Issue 37 / 6 October 2014

THE Australian Government is deliberately muddying the legislative waters around children held in immigration detention in order to “deflate” controversy, according to paediatricians and psychiatrists.

Dr Karen Zwi, a community paediatrician with Sydney Children’s Hospital Network and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ spokesperson on refugee children, told MJA InSight that the Department of Immigration’s recent announcement about the release of 150 children in detention was “confusing” and an attempt to “deflate the issue”. (1)

“The new announcement is about the release of children under 10 years old who arrived before 19 July 2013”, Dr Zwi said.

The majority of children in held detention had arrived after 19 July 2013, and “very few” were aged under 10 years old, she said.

“There are very few children who are eligible for release from held detention under this legislation. The government is trying to deflate the issue.

“People come up to me and say ‘oh, all the children are being released’. No they’re not. There are still nearly 1000 children who aren’t eligible for release.”

Dr Zwi told MJA InSight most of these children had been on Christmas Island, Nauru and other harsh detention environments for more than a year, with most aged over 10 years.

“This is happening when we know this is harmful to children’s health and wellbeing and when we may be causing long-term damage.”

The latest statistics on children in detention show that as at 31 August 2014, there were 2429 children held in all forms of immigration detention, with 222 on Nauru, 647 in on the mainland, and 1560 in community detention. (2)

The number of children in offshore detention was at its highest level since October 2013. The average time in detention — 391 days — was the longest since November 2011. The number of people (adults and children) in immigration and community detention for longer than a year — 4140 — was at its highest since July 2011; and 564 people have been detained for more than 2 years.

Research published in the MJA this week shows that more than 80% of Australian paediatricians surveyed in November 2013 considered “mandatory detention of children constitutes child abuse and disagreed with offshore processing”. (3)

The researchers from the Sydney Medical School and the Sydney Children’s Hospital also sought to gauge paediatricians’ knowledge about immigration detention. They found respondents correctly used the term “asylum seeker” rather than “boat person” or “illegal immigrant”. However, less than half of the 139 respondents knew which subgroups of asylum seekers were eligible for Medicare, or had received pre-departure HIV and tuberculosis screening tests.

“Only about 60% knew that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship was the legal guardian of detained unaccompanied minors”, they wrote.

“There is a clear need for education about practical issues such as current health screening practices and Medicare eligibility.”

Professor Louise Newman, director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, said the research confirmed the widespread concern about the current immigration detention policy.

Professor Newman is also the convenor of the Alliance of Health Professions for Asylum Seekers and an advocate for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. She chairs the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group, an independent body providing advice to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the health needs of asylum seekers.

Professor Newman told MJA InSight she agreed that the government had been disingenuous about the so-called “release” of 150 children from detention.

“This policy is not the release of children from detention in any sense”, she said. “These are high-risk children, particularly the unaccompanied minors, who are in the confusing position that the Minister has both guardianship over them and is imprisoning them.”

She said it was clear that Australia is not living up to its international legal obligations to asylum seekers. “Detention seems to be a law unto itself”, she said.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection said the government would continue to reduce the number of children in detention “as we have been doing since the day we were elected”.

“The number of children on Christmas Island has dramatically reduced by over 60%. There are 587 less children in detention today than there were at the last election. This is a more than 40% reduction due to our successful border protection policies”, the spokesperson said.

“More than 80% of children are resident in the community either on bridging visas or under residence determinations. July 2013 was the peak for children in immigration detention with almost 2000 accommodated.”

Dr Zwi called for a more rapid and humane system to process asylum seekers. “This is an urgent matter [when] 128 children are known to have self-harmed since last year. Most people cannot function without hope.”


1. Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection 2014; 22 August statement
2. ASRC 2014; Detention and Refugee Statistics 31 August
3. MJA 201; 393-398

(Photo: Ulet Ifansasti / iStock)


Should all children currently held in Australian and offshore immigration detention centres be released immediately into community care?
  • Yes – holding them is outrageous (61%, 78 Votes)
  • Yes – if support is available (20%, 25 Votes)
  • No – it acts as a deterrent (19%, 24 Votes)

Total Voters: 127

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20 thoughts on “Detention “sanctioned child abuse”

  1. Desmond Graham says:

    It is quite curious that a person subjecting the child or children to a criminal enterprise is not subject to any condemnation or punishment. It is ironic that the disciplinary body or government maintaining a lawful society is subject to approbation.

    It is further strange that in the past parents sewing their children’s mouth closed as a demonstration of their unsuccessful bid to gain access by illegal means  did not receive any punishment. Any parent in any state of Australia would have immediately been charged by the police.

    So why blame governments for trying to enforce the law of the land.- and not punish parents using the children as bargaining chips.

  2. Marsh Godsall says:

    Surely if any of us took our children of any age to P-NG or Indonesia in the tubs which these ‘refugees’ take their kids to Australia we would be subjected to charges of child abuse-why are the parents not charged with this when they arrive with their kids

  3. Ross Bills says:

    I agree with Des. The villains here are the parents who endanger their children, and the people smugglers who use them as bargaining counters. We have the right to protect outr borders. The consequences of arriving here without going through the appropriate channels are NOT kept secret.

    The actions of parents in endangering their chioldren apall me. I am not happy about the plight of the children. However, they and their parents can happily escape from detention by returning to the safe haven they last left. Invariably they have not left directly from anywhere they are under any threat, but have “shopped” for an economically viable destination rather than a safe refuge and passed throuhg a number of safe refgiuges before arriving here.

    Pity the children in onshore refugee camps  in Africa and Asia who are trying desperately to escape their plight, not the queue jumpers who attemot to use our good intentions against us.

    I believe in charity, but I resent having it demanded of me by those often less needy, and in my opinion, less deserving. Like the World Wildlife Fund, you can present a cute pictire of a tiger to gain sympathy, but it will still eat you if given a chance.

  4. Department of Health Victoria Clinicians Health Channel says:

    There is a gut-wrenching display in Prague of children’s drawings. The children were in Theresienstadt and the community used art therapy to help them deal with it. The drawings survived. The children didn’t.

    Recent collections of drawings from Nauru and Manus show remarkable similarities.

    We do need to take some responsibility for what is done in our name. WE are doing this.

    Obfuscations and blame shifting about evil parents putting their children on leaky boats are missing the point entirely. As a parent I would not take such a step unless I were entirely desperate. Are these parents so different?



  5. Dominic Harris says:

    How utterly depressing reading the comments so far, makes me ashamed of my profession.

    How easily we point the blame squarely on the persecuted, without ANY knowledge or understanding of what drives desperate people to such desperate measures.  

    Also how easily we justify submitting innocent children to child abuse..because it’s ALL THEIR FAULT. 

    George Orwell’s future vision has never looked more prescient than it does now:

    “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”




  6. Tom Hilliar says:

    Dear Des, I’ve worked in immigration in christmas island.
    Your inference of any child having their lips sewed shut by an adult is not true.

    See this article. Ailene and I are great friends and we have worked side by side in immigration for years. It is not good.

  7. CKN Queensland Health says:

    I don’t care what the parents have done up until this point. I do not want any new or further child abuse to be done in my name.

    The fact that most of the asylum seekers are eventually found to be legitimate further weakens any argument in support of these xenophobic and cruel policies.

    The fact that no other similarly ‘developed’ nation manages to cock it up quite like Australia is damning.

    Stop the victim blaming, particularly when these are the children of the usually legitimate asylum seekers.

    Would it be OK to routinely lock up Australian kids with their parents when their parents are accused of neglecting them (and when most of the time no proof of a neglect is found!)?


  8. Malcolm Brown says:

    I agree with Des – the people smugglers and parents should take the blame, not the government. And the RACP should keep out of politics.

  9. Dominic Harris says:

    Interesting how the majority of commentators are from the ‘right’, whereas as the vast majority of votes are against child detention.

