A horizon of high gates, barbed wire, and electrified fences, this is the reality for children in Australia’s immigration detention. Their horizons are not the sunburnt landscapes that Dorothea Mackellar spoke of in her famous poem describing Australia – a nation that so many desperate families have fled to – but the walls of a prison. While the Government has announced that children are no longer held in mainland detention, many are still facing enormous risks.
On the 3rd of April, Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton announced that all children were now out of immigration detention – a massive win for the affected people and the of state human rights in Australia. While the Minister’s announcement should be welcomed there are reportedly 40 children still at Nauru (not to mention claims that it was merely a change in the definition of detention, rather than the complete release of children)[v]. It was further clouded by claims that up to 90 children, currently, in Australia, could now face being sent to Nauru[vi].
In October of 2015 the AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission) sent representatives to Wickham Point Detention Centre (an immigration detention centre about 40km from Darwin) to monitor the health and well-being of children detained there. Conditions in the facility were found to be unsuitable for children and testing conducted by two consultant paediatricians showed that children detained there were all in the two highest categories of developmental risk and at extremely high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder[i].
Professor Elizabeth Elliott is a paediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and a professor of paediatrics and child health at the University of Sydney. She was a consultant and contributor for The Forgotten Children (2014) report on children in immigration detention. Along with Dr Hasantha Gunasekera she took part in the 2015 visit to Wickham Point, conducting interviews with detainees.
“Often they became very upset describing their situation at home, the journey to Australia and their situation in the detention centre” Professor Elliott explains. “Many of these people had been there for several years and had moved from Christmas Island to Curtin to Nauru and to Wickham Point”. Nauru is an island country to the north of Australia that is used for ‘off-shore processing’ of asylum seekers and refugees. It has come under strong criticism for its sub-standard conditions and the dangers posed to detainees, including cases of rape and murder.
The memories of being held at Nauru and the thought of being returned there are a prominent fear among the children and parents interviewed. One father describes his time at Nauru “Hell is a hot place and it was hot in Nauru. In hell you have no quality of life. In hell you have people tormenting you.” [ii] Another, a father of a two-year-old spoke of the unthinkable conditions his child was subject to “In Nauru there were all kinds of insects – spiders, scorpion, cockroaches, rats, lizards. Once I found a dangerous spider amongst the toys. Also big crabs – a different type from Christmas Island – under the bed of my child. My child was playing with cockroaches – he had no other toys.”
“The main concerns with these young children and adolescents is their mental health. Many were sad, described crying frequently and had flashbacks of the journey or their time in Nauru – felt physically ill at the thought of going back to Nauru” says Professor Elliott. “[they] really expressed dismay that their education and their lives had been disrupted. They really didn’t have any concept of what the future held”.
The mother of a seven-year-old girl describes her daughter’s anguish “She has no friends. She cries all the time and says I want to go from here. She has cut herself with a razor on her chin, face, chest. She eats poorly, has daily headache and tummy pain and poor weight gain. Every night she wakes up and screams that someone (8 officers) is coming to take her back to Nauru. She has seen a counsellor in Darwin.”[iii]
In the report, there were specific recommendations made for Wickham Point including access to child and adolescent mental health services, better access to food and play equipment and changes to security. But overall the report recommended that all children be immediately released from immigration detention and that under no circumstances should any child be transferred or detained at Nauru[iv]. The well-being and safety of these children are the most important things, as Professor Elliott explains “unless children are taken away from these situations that cause them extreme distress, they are unlikely to get better”.
Australia’s immigration and asylum seeker policy have brought much condemnation from the international community and while Australia may proclaim detainees as ‘unlawful marine arrivals’ human rights law guarantees people the right to seek asylum and the right not to be detained arbitrarily. Furthermore, in March of 2015, in his address to the General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment, Juan Ernesto Mendez stated that “even short-term detention of migrant children is a violation of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment, holding a child’s vulnerability and best interests outweigh the Government’s interest in halting illegal immigration”[vii].
For now, this is a major win in what has been a long battle, it highlights the need for greater access to these facilities by medical professionals and the importance of the role of the AHRC. Asylum seekers and refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world, and we need to ensure that our legacy towards them is not one of cruelty, but one of fairness and compassion.
[i] The health and well-being of children in immigration detention Report to the Australian Human Rights Commission Monitoring Visit to Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, NTOctober 16th – 18th 2015
[ii] The health and well-being of children in immigration detention Report to the Australian Human Rights Commission Monitoring Visit to Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, NTOctober 16th – 18th 2015
[iii] The health and well-being of children in immigration detention Report to the Australian Human Rights Commission Monitoring Visit to Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, NTOctober 16th – 18th 2015
[iv] The health and well-being of children in immigration detention Report to the Australian Human Rights Commission Monitoring Visit to Wickham Point Detention Centre, Darwin, NTOctober 16th – 18th 2015
Feature Image: By DIAC images – Nauru regional processing facility, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24284537