Louise Newman. Detention of children seeking asylum in Australia.

Mar 28, 2014

Australia has a unique approach to the ‘problem‘of asylum seekers arriving by boat in an ‘unauthorised’ fashion – exportation. Under current policy all unauthorised arrivals are processed as rapidly as possible on Christmas Island and then transferred to Nauru or Manus who are supported by Australia to assess refugee claims, house and ultimately resettle those found to be refugees. Or so the story goes. Much recent discussion, particularly since the attacks on asylum seekers on Manus allegedly by those in protective roles, has pointed to the breakdown of this system with increasing numbers remaining on Christmas Island and lack of any processing of claims or moves to resettlement. There is even discussion about the commitment of PNG to the resettlement process and they themselves have recently stated that it will not be possible to resettle in PNG those already there. The politics is complex and with a certain air of separation on the side of the Australian Government which is wedded to the concept of off shore processing as part of a framework of deterrence. The focus on deterrence of any arrivals on the mainland has led to extreme measures such as towing or pushing boats away and setting asylum seekers in the opposite direction in life boats where they become someone else’s problem on landing. The consequence or outcome is seen as the sole factor driving policy and little account is taken of the means. It is in this context that vulnerable groups such as children and unaccompanied minors and the mentally ill are caught in a particularly unpleasant political drama.

As this is played out on the high seas we hear little discussion of Australia’s position as a voluntary signatory to the UN Convention on refugees and our responsibilities. We do not hear much discussing of the regional issues and need to support neighbours who bear most of the burden of supporting asylum seekers with minimal support. We do not provide leadership in the construction of a regional protective frame work despite this being raised by the Government appointed expert group looking at a system of response to the needs of asylum seekers and displaced persons. The ‘problem ‘ of displaced persons continues to grow as Australia’s response shrinks  – to the point where we now accept no asylum seekers coming by boat and will never resettle these arrivals on the mainland.

In the middle of this debate the plight of the asylum seekers is often forgotten or trivialised. Many find stories of persecution and trauma ‘distasteful ‘and Government prefers to dismiss many as ‘economic refugees’ with the implicit judgment that they are unworthy. The system does not value seeking a safe life for children or fleeing ongoing persecution as worthwhile goals. The notion of threat from asylum seekers continues to be used as a political tool. The community has been caught in this escalating series of political moves aimed at limiting discussion of the broader issues and escalating fear and xenophobia. The language of “sovereign borders” and approaches veiled in secrecy as we wage a war on people smugglers does little to help us think in a rational way about Australasia role in supporting the worlds dispossessed or being a leader in our region. Both major political parties brought in reductionist approaches and prided themselves on harshness and firmness in the name of a greater good.

The current situation emerges from a history of harsh approaches including arbitrary and mandatory detention of all unauthorised arrivals including infants, children and the mentally ill. In the days of Baxter and Woomera detention centres in remote locations a considerable amount of research and clinical evaluation documented the damage of indefinite detention on mental health and the deterioration of asylum seekers capacity to tolerate the situation. Helplessness, depression and despair took their toll as the community witnessed mass despair, self harm and protest. Children witnessed violence and behavioural breakdown and saw the deterioration of their parents. The damage was significant and well described in the HREOC report of 2005 which recommended that children should only ever be detained as a matter of last resort. Following this and with the support of all major medical and health groups, children and families were moved in to community settings with seemingly greater awareness of their needs.

The past 5 or so years has seen a reversal of that position as successive Governments saw the need to maintain a politics of exclusion and to appeal to those sections of the community with deep seated anxiety about Australian security in a changing world. Detention of the vulnerable has continued and no exceptions are made on the grounds of trauma exposure, age, mental disorder or physical condition. Government has exported the most vulnerable to situation where health and mental health services are  minimal and with no certainly about the future has essentially recreated the conditions of over a decade ago where the detention centres became the breeding ground of mental disorders and breakdown. Recent protest, violence and self-harm are entirely predictable in these circumstances and should therefore be preventable.

The detention of children and other vulnerable groups in these circumstances is a great shame and belittles us all. Those of us in the mental health sector need to speak out about any policy which damages the mental health and development of children and others and help to develop a higher level of discussion across the community about these important issues, Whilst Government may prefer to remain silent on its actions and their morality, we cannot.


Louise Newman is the Professor of Developmental Psychiatry and Director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Phycology.

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