Suffer the little children – asylum seeking kids in Australia

Right now there are 628 children in immigration detention. The new Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, would have you believe that these children are not really being detained. On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, he said that “There’s no children in detention centres as such, so there’s no children behind the razor wire.” As though the absence of razor wire alone can make detention humane or acceptable. Of course, the notorious Baxter detention centre did not have razor wire. Instead, there were “electrified courtesy fences” to use the language of the Department at the time. And Villawood detention centre has had no razor wire since Amanda Vanstone was Minister. Would anyone claim none of those people are being held in detention?

ChilOut was a volunteer group campaigning from 2001 to 2006 on behalf of children in immigration detention. We wound down our campaign after the amendment was written into the Migration Act that “Children should be detained as a measure of last resort.” At the same time, children were removed from the main immigration detention centres (IDCs) and put out into the community either on bridging visas or residence determinations. The only children held in any form of secure facility – residential housing– were those whose parents were a proven security or flight risk. This was not a radical left agenda. It was done by the Howard government.

The sad fact is that right now 618 children are being held in detention facilities – of the 628 in the immigration detention regime, only 10 are in the community under residence determinations. If you read the very small footnotes in the Immigration department detention statistics summary, you will see that this is the only form of detention where the person does not have to be accompanied at all times by a designated person i.e. under guard going to and from school.

The statistics summary states that as of August 27, 438 children were detained on the mainland “ten were detained in the community under residence determinations, 317 were in alternative temporary detention in the community, 51 were in immigration residential housing and 60 were in immigration transit accommodation. Of the 2379 people in immigration detention on Christmas Island, 190 were children (aged under 18 years) – all in alternative temporary detention in the community.” Let’s unpack what these nice sounding places mean.

Alternative temporary detention in the community is not ‘temporary’ as children have been in Leonora for four months as of the end of September and for far longer on Christmas Island. It is not really ‘in the community’ as children are held behind fences, and the few lucky enough to go outside to school do so under guard and are brought right back afterwards. There are 190 kids held in this form of detention on Christmas Island. Most of them are unaccompanied afghan children – effectively war orphans. There can be no argument that they are being held because they are a security risk.

For the 51 kids in immigration residential housing, things are no better. These places are actually mini-detention centers, albeit more humane, less institutional and with less security. It is generally a cluster of houses or demountables built around a common recreation area, fully fenced with a guard house and CCTV monitoring in the common areas. Again, there are no visitors in without authority and kids generally only go outside for school under guard. Any recreational trips are few and far between. The last category is the 60 kids held in immigration transit accommodation (ITAs.) These places were intended to be used only for very short term (around 7days) as a place of transit while a person was in the process of being removed from Australia.

Many children have not left their place of detention in months. While it was laudable that the ALP policy was to remove children from IDCs – the main detention centres – the result has been that kids are now held for long periods in places that do not have anything close to adequate facilities. At least the IDCs were purpose built to house people for long periods and have recreational and educational facilities. Places such as the Darwin Asti Motel are cramped, with only a cement carpark for children to play in. 150 afghan boys held in the Darwin Lodge have not been outside since April. Dr Louise Newman, an adviser to Government on immigration detention issues, has stated that in some cases, detention centres are actually better than the alternatives currently being used for children.

Sadly, ChilOut has had to resume our campaign in light of so many kids being held in immigration detention facilities in unacceptable conditions that are a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. When we ended our first campaign, there was overwhelming support from the Australian community to ensure that children were not being detained. When we closed up shop, members of our group were drained – emotionally, physically and financially.

But there is no way we are going to stand by and watch this happen again. Not in our name, not in our country. No way. We will not allow our government to damage and traumatize another round of vulnerable children who fled to us with arms outstretched, seeking safety and protection.

The first time around we were just simple middle-class mums and dads who thought a couple of letters to the papers would solve the issue. After a 5 year hard-fought struggle we are seasoned campaigners, polished media performers and savvy political operatives. And we are mad as hell that we have to do this all over again.

For more information or to join the campaign, go to

Blog Comments

Why is it that the press never mentions this sort of statistic? I had no idea there were so many kids held in some sort of detention—-I just trust it’s humane.
These kids will grow up and remember things–in 20 years it’ll be like a re-run of the Catholic church and it’s treatment of vulnerable young people.

I fully support the action ChilOut is taking and will help in any way I can. It is incredible that so-called ‘decent, fair minded Australians’ can be blind to the trauma of children in detention and we must not stop lobbying until this wrong has been righted. Hilary Linstead

Our organisation Justice for Children agrees absolutelywith your stand on the detention of asylum seeker children. There is also a large group of children who are like baby elephants in the room of public discourse and therefore parliamentary action – or even rhetoric.

This what we’ve sent recently and are still sending to pollies and the media but we wish we had your ability to get any traction for children’s plight – whoever and wherever they are. Our latest media release: Changing family law to protect children must be new parliament’s priority

Justice for Children calls on all members of Parliament to protect children at risk of serious damage to their emotional, psychological and often, physical wellbeing because of the family law process.

Children awarded to unsuitable parents are virtually in detention. Why is Australia so unwilling to stand up for these children’s rights? Human rights legislation can’t help them because the Family Court is outside their jurisdiction. Only Parliament can help them.

Why isn’t the Gillard government and the Opposition willing to act? Will the Independents and Greens stand up for these children and make the government adopt change?

