Children in immigration detention: Worse than Guantanamo Bay?

| September 3, 2014

There is mounting evidence that children in immigration detention are subject to appalling physical and mental maltreatment. Angela Beresford speculates about the political motives of the Australian Government.

When she was in London earlier this year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was asked if Australia’s overseas detention centres were inhumane, uncivilised and perhaps worse than Guantanamo Bay.

With more than 700 children still imprisoned within these detention centres, this question remains imperative.

Children in immigration detention endure abysmal living conditions and physical and mental maltreatment. Nowhere is this exemplified more than in the plethora of evidence that has emerged from the current ‘National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention’. Living conditions are described as hot, cramped and unhygienic; ‘prison-like’ environments . And, according to internationally respected paediatrician, Professor Elliot, children are sick with acute respiratory infections. Perhaps more disturbing Psychiatrist Dr Young revealed 128 cases in 15 months of children self-harming, drinking poison and banging their heads.

This all implores the question of legality. The Australian Government is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) (1989) which both stipulate how these children should be treated. Not surprisingly, The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found Australia guilty of almost 150 violations of international law and of inflicting psychological harm that amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The Australian Association of Social Workers asserts that mandatory detention of children contravenes our commitment under the CROC and represents a fundamental abuse of human rights. Essentially, mandatory detention of children does not equate to any human rights or freedoms; or dignity, equality or respect.

Astonishingly, the Department of Immigration and Border Control steadfastly asserts that it operates within the central principles of international law and takes its human rights obligations and responsibilities seriously. However, it admits there is a recognised code within international law that States ‘enjoy’ a margin of appreciation as to how. The department also explains that it complies with The Migration Act 1958 to manage the efficient entry and settlement of people to Australia, but also enforces the detention and exclusion of unlawful non-citizens.

It appears that the Government ‘enjoys’ a deliberate oversight or loop hole in international legislation which allows it to treat children perhaps worse than prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This begs the question why? Minister Julie Bishop, in London, defended the Government’s position, saying that it needed to end people smuggling that had, to date, claimed 1200 lives in the dangerous ocean between Indonesia and Australia. This was the allegory that the Abbott Government took to the 2013 election, to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘save’ the children from perishing at sea. As well, a relentless inference to asylum seekers being ‘illegal’ meant that the public bought into a military-style, no advantage, Sovereign Borders policy.

That is an implicit political agenda more akin to a harsh, repressive and punitive neoliberal and paternalistic regime, cognisant with the broader ideology of governance, surveillance and national security, entitled Sovereign Borders. It is a policy where children are actually exploited in order to forewarn prospective asylum seekers of what to expect in Australia. This is evident, far more than saving the children, in Abbotts “We decide who comes to Australia” comments.

Interestingly, there are now talks regarding ‘releasing some of the children’. But why now? Is it that the Government cares that these children are in detention, perhaps worse than Guantanamo Bay? Or, with an election only 18 months away, has the Abbott Government finally realised that this is actually a political hot potato?



  1. sim2694

    March 17, 2015 at 5:55 am

    Children in detention centres

    One would think that the mental health of immigrant children in Australia’s detention centers would be a priority for Australian immigration officials, however this does not present as factual. Burying statistics, not publishing or presenting data are some of the things that medical directors, working for the immigration department, have been asked to do (Asia News Monitor, 2014). As at 31 December 2014 Australia held 333 children in mandatory closed immigration detention centers for an indefinite period of time (Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection, 2014). There appears to be no rational explanation for keeping these children detained, as it has not deterred people smugglers or asylum seekers, the only thing that is evident is the increasing amount of mental illness disorders amongst these children (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (1989) states that, the detention of a child must only be a measure of last resort and the length of time should be the shortest possible time period. The time of detainment should allow for health, identity and security checks to be completed, and once this is done children should be moved to a more suitable environment (Asia News Monitor, 2014). Children who are being kept in these detention centers are denied these basic rights, as the immigration department is failing to act in the best interest of the child (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). The best interest of the child should be the primary concern for any department who is working with children, however this does not seem to be the case for immigration officials (Cipri, 2013). Immigration officials claim that children are well cared for in detention centers, but to whose standards (Asia News Monitor, 2014)? In response to this many insiders state that the system has been designed to harm people so that they will want to return to where they came from (Metherell, 2014). Children who have travelled to Australia seeking asylum with their families have already been through traumatic experiences, and are therefore more vulnerable to mental health issues, and then by placing them in detention centers, for prolonged periods of time, the consequences for their mental health are considerable (Mares, Newman, Dudley & Gale, 2002). This proves that children have no place in detention centers and shows that holding children in these conditions provides nothing but harm to this already vulnerable group (Fazel, Karunakara & Newnham, 2014). Between February and September 2014 the government released 220 children to community detention centers or on bridging visas, and several children with disabilities were bought to the mainland for medical care and were later released into the community (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). What about the other children? Why should they suffer longer in these conditions, with the risk of deteriorating health? Other than disability, arrival dates and age what other factors are determining which children are being released? These are all questions that remain unanswered, and as every day passes more vulnerable children are at risk of self-harm, attempted suicide, anxiety, depression and declining mental health (Asia News Monitor, 2014).