    Says a lot about the current climate in my opinion: too many are reluctant to put their head above the parapet, meanwhile the anti asylum brigade makes all the noise. 

    I think now more than ever it is a responsibility of the profession to show some backbone and leadership on this issue. 

  10. David MacFarlane says:

    I am staggered  and apalled : is there no trick or tactic or distortion the xenophobes wont do to stop the threat that they might have to share thier massive good fortune and wealth with anyone coming here ?  So now its kids they are using.  The idea that parents bringing their kids here is abuse is a completely absurd inversion of the truth – these parents are trying to protect their children and provide something better for their future than what they are faced with in the corrupt war-torn, minority persecuting basket cases of countries they come from. I applaud these brave parents for being ready to risk so much for soemthing better for themselves and their families. 

  11. michael Kennedy says:

    The use of children in warfare is atrocious. Unfortunately most terrorist and “peoples liberation” type organisations are skilled using young children for both propaganda purposes eg firing rockets into Israel from schools and objecting to  children to be killed in return fire and other activities including combat are common in Africa.  

    People smugglers know the extreme public relations value of having children on the boat but don’t care about anything else.

     Andrew Watkins   makes  analogies to a Nazi Concentration camp  ( a quite unusual one) and by implication  is so off target he needs to do some serious reading on the topic. 

    i know first hand that some aid organisations ask the photographers to seek out children in the terrible circumstances we all see on TV every night. One told me it was best to run the pictures just before the request for donations came on the screen.

    The recent MJA has two articles on the subject that are worth reading but avoid some issues.

    Medical practitioners have a legal obligation to report any form of child abuse. It is an offence not to do this and it seems that this is not being done. They  make criticisms of almost everyone but are not fulfilling their obligations as registered medical practitioners. I would take their concerns more seriously if they fulfilled their legal obligations. The situation is even more serious if they are not formally reporting what could be considered criminal offences. 

    The RACP should stay out of political issues and the AMA should take great care that it is not being used on this issue. 



  12. Urban Sundvall says:

    As someone who was: ​

    • blessed enough to be born in a so called ‘first world country” and
    • fortunate enough to both be permitted to legally leave the country I came from and to enter Australia and
    • able to freely live, work hard and prosper in this wonderful country I call home

    ​I feel Sad as a human being;  that these peole coming from less fortunate circumstances are not offered the same opportunities afforded to the rest of us!

    ​I feel outraged as a Therapist;  that these children, already traumatised, are being further traumatised instead of being nurtured and offered the opportunity to heal.  I spend much of my days helping people to heal from childhood traumas and most of my clients did not have the severity of difficulty these children have already had.

    Our society is already suffering too much from the after-effects of unresolved, unhealed childhood traumas, let us refuse to add to that burden by  instead helping these children heal so they can feel nurtured, accepted and become a productive part of our fantastic country.

    Yes, I am aware that cautions need to be in place to protect our country and people and also aware that these things can be done more humanely than it seems to be.

  13. Sue Ieraci says:

    I wonder how many commenters or readers here have left warzones and repressive regimes in desperation, trying to seek a better life for their families. Many families did this during WW2 – they cross borders illegally, had false papers, and ended up as productive migrants in Australia and many other countries. Their spirit of enterprise has led them to contribute the the society they join. The parents today are doing the same thing people in this situation have always done – sought a better life for their children. Why would be de-rail this by punishing anyone, let alone the children?

  14. Desmond Graham says:


    Dear Andrew Watkins – the answer to your question is 


    Dear Dr Ud – I am not a commentator form the right – I am a commentator  from the ‘correct’ via deductive logic – willing to see a reasoned argument from the other perspective so it can be assessed, if it is advanced.


    WW2 migrants were all assessed in Europe by the victorious Allies before given passage to ‘other countries’ including Australia. 

    That is why the societies to which they went flourished in the ensuing decades.

