• Open Access

Children in immigration detention: a case of reckless mistreatment


Correspondence to:
Jon Jureidini, Department of Psychological Medicine, Women's and Children's Hospital, Adelaide, South Australia; e-mail: Jon.Jureidini@health.sa.gov.au

As at 20 May 2011, the Immigration Department was detaining 6,729 individuals, mostly asylum seekers who have arrived by boat. Two-thirds of them have already spent more than six months in detention.1

Some 1,645 detainees are held on Christmas Island, in facilities assessed by the Commonwealth ombudsman to be “not sustainable”2 and by the Australian Human Rights Commission as “not an appropriate place in which to hold people in immigration detention”.3 The ombudsman recommends that unaccompanied minors or families with children should be processed on the Australian mainland. The Commission recommended stopping the use of Christmas Island altogether. The Department reiterated its commitment to initial processing on Christmas Island.4

In this Journal in 2004, two papers highlighted the dire psychological circumstances of children and families in prolonged immigration detention.5,6 This editorial examines the damage and risk of damage for the current population of immigration detainees. Our focus is children, but no-one should ignore the plight of any person in prolonged incarceration. About 60% of asylum seekers, most of them male, are held in immigration detention centres on Christmas Island, in remote mainland areas and in Darwin, Sydney and Melbourne. The Christmas Island detention centre is grossly over-crowded, with a standard operating capacity of 400, a surge capacity of 800. In May 2011 it held 1,612 people. The Human Rights Commission found poor and unhygienic amenities in the detention centre. (“They were required to drink water out of the bathroom taps, which had a sign above them saying, ‘Do not drink this water’.”)

The Commission raised concerns about excessive security measures in detention centres in both 2009 and 2010, noting that the “use of maximum security environment to detain virtually all single adult males is … inconsistent with the Government's policy”.

Children in detention

Children are still subjected to mandatory detention, in breach of Australia's obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and despite the fact that in 2005 the Migration Act was amended to affirm “as a principle” that a minor should only be detained as a measure of last resort.7

There are more children in immigration detention in early 2011 than ever before. In September 2001, at the height of the condemned Howard/Ruddock regime, there were 842 children in detention; in May 2011 there were 1,082.8 More than 30% of these children are unaccompanied minors; most have been in detention for more than six months.9 Their plight remains a particular concern. A 16-year-old described the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation as “worse than Christmas Island”, with 100 teenage boys displaying depression, despair and self-harm.10

By law, the Minister for Immigration is the legal guardian of unaccompanied minors; under the Migration Act he is, in effect, their jailer. The two roles are irreconcilable. Despite the appointment of case managers and independent observers to oversee unaccompanied minors, the Human Rights Commission is not satisfied that the best interests of unaccompanied minors are being adequately respected.

As at May 2011, more than 600 children under 16 years of age were being detained; 226 of them were preschoolers.11 No children are in designated detention centres, but by May 2011 only around 25% of children were in the community in ordinary dwellings without guards. Prime Minister Gillard announced last year that all children would be housed in the community by July 2011, but this did not happen. Most children are still incarcerated in “alternative places of detention”.

For many months, more than 200 children were detained on Christmas Island at the Construction Camp, described by the Human Rights Commission as “a low security detention facility”. It is over-crowded. Like its mainland equivalents, although surrounded by residential-style fence, it remains a detention facility where detainees are not free to come and go. Children have limited opportunities to play. There are no open grassy areas, very few indoor recreation spaces. It is claustrophobic, with significant restrictions on movement. The Commission reported a lack of privacy, with nowhere to secure belongings and limited access to telephones and interpreters. Up to 90 people share one shower. Families with young children are often detained close to unaccompanied minors or adults. By contrast, at Inverbrackie in the Adelaide Hills, families live in independent dwellings, though often shared with others.

Even in the less crowded mainland Alternative Places of Detention, families are suffering. There are reports from Villawood of prolonged detention of young children in developmentally inappropriate circumstances and separation of families from their fathers. 12 While the detention environment 10 years ago was different, with children exposed to much higher levels of conflict, violence and self-harm, we are beginning to see the emergence of the same severe psychiatric disturbances that we saw then. There are reports from Darwin of children under the age of 10 self-harming,13 and we are beginning to see infants with severe separation anxiety, adolescents with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and parents who have lost the capacity to care adequately for their children. Whether or not this is widespread within immigration detention we cannot yet say, but it would be surprising if it were not.

According to the Department, alternative detention is “markedly different to that in a regular detention centre”.14 The basis of that distinction is not clear. Families complain about the lack of freedom; all movement is controlled by guards who are constantly present.15 It is hardly surprising that incarceration, even in pleasant surroundings, is antithetical to optimal mental health.

