The other day Richard Tonkin asked Marilyn Shepherd what happened to sole children in detention. This piece – the first in a series and a companion piece to Mustafa– is Marilyn's response to that question.
by Marilyn Shepherd
In 1998 Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Chris Sidoti, investigated all of Australia’s detention centres in response to many complaints from the refugees detained. This was pre-Woomera and the following is one of the case studies which should have alerted the minister in 1999 to enormous problems for those children who were forced to come alone.
Two Cambodian brothers aged 16 and 18 arrived in Australia in June 1990 on a boat code-named the Collie and were held in Port Hedland until October 1995 when they were released on bridging visas pending their protection claims being determined.
They had arrived as unaccompanied minors and in 1997 they told Mr Sidoti:
Port Hedland is a very isolated place. The detention centre is near the ocean and there are high fences all around the outside of the building, separating the centre from the rest of the world. It is a very quiet place with dead trees and grass..when we first got to Port Hedland we did enjoy it a bit, it was a big place and we could see the big blue sky. This was better than the small building we were locked in at Darwin.
After the first few months at Port Hedland my brother and I started to feel bored and nervous. We were nervous as we didn’t know what would happen in the future.
In the last year of my detention in Port Hedland I was in a very bad state emotionally. Most nights I would lie in bed feeling nervous wondering about what would happen to us. We had not heard anything for a long time about our court case and felt that we could be deported any day. Our sleep was also disturbed by the guards checking on us every night. They would open the door and make sure everyone was asleep in their rooms.
During the last couple of months of the five and a half years we spent in detention we were really depressed as we heard the Australian government was going to send us back to Cambodia.
Mentally we were sick and we had no lawyers and no-one else we could talk to about how we felt. I was so depressed at that time I had nightmares every night. I also had headaches from worrying about what might happen to us and these would last for days. Things would upset me easily, I could not control my emotions and my anger.
I took medicine like sleeping pills and anti-depressants for my problems, but this didn’t help me. I took medication every night for the last few months I was in detention. I was bored and nervous as I didn’t know what would happen.
The brothers were granted bridging visas only after the Indochina Refugee Association legal proceedings against the department in the Federal court on the basis they were being detained unlawfully. The matter was settled out of court by the issuing of the visas and it is very important to remember they were legally children when they arrived.
Subject to health and security checks the brothers were granted protection visa in 1998.
Mr Gerry Hand of the ALP was the minister during this episode and he was later appointed by Minister Ruddock as a member of the purportedly independent Advisory group to “advise” the minister.
From 1999 when Woomera was commissioned over 200 unaccompanied children passed through the system. As we began our legal representation of the people in Woomera, we discovered that many were suffering just like the Cambodia boys, but so far none have been imprisoned as long as they were.
The difference has been to have a constant presence near the centre, where Port Hedland had no-one near it.
In November 2001 Commissioner Sev Ozdowski announced that he would conduct the countries most far reaching investigation into children in detention, with a particular focus on the 53 minors who had come alone.
At that time there were 582 children in detention in Australia, many had been detained with their parents for about 2 years and were in the process of filing claims to the federal court or in the process of going home.
Dr Ozdowski told the Age when he called the inquiry:
I have been concerned for some time about the mental health of the children in detention centres. I do not believe the system at this time provides the best protection for children.
I was hearing plenty of allegations of inappropriate use of force against young people in riot situations and I hear of people being put in isolation cells and police lock-ups.
The most challenging case for me was that of a young Afghan boy, 8 years old who was wandering for half a year without a proper guardian and without proper care in Woomera.
The minister welcomed the enquiry and promised to co-operate constructively. His spokesperson said:
We are not happy with children in detention but we are not the ones that have brought them to Australia. I hope the enquiry will look at the motivation of people who sent children alone on boats. I believe some of the unaccompanied children had been deliberately sent by their parents to establish refugee claims.
The enquiry was to examine:
1. If Australia’s detention of children is in breach of its international obligations to the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child.
2. How detention affects the mental health and long-term development of children.
3. The adequacy of detention conditions, including education, culture and security practices.
4. Alternatives to detention and an assessment of the Woomera trial of community based detention of women and children.
In the Australian on 29th November 2001, Minister Ruddock reiterated the claims of blackmail by parents of minors sent alone:
One of the reasons we have large numbers of unaccompanied minors in Australia is that people are desirous of getting young family members out into situations where they might be able to settle and eventually claims might be made for a migration outcome based on the Convention on the rights of the child.
In terms of winding back or undermining the mandatory detention arrangements for people who are unauthorised border arrivals we will not allow that to occur.
We believe the arrangements we have in place meet our international obligations.
Ms Julia Gillard, opposition spokesperson on immigration, welcomed the enquiry and said of the minister’s claims of the children being sent deliberately to establish claims
I urge the minister if he has evidence of this to ensure it is placed on the public record before the enquiry so that in future we can take action to ensure children in the future are not used that way.
Also in November 2001 Ms Barbara Rogalla, a former nurse at Woomera, and Trish Highfield, a Sydney childcare specialist, delivered a paper at a conference to the World Organisation Against Torture in Tampere, Finland.
Torture at Woomera was the mental suffering of children in the course of day to day life inside. Torture does not remain hidden and the Australian experience is no exception. Detained children are subjected to severe pain and suffering based on discrimination inflicted with the consent or acquiescence of the Government.
Routine awakening by the guards during random night patrols, including the flashing of torches and the repeating of the children’s names can lead to children developing fears about sleeping. One father told me his child would resist being put to bed and would often collapse exhausted, only to wake screaming with nightmares.
Shayan Badraie suffered severe depression and stopped eating after prolonged detention at Woomera and then Villawood. The clue to Shayan’s torture is the interplay of the medical treatment and detention imperatives, where eating and drinking in hospital meant he was well enough to return to detention. Inside detention he would stop eating and be re-admitted to the hospital.
Government policy of the mandatory detention of children ensured that Shayan would receive treatment without ever getting well because detention reactivated his condition.
The Sydney Morning Herald in the weekend of 15/16 December carried stories of some of the children, and further reports from specialists in child care and advocates for refugees and asylum seekers.
The minister had been to Geneva to attempt to convince the world to follow his policies of deterrence and mandatory detention for all asylum seekers.
In an article titled Barbed Wire Playground, Tony Stephens interviewed Ms Jacquie Everitt who is working towards a master in international law and is a refugee advocate, who said:
Some come on battered boats, others by air. Most children who arrive in Australia are part of a family, but sometimes they are alone pushed into the hands of people smugglers by parents desperate to buy them a chance of safety in another land. Many arrive seriously traumatised.
Is there any other country prepared to lock up, open-endedly, children who have not been charged with any crime? These children who have already made a frightening and perilous journey to get to Australia are possibly already among the most traumatised children in the world, have their trauma compounded by being taken to a forbidding place and locked behind razor wire, their rights neatly incised.
They are out of sight of the Australian people. If we don’t see them, we don’t know they are human. They can’t be real.
It’s an irony that Australian law provides for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by professionals – and mandatory locking up of child asylum seekers. We call both these practices government policy. One protects, the other destroys.
These children are suffering behind the wire at the hands of government policy. Just think of the wasted humanity.