Culture of Despair for Children in our Detention Centres by Tom Mann

Culture of Despair for Children in our Detention Centres
Tom Mann, author of 'Desert Sorrow: asylum seekers at Woomera'.

Michael, an 11-year-old Iranian boy, arrived at Woomera detention centre at the end of April 2001. He was the best gift any teacher could have bright, keen-to-learn and tackling his assignments with studious care. He seemed a thoughtful lad and full of promise in our November compound classroom.

When my teaching contract finished five months later I could not believe any children like Michael could last out much longer than six months without succumbing to the culture of despair which had pervaded the centre. In my eight months as a teacher at the Woomera detention centre I could see that children started to go downhill by about six months. Usually they were more resilient than their parents who would often show distressing signs after three months following rejection of their cases for refugee status.  In the end, though, the detention syndrome prevailed. How could the children not be affected when parents become depressed and dysfunctional, and when witnessing acts of violence and self-harming.

In my first six-week contract in late 2000 one of my students was a rather restless, bright young lad, Shayan. His parents had fled political persecution in Iran. With a bit of coaxing and extra attention Shayan responded and joined in with the activities. I had no idea at the time of the trauma and suffering that would befall him.

In August 2001 I watched the ABC Four Corners program on the case of six-year-old, Shayan who by then had been in detention for seventeen months, first at Woomera and subsequently at Villawood detention centre where he had completely withdrawn from life. I barely recognised him as the lad I had known in the classroom. At Woomera, Shayan had seen guards beating refugees with batons during riots. And at Villawood, Shayan had not spoken since he had seen blood pouring from the wrists of a refugee who had tried to commit suicide. He also refused to eat or drink and had to be taken to hospital every few days for rehydration. Aamer Sultan, a medical practitioner, and also a refugee from Iraq, had identified Shayan's condition as immigration-detention stress syndrome.

As the months rolled by at Woomera detention centre children would usually stop coming to classes or if they did come they were more withdrawn and listless, and not so willing to join in classroom activities. Two sisters, Nola, aged 11 and Sandra, aged nine came to the class initially and then withdrew. I tried to encourage them to come but they preferred to play in the dirt surrounding the classrooms. I informed the psychologist who tried to convince them that activities in the school were a better option. They came to classes for a short time and then sadly withdrew again. Their brothers, Alan and Matthew, showed a similar response to long-term detention. They showed great potential in the classroom at first and then 'switched off'. Alan's drawings were displayed at a number of venues outside the detention centre.

Sarah, an Afghani girl, also showed signs of detention stress. No-one was really sure of her age, including Sarah herself who thought she might be twelve years old. At the beginning of her detention stay she was enthusiastic about her lessons and always turned up to class with a smile and headscarf faithfully in place. As the months passed, though, she became listless and withdrawn. There were occasions when she returned to her former bright self and turned up to class. Again the detention syndrome prevailed. About a year later, in the Easter protest of 2002 the outside world caught a snapshot of her emotional distress as one of the Australian protesters hugged her outside the razor wire. Sarah and her three brothers were quite animated before the Refugee Review Tribunal rejected their application for refugee status. From then on the whole family showed signs of depression. The children withdrew from school or only turned up sporadically. From animated and expectant faces they became lifeless in a sea of despair. Sarah's mother suffered from arthritis and couldn't function properly as a parent. Sarah became a parent by default it was not uncommon, we found later, for a child to assume that role.  Sarah was angry and would often say, 'Why are they doing this to my family?'

Sarah and her family are still in detention at Baxter and so are Anita, an 11-year-old Iranian girl, and her brother, Samuel (13) who came at the same time as Michael. Anita and Samuel were a cheery and chirpy duo in the classroom, always happily engaged in any school activities. From recent reports of a social worker at Baxter detention centre, Anita, like Sarah, had also become very angry and despondent with their case being rejected at each stage of a tortuous processing system. After my teaching contract had expired Anita wrote to me after their family's first rejection:

Mr Tom hello,

Excuse me that I have nothing that I send you. I don't think I can come to see you again very soon because we have [been] rejected. I miss you and I still remember your face. Never forget you. I would like that I had something to send you good teacher but if God we can get visa and we will see [you] very soon. Thank you for your picture. Anita.

Now we know that the danger zone for children in a detention centre environment from our own observations is definitely six months. We actually witnessed the demise over time, and it was reinforced by an environment essentially devoid of compassion and counselling and with a culture of despair that repeated itself across the detention centres of Australia. This emotional abuse was not picked up straightaway it was an insidious affliction like a benign tumour, burning inside but not devouring. Children became more listless, often angry and more aggressive, sometimes assuming a parental role and responsibility for their family members. They turned to self-harming and absorbed negative elements of the detention system culture.

