention of asylum seekers violates a host of
international agreements and conventions which Australia has
committed to, including:
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed in 1990) which calls for governments to abide by the best interests of the child and to only detain him/her as a measure of last resort;
The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (signed in 1975) which prohibits arbitrarily detaining people;
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (signed in 1954) which prohibits punishing people seeking asylum because they arrive illegally;
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed in 1947), which affirms the right to seek and enjoy asylum as a basic human right; and states that “no-one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”; and
The UNHCR guidelines on the detention of
asylum seekers (adopted in 1999) which says: “The detention
of asylum seekers is in the view of UNHCR inherently
undesirable” and “Minors who are asylum seekers should not
While the government has not made any of these provisions part of Australian law, many condemn the government's utter hypocrisy in paying lip-service to human rights while violating the very agreements which set out what those rights mean.
Asylum seekers have committed no crime. If anyone should be locked up for violating international law, it should be Prime Minister John Howard and Ruddock. They could do with a dose of mandatory detention.
From Green Left Weekly, June 5, 2002.