Important and reputable reviews have found that there are serious problems with Family Law – these problems have worsened considerably since the Howard government brought in their ‘reforms’ in 2006. But in the courts there seems to be little or no accountability – judges review themselves.

The law does not explicitly state that 50/50 parenting should be the norm but some representatives of the Lone Fathers Association (LFA) have stated openly that although equal time was not in the legislation, the misconception of equal time was successfully planted in the public (and judicial!) mind. Fathers’ rights now seem to take precedence over the rights of children.

Why doesn’t a child have an equal right to meaningful contact with their mother?

Suppression or ‘gag’ orders and the secretive nature of the Family Court mean that few cases are reported in the media so the public can’t know what’s really happening. Children affected by family law decisions are often silenced. Parents are silenced before and after the court’s decisions for fear of being labelled ‘unfriendly parent’ or because of court orders. Grandparents are silenced.

Government services and community organisations are often reluctant to intervene at any stage where the family court is involved. Children can be and are denied (by the court), the right to counselling after separation. This is a direct contravention of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNROC) to which Australia is a signatory.

The recent High Court decision which may have invalidated a number of parenting agreements was welcomed by Justice for Children. Too many children and mothers (and sometimes fathers) are being harmed by the current shared parenting agreements. Why do lawyers have to be involved in revisiting bad court decisions? Costs should be borne by the court and cost should not be the main factor – justice and fairness should be what the system works for, not adversarial one-upmanship.

Justice for Children calls on parliamentarians to vote for safety, fairness and common sense in family law.

We ask everyone who cares about children to speak out and tell your MP or Senators to support change now! Ariel Marguin 0411 852 452


Lulu Respall-Turner

Are we the only democratic country that detains children seeking asylum? I tend to think so,and it’s a disgraceful state of affairs. There is evidence from psychological research that such children are likely to develop long-lasting mental and behavioural problems. Because a high percentage of asylum-seekers do eventually get accepted into the country, what happens is they come into our communities highly traumatised, de-humanised and in need of constant medical attention and counsellinhg. Would it not be more sensible to allow children to be temporarily fostered out to caring families, so that their psychological and social development would not be hampered?

I agree regarding the placing of unaccompanied minors into caring and suitable foster homes with responsible and appropriately trained parental figures. But to remove vulnerable children from their actual parents is a horrific punishment to those parents, who are after all exercising their RIGHT to seek asylum for themselves and their children.

Just as the detention environment is damaging, separating mothers and fathers from their children would be a trauma that could not under any circumstances be justified.

In response to Lulu’s suggestion about temporary fostering I think this very appropriate for unaccompanied minors. For children who are seeking asylum with their parents unless they (the parents) present a security risk to this country the children should be located in the community with their parents pending visa determination.

Human beings are a very fearful species so that more than 90% of what they fear does not materialise, but in that cardboard cut out fear, history shows resort to unimaginable cruelty down the eons that is then wondrously rationalised or denied, while the fear is so easily exploited. Considering what we get up to nothing surprises me anymore and the more I hear civilisation the more I know there is cause to worry; can anyone really believe we are seen to be under threat by the trickle of rickety old boats landing on those really lush desert western shores of the great southland? I know I will open my front door here on the east coast one day and face a tsunami of the dreaded refugee hordes. The white Aus mentality lives on and thrives, and drives the example set by our main leaders to their and our eternal shame.

Ausstralia is the only developed country in the world that has Mandatory Detention. THAT is what has to go. Only then will children and their families be free to live together, to be united, instead of the shameful way these needy, desperate people are treated. Christmas Island was the work of John Howard. Once a beautiful island, it’s now a hellhole, with Chris Bowen desperately trying to offload these tortured people on to the mainland, but to what? further detention centres. Barbed wire and more trauma than any person can take. By the time they are processed and set free, mostly they are so traumatised they would have been better off if they didn’t take the perilous trip to Australia The Land of the Free!

Agreed children should ber nurtured not traumatised. But is it not time we examined the cause of so many moving people. There are a number but war is one and here recent wars are in defiance of the UN a body for which traumatised and troubled afterWW 2 the UN was set up agreed to and its activities including refugees and children expanded again with support. Yet for oil or food or domination wars are fought talk talk is dead, as wikileaks show diplomacy is in part as bad as the social gossiop of small undereducted towns at others designed to gain advantage at others expense and in secret. Soon another cause of refugees will be apparent though happening now, climate cahange. Yetr as with commital to the UN climate change is a play thing of self interested parties whose actions rarely reach the mediawell unless sex is involved thatr is.

suffer little chrildren , and thay have a lot more than the thousands of homeless chrildren dying on our streets every night. oz can not cope send them home it is better for them to die in their own country than this one we are running out of land to build housing china ownes a lot of our land to grow their crops in the end what will we eat with the floods destroying our crops and mass mass immigration to feed more and more millions of people brin g on the food shortages it will be the only thing that will wake people up . australia oz can not find housing for our own chrildren already living here let alone bringing in more for the resources we do not have. send all the cheildren home let their own country take responsbility and let it wipe its own dirty b um nothing to do with australia

I have just seen on the news that unaccompanied children are coming in on these asylum seeker boats. I am wondering do they have relatives over here or are they just hoping that someone takes them in. I am a fostercarer and are wondering if we are allowed to take one of the children into our house to care for them instead of them being in a detention centre.. Does anyone have any information about this or a department that I can talk to .. Thanks Julie

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