  15. Marcus Aylward says:

    This discussion is entirely polarised by the distinction as to whether one believes these families are genuine refugees or are economic migrant/queue jumpers. That many may be accorded refugee status is not proof that they are, but often merely pragmatic or political expediency.

    That children may suffer from this policy is hardly in dispute, but short-term hand-wringing over their fate which weakens the policy resolve that would ensure this is a temporary problem will then be traded for a longer term, greater misery of deaths at sea and an absence of border security.

    The whole world would come to Australia if it could: that is not an offer that is on the table. We are entirely within our rights to secure our borders.

    It is hard to undertstand why everyone is not congratulating this government for enacting a policy which will stamp out this problem…. unless, perhaps, some have a political axe to grind.

  16. Sue Ieraci says:

    Marcus Aylward: what is your evidence for the statement ”That many may be accorded refugee status is not proof that they are, but often merely pragmatic or political expediency.” I would also challenge your assertion that ”The whole world would come to Australia if it could”. On the contrary, many more people make their way to much closer European countries, sometimes sinking on the way. It seems that the fear of staying home is greater than the fear of being lost at sea. The ”problem” is hardly being ”stamped out”. On the contrary – it’s being moved to more crowded parts of the world.

  17. Marcus Aylward says:

    The “problem” – being one of queue jumping economic migration – is indeed being stamped out Sue. Your inability to recognise hyperbole in no way diminishes the assertion that the allure of Australia as a place of relocation (“if it could”) is almost unsurpassed. Neither does our wealth and good fortune obligate us to accept every prospective migrant who has self-selected and bypassed all normal channels of orderly migration, however much nicer the future for their children might be.

    And I imagine it is a little naive to imagine that Australia would burn political capital with a neighbour such as Indonesia to force the return to point of last departure of every schemer who has deliberately destroyed documents in order to frustrate the attempts of Australian officials to identify even their country of origin: at some point it all becomes too hard, which is what such people and their people-smuggling consorts are relying on.

  18. Simon Byrne says:

    The issue is: Should any child be held in indefinite detention?

    Only one type of evidence is relevant: Is it of great harm to the health of a child?

    Everything else (immigration policy, how you vote, your opinion about asylum seekers, whether doctors shuld have political opinions) is irrelevant.

    Remember your oath: Primum non nocere. First do no harm. Do you stand by it?

  19. University of Newcastle says:

    Urban – love your thoughtful response.  Never in my lifetime of 70 years has the world been more divided between the powerful and the powerless. One of the lessons from the World Wars of the 20th century is that power is transitory, and that victims, may move to become the oppressors. Given that most of those in detention will satisfy the criteria for genuine refugee status, what is the point of continuing to oppress them by detaining them without hope. Our children and grandchildren will experience the lived out anger and trauma of those who have spent years without hope at our behest.  Our own self-interest demands a more compassionate approach.  Congratulations to Karen and Louise for their passionate advocacy for children in detention.


  20. Department of Health Victoria Clinicians Health Channel says:

    In reply to “Physician”, who preferred anonymity. 

    I have done my reading on the subject of the holocaust, concentration camps, medical experimentation etc. This has been over many years, often from original sources and in the original language. Theresienstadt was atypical, but it was part of the slippery slope to purely killing related facilities such as Treblinka. 

    My point was not to relativise the holocaust, but to point out the uncanny similarity between the subjective experience of the children, as shown in their drawings, and that seen in the drawings from Nauru / Manus etc.

    This is powerful stuff to anybody with a heart  and blame-shifting about whether they have been used by whatever parties to achieve whatever ends ( people smugglers or our own government ) are irrelevant to this.

    As to whether bodies such as the RACP should stay out of matters such as this, because they are “political”, would you have applied the same standard to other atrocities? This is what politicians rely upon – the silence of those with influence. 

    Rudolph Virchow, a Physician,  summed it all up with his comment “– medicine is a social science and politics is little else but medicine writ large “. This is abundantly true today, when the major determinants of poor societal health outcomes are social and economic.

    Should we physicians stick to pur profitable little lists and say nothing about such stuff?


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