australian human rights commission sydney submission to 2014 national inquiry into children in immigration detention introduction

Australian Human Rights Commission
Sydney
Submission to 2014 National Inquiry into Children in Immigration
Detention
Introduction
My submission documents continuities in asylum seeker detention policy
that have been in place for more than a decade. The purpose is to
demonstrate that despite the harms created from detaining children, we
have not learned from this history.
Documentation referred to in my submission includes:
Extracts from Briskman, L., Latham, S. and Goddard, C. (2008), Human
Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia, Scribe, Melbourne.
Briskman, L.; Zion, D. and Loff, B. (2010), ‘Challenge and collusion:
Health professionals and immigration detention in Australia, The
International Journal of Human Rights, 14(7), pp. 1092-1106).
I also provide brief commentary in relation to children held in
detention on Nauru.
1.
Human Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia
This book arose from the People’s Inquiry into Detention, auspiced by
the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work. In 2008 it
received the Australian Human Rights Commission award for literature
(non-fiction). Excerpts about children (page184-215) are themed into
categories. Those most relevant to the present are:
*
Breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which
Australia is a signatory;
*
Most detained children were eventually granted a visa, creating
unnecessary harm while awaiting this decision;
*
Children witnessed self-harm and suicide attempts;
*
Children engaged in self-harm;
*
Children were diagnosed with mental health conditions;
*
Mental health professionals witnessed children suffering from
mental health conditions;
*
The majority of pre-school children showed delayed developmental
or emotional disturbance;
*
Children witnessed the suffering of their parents;
*
Parenting relationships were severely disrupted in detention;
*
Insufficient or absent child protection strategies;
*
Justification of detention of children as a deterrent to others;
and
*
Difficulties facing pregnant women and new mothers.
Some of the most compelling testimonies to the Inquiry included:
You couldn’t really design an environment more destructive to child
development than immigration detention (Psychiatrist).
I’ve seen babies born and when they are two years old they are not a
normal two-year old child (Detention worker).
I felt like my childhood was being washed away by detention (a boy who
was eleven when detained on Nauru for three years).
A twelve-year old girl who had started bed-wetting (doctor’s letter
presented to the Inquiry).
The older children talked about how sad their parents were and how
hard it was to sit and be with their parents, because of their
depression and lack of hope (refugee advocate).
I remember they took us to a school dance, and cops were everywhere
around us (boy detained on Nauru).
The worst thing, I will never forget it, was people cutting themselves
(boy who spent three years in detention).
The children at school said they were scared of the children from the
‘prison’ (refugee advocate).
The worst thing about it is having friends at school but the only time
you could actually see them was at school (a boy who spent three years
in detention).
He cried continuously, expressing hopelessness about living and
repeatedly telling me that he wanted to kill himself (mental health
nurse speaking of a 16 year old unaccompanied child in detention).
He deserved our protection and our care. Instead he’s now seriously
and perhaps irrevocably damaged by his time in detention and his
experiences within a flawed, destructive system which lacked
compassion and decency (migration agent speaking of a 14 year old
unaccompanied child).
I couldn’t control my son. He tried to hang himself (father).
I was seeing big fights against officers and that was really bad,
those people getting hit, women getting hit, children getting hit (boy
who spent three years in detention).
2.
‘Care or collusion in asylum seeker detention’
This 2010 article explores harmful practices within detention
including the detention of children. In discussing the role played by
health professionals, it relies on the idea of cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment and punishment, consistent with the Convention
Against Torture. The paper draws on statements made by the NSW Council
for Civil Liberties, the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights and an article by a nurse who argued that mandatory
detention damaged children, including the refusal of government to
stop organised and deliberate neglect. Case studies of how the
detention of children manifest in self-harm and suffering are
presented.
3.
The case of Nauru
In an article in The Age written earlier this year, Chris Goddard and
I described the transportation of unaccompanied children to Nauru as
trafficking (see Professor Chris Goddard submission). This is the
second time in ten years that we have taken up the issue of child
detention on Nauru. Our 2004 concerns were particularly prompted by
letters we had read from asylum seekers in Nauru that described the
conditions as imprisonment. In that year we were advised by DIMIA that
child protection matters were of concern to the International
Organisation for Migration (IOM), tasked at that time with holding
people while their claims were processed. We were told that children
were not held in detention but issued with ‘special purpose visas’,
which allowed them to enter and stay there temporarily on certain
conditions.
During a teleconference held with DIMIA staff we were told that asylum
seekers were well looked after and their conditions were significantly
better than 99% of the population of Nauru. We were particularly
concerned by the assertion that the children were better adjusted than
their parents and see life ‘as a holiday’. We were alarmed at
judgments made that ‘some parents use their children as a form of
blackmail by making threats of harm’ and also that ‘the choice is made
by parents to bring the children on dangerous journeys and to keep
them there in the hope that the government will change its position.
If they had the best interests of the children at heart, this is not
what they would do’. DIMIA believed that the IOM handled situations
sensitively. We were also told that the child protection laws of Nauru
covered asylum seeker children.
This same spurious argument is advanced by Save the Children ten years
on. Although publicly stating opposition to the detention of children,
this organisation operates from the belief that children and families
in offshore detention sites benefit from help provided. One of the key
problems is that ‘humanitarian organisations’ require collusion from
the professionals they employ. For social workers (my own profession
and discipline) there is a significant clash of values inherent in
such employment, which is yet to be fully exposed.
A recently released report by independent clinicians that was leaked
to The Guardian documented serious health risks to children in Nauru
detention. Among them is, as Chris Goddard and I raised ten years ago,
that there is no clear protection framework for children inside the
centre and no clarity about child protection checks for Nauruan staff.
Given that expert concerns in 2004 were not resolved, it is impossible
to have faith that the system will alter from the exposure in the
report that not a single stakeholder in the Nauru centre has a clear
child protection policy. The lack of a policy framework includes
unaccompanied minors whose legal guardian duties are performed by Save
the Children.
Human Rights Overboard included testimony about Nauru detention under
the Howard government. Concerns raised included contesting the age of
the children and general concerns about heat, inadequate drinking
water, insufficient food and lack of electricity. The book drew on a
media article that noted that in September 2005, the IOM had warned
the government that asylum seekers remaining on Nauru at that time
were at risk of committing suicide. The situation is even more
worrying now that children are increasingly detained on Nauru. The
messaging from government is likely to have an impact as it did
before. In Human Rights Overboard the description of a visit by a
former Immigration Minister resonates. In the words of a man detained
there:
People are hopeful that he is going to come and show some sympathy.
All the women and children went outside in that scorching weather to
welcome him. He doesn’t even say hello to us, he just tells us that we
will try our best to get you out of this country, because you are the
people who came by window.
Conclusion
As a human rights academic with a social work background, I am deeply
troubled that the Australian government has not learned from recent
history. I can only conclude that it does not care to learn and that
deterrence policies override humanitarian and moral positions.
Although beyond the scope of this submission, there are further
continuities between past and present in the way pregnant women,
babies, toddlers, school age children and unaccompanied minors
experience detention. Others have documented these concerns. In
conclusion, the Australian government has created harsh and uncertain
futures by punishing children and breaching human rights norms.
Regrettably, it has convinced many decent Australians that this is
justifiable.
Linda Briskman
Professor of Human Rights
Swinburne University of Technology
14 June, 2014
The Swinburne Institute for Social Research
Mail H53
PO Box 218 Hawthorn
Victoria 3122 Australia
Telephone +61 3 9214 8825
Facsimile +61 3 9819 5349
http://www.sisr.net

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