More than 500 refugee kids still in detention


A protest last year outside Melbourne’s Broadmeadows detention centre, which holds about 140 refugee minors. Photo:

The federal immigration department has drawn sharp criticism from refugee advocacy groups and Amnesty International for denying that refugee children continue to be held in detention.

After Perth refugee activists visited the remote Leonora detention centre and reports emerged that children had been locked up for more than 12 months, the immigration department’s media manager, Sandi Logan, said on Twitter: “Misinformation about kids in detention centres is unhelpful, disingenuous.

“As you know, kids are NOT detained in centres.”

The government said in October 2010 it would move “the majority” of children and vulnerable families into community-based accommodation while their refugee claims were assessed. In July last year, the immigration department said it had “delivered on its commitment”.

But January 31 figures from the immigration department showed that of 1079 asylum seeker children held by the immigration department, only 551 were living in the community under residence determination.

More than 500 refugees under 18 are now held in what the immigration department has named “alternative places of detention” (APOD). These are defined by the Human Rights Commission as “low security immigration detention facilities”, where people “remain under supervision” and “are not free to come and go”.

But it is not “detention”, the immigration department says.

Facilities like Leonora detention centre, the Darwin Aiport Lodge and the “Construction Camp” on Phosphate Hill on Christmas Island have been named APODs.

The Perth-based Refugee Rights Action Nework (RRAN) visited Leonora over January 26-29. The camp is a cluster of demoutables surrounded by a fence and hundreds of kilometres of desert. The drive from Perth to the town, population about 1400, takes 12 hours.

About 140-160 unaccompanied minors and families with young children are held there. RRAN said children “were not attending school outside the detention facility … [and] children had minimal excursions outside”.

Despite private-security firm Serco trying to prevent any visits to refugees inside, RRAN saw many teenagers behind several fences. They were eventually able to meet about 40 children, all of who had been in detention for more than a year.

RRAN said one 17-year-old Hazara refugee “has been in detention for two years”.

After visiting the centre last year, the Human Right Commission said in a report: “It is not an appropriate place to hold families with children in detention, particularly for long periods of time.

“The outdoor heat is often extreme, and there is a limited amount of grassy and shaded space inside the facility. A number of the outdoor areas consist only of red dirt. Parents raised concerns about the safety and wellbeing of their young children in this hot and dusty environment.

“Parents said there were not enough indoor areas for their young children to play away from the heat and dirt.”

The Darwin Airport Lodge, in stark comparison, is a hotel-style form of detention. The immigration department has not published any figures for it, but the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) estimates about 170 children, many without families, are held there.

The February 10 Adelaide Now said the department of immigration moved 28 young Vietnamese refugees — including a seven-year-old girl and her 17-year-old sister — from residential housing in Port Augusta to the Darwin Airport Lodge on February 5.

Adelaide Now said: “The detainees were only told about the shock move less than 24 hours earlier, denying them the chance to say goodbye to regular visitors who offered them friendship as they waited in detention for asylum.”

ChilOut’s Sophie Peer told ABC radio’s AM they had been in detention for nine months – moved from Christmas Island, to South Australia’s Port Augusta and now Darwin. “We cannot fathom how it’s in the best interests of a seven-year-old child to lock them up for nine months.”

The Darwin Airport Lodge holds asylum seekers as well as visa-overstayers, some “illegal” workers bound for deportation and accused “people smugglers”. Asylum seekers have witnessed a spate of suicide attempts and self-harm, including the attempted suicide on February 15 of a Tamil man whose visa was cancelled the day before he was due to be moved into the community.

The man tried to hang himself with a bedsheet and was cut down by other refugees.

On February 9, DASSAN referred the newly arrived Vietnamese children to the Northern Territory Child Protection Services due to its fears they were at risk. The group said it knew of “children in the Darwin Airport Lodge that have self harmed and are on medication as a result of their incarceration”.

ChilOut has described the Phosphate Hill detention facility, near the Christmas Island township and away from the maximum-security North West Point detention centre, as a “densely packed collection of demountables knowns as dongas” that holds almost 400 asylum seekers.

Dongas are shipping containers refurbished for single-person sleeping quarters. The immigration department bought up many unused dongas from the NT intervention, which were a failed form of housing in Aboriginal communities.

ChilOut said “families of four” have been housed in them.

At another APOD, in Inverbrackie, South Australia, at least five children have been born, ChilOut said

Child psychiatrist Dr Jon Jureidini treated a suicidal teen there and told the Adelaide Advertiser the children in Inverbrackie were “the saddest kids I’ve seen”. The Advertiser said there were at least five cases of self-harm.

Every APOD under the department of immigration is a closed, secure facility, run and guarded by private-prison firm Serco. Asylum seekers are restricted to the centre grounds almost all the time.

Logan is not telling the truth when he says no children are in detention. Bureaucrats may change the names, definitions and jargon and sometimes the facilities are improved or made more comfortable. But the terrible effects on human lives are the same, whatever you call them.