The Family and Youth Services (FAYS), as part of the Department of Human Services in South Australia, was responsible for investigating any kind of child abuse, whether emotional, physical or sexual. Ironically, the only case of significance at Woomera that was brought before FAYS was the one involving sexual abuse. A strong case could be mounted for emotional abuse of all children in detention, especially for those staying more than six months. Not much was said at first. Slowly the tide turned and more people spoke out against children being in detention and suffering emotional abuse. Many of the children would witness hunger strikes and self-mutilation by other refugees. According to concerned leaders in the community the children had committed no crime and it was a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by Australia in 1990.

Two types of behaviour, described by FAYS, and relevant to the asylum seekers in detention with respect to emotional abuse concerned: isolation - cutting the child off from normal social experience, preventing the experience of interpersonal skills and disallowing spontaneous fun and enjoyment; and corruption teaching the child socially deviant patterns of behaviour.  The Woomera detention centre, we found out, was a breeding ground for those types of behaviour. As well as family children the unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan were particularly susceptible to emotional abuse. With no family support they easily lapsed into a despondent state. Qadir, a 16-year-old, with such a traumatised past was detained in a psychiatric hospital in Adelaide when the state public advocate intervened to prevent him being returned to Woomera.

I met with the Immigration Detention Advisory Group on 17 May 2002 to discuss these matters for improvement of facilities for the new Baxter detention centre and I mentioned the pervasion of a culture of despair across all detention centres. Three days later I wrote to Ray Funnell, chairperson of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, and said:

I believe the overriding concern is still the processing of applicants' claims in a reasonable time. In conjunction with this is the need for applicants not to be held in limbo without communication on the progress of their cases; the need for independent legal representation; and the need to provide a category of visa, such as a humanitarian visa, that allows the asylum seeker into the community pending the outcome of their cases if not resolved within a specified time period, say three months. The special visa would also take into account those people who wish to return to their country of origin or go to a third country but cannot because of political or other reasons.

If the processing aspects can be addressed then I believe we can offer valuable services in education, counselling and other activities, especially if we allow ready access of concerned people from outside organisations such as STTARS. If we are just improving the environment for asylum seekers in Baxter then I think we will ultimately face the same problems as we have had up to now.  

Ray Funnell replied on 4 June 2002:
'Thank you for your letter of 20 May 2002 and for the information and the impressions passed on to the IDAG during our recent meeting in Adelaide. I hope you and the other people with whom we met that day are aware of the importance that we as a group place on such meetings.
We continue to work at improving the lot of those being held in detention and we remain hopeful and, we trust, realistically hopeful of being able to bring about some changes in policy that will result in a much better system of processing asylum seekers.'
After nearly two years in Baxter nothing has changed for the better. The culture of despair remains. And the condition of the children has grown steadily worse. Many reports from psychiatrists, other health and social workers, and from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission support this. According to a social welfare worker at Baxter, Michael who showed so much potential when I first met him in the November compound of Woomera, had joined his father and mother in various dysfunctional and self-harming behaviours. 'They are like caged animals, with the father going crazy and the mother going under. They are so far gone as a family,' she said.
Can anything be salvaged from the wreckage of families like Michael's?  The Liberal Government refuses to intervene to save children's lives. I spoke to Neil Andrew, Federal Member for Wakefield and Speaker of the House of Representatives on 30 Jan 2004 and he informed me that the 'Government was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  We're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't.' At least he conceded that families were suffering in detention.
The symptoms of the failure of the detention system are obvious by now. I know, from my experiences at Woomera, that if we are going to have a system of mandatory detention, three months is the limit. Otherwise we will irreparably damage children's lives. Mandatory detention as a system doesn't work unless we are interested in making people suffer and behave abnormally. To justify using it as a method of prevention of mass boat people coming to Australia sets us up as torturers.

The new morality under Prime Minister John Howard can accommodate this as seen with the Tampa and SievX affairs, the Pacific solution and the recent war in Iraq. After espousing the evils of Saddam Hussein's regime and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and if hypocrisy is a virtue under the new morality then the Australian Government has nothing to fear. But what of the Australian people? We are also responsible for the people in detention. Where are we heading if we engage in this kind of human rights abuse? Would we be so complacent if our own children were in detention?
Concerned groups of people in Adelaide are now mounting a rescue operation at least to have the remaining families come out into community detention and give a chance for the healing process to work as well as regain some semblance of normal living.

3 February 2004