Other sources of distress associated with alternative detention include the increasing concentration of people who feel hopeless: those whose cases proceed smoothly are able to move on. This leaves behind those who have experienced visa refusals, and who eventually sink into hopelessness and despair. Children see other families come and go and cannot see why they are being treated negatively. Detainees are subject to intrusive headcounts during the night. This can involve guards knocking on the door to confirm verbally that detainees are present, or entering without permission at any time to conduct a visual headcount or for other reasons.

The Department boasts that “supervised excursions outside the facility are considered by Serco on a case-by-case basis”16 yet detainees report that these outings are extremely limited. One man told us of being taken to a local shopping area with six other detainees and seven guards. The guards asserted their authority over the detainees frequently, for example, dictating where they could and could not sit. The informant felt humiliated by the guards’ behaviour which drew attention to his lack of freedom of movement.

Barriers to clinical intervention

The well-being of all immigration detainees is overseen by the Department and two other agencies. The Department contracts out security and infra-structure services to Serco, a company whose listed ‘main activities’ include detaining offenders but not caring for asylum seekers.17 The Department also contracts International Medical and Health Services (IMHS) to manage the health of detainees.18 One consequence of this structure is that no organisation takes full responsibility for the mental health of detainees. Court cases arising out of the Howard years are characterised by the various service providers seeking to shift blame to each other in the face of the most appalling failures of proper care.

As well as contracting out health services to IMHS, the Department also enters into agreements with State and other health providers to supplement IMHS's resources. In these cases IMHS acts as an intermediary between specialist medical staff and the Department. This arrangement directly harms patients. Clinicians who attempt to work with children and families affected by immigration policy encounter a system in which they have little power. When told that the practice of entering at night for headcounts was causing significant psychological damage to one traumatised family, IMHS acknowledged its inappropriateness but failed to persuade Serco or the Department to alter the practice.

Under the current system, independent psychiatrists have sometimes judged that patients in alternative detention have needed to be transferred urgently to community detention on mental health grounds. In each case, the ability to discuss these mental health concerns was compromised by the organisational structure within immigration detention. The primary decision-maker in such cases is the Department case manager, but the independent psychiatrist is not permitted to know who the case manager is. All communication has to be through IMHS. The case for giving priority to a particular family for removal to community detention is usually complex and it is rare that a simple report will satisfy the authorities. In these circumstances, misunderstandings are almost inevitable. Having a third party standing between a clinician and immigration officials heightens these difficulties, and delays or defeats effective action.

Current arrangements are not consistent with the Human Rights Commission's view that the delivery of mental health services for people in immigration detention requires “rigorous independent monitoring”.

Ethics of deterrence

Under the Howard government, the harm to children and their caregivers went beyond passive failure of the State to protect children from individual acts of abuse and neglect. Despite increasing evidence of the adverse mental health consequences for detainees, the system was justified by politicians on the grounds that it acted as a deterrent to further attempted migration. It “sent a strong message”. A causal relationship between Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seeker adults and children and decreasing number of boat arrivals is politically seductive but has not been demonstrated.19 But even if harsh treatment were demonstrably effective as a deterrent, State policies that cause foreseeable harm to innocent people are a gross breach of human rights: asylum seekers do not break any law by coming here. Calling them “illegals” may be effective politically, but it is inaccurate. Even assuming that harsh treatment of asylum seekers acts as a deterrent, it is unethical to mistreat innocent people in order to achieve another objective.

Recently, the rhetoric of deterrence has re-emerged. Tony Abbott led the way, when he took over leadership of the Coalition. This is surprising, given that he trained for the priesthood, and mistreatment of the innocent is plainly contrary to Christian teaching.

The rhetoric has recently shifted to “breaking the people smugglers’ business model”. Doubtless, many people smugglers are mercenary and callous, but they do help save lives and they are performing a service that refugees are desperate to have. It is worth recalling that Oskar Schindler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the captain of the St Louis, Gustav Schroeder, were all people smugglers. Ironically, willingness to use a people smuggler is probably the clearest mark of sincerity among asylum seekers. Attacking people smugglers is simply a proxy for attacking refugees: politicians know that without people smugglers there will be no refugees.

We do not argue that informal arrivals should be released straight away into the community. Every nation is entitled to detain informal arrivals for health and security checks. However, initial detention should be limited to one month, subject to extension by a court in a particular case. After the initial detention, asylum seekers should be released into the community, on conditions calculated to ensure that they remain available for processing their protection claim, and for removal if that claim fails.

Leaving aside humanitarian and ethical arguments, there is a strong economic argument for changing the current system. With detention costs of the order of $1,500 per day per detainee, and 6,000 detainees being processed at present, release into the community and swifter processing would save tens of millions of dollars in detention costs, and would avert the future cost of repairing, or compensating for, the foreseeable mental harm inflicted by the present system.


The present system of indefinite mandatory detention seriously harms many of the people subjected to it. The harm is predictable and foreseeable. We are still dealing with the legacy of psychiatric harm caused during the Howard years. The system will cause similar damage, and cost Australia an immense amount financially. At the same time, it damages our national reputation and, more importantly, it scars our national conscience.