A young girl in Australian immigration detention has tried to hang herself with her hijab while the government attempts to hide the increasing toll its policy of mandatorily and indefinitely jailing asylum seekers is having on the mental health of children.
At a recent hearing of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the treatment of children in immigration detention, the former head of mental health services for detainees, Peter Young, elicited gasps when he revealed the Immigration Department asked him not to report on the rates of mental disorders among children. Young said the department was “concerned about what the figures are showing”.
Young said he was aware children had tried to poison themselves, while children banging their heads against the wall was “a common method of self-harm”. He said it was “quite clear that we’ve got a large number of children with significant mental distress and disorder in this population”.
Naomi Sharp, counsel assisting the inquiry: What has the department’s reaction been to your report?Peter Young, psychiatrist: Well, the department has been fairly, I guess it’s fair to say negative towards that report.
Sharp: What do you mean by that Dr Young?
Young: Sort of reacted with alarm and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting.
The immigration department secretary, Martin Bowles, told the inquiry he “cannot say” whether Young was told to cover up statistics. But the head of the commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, said circumstances were being manipulated by not only the government’s refusal to speak publicly about refugee boat arrivals “but also a systemic process within the department to keep these figures under some sort of wrap. They’re not being analysed, they’re not being considered.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison labelled assertions by Triggs that nearly every child on Christmas Island, 1540km off Australia’s west coast, was sick, depressed, not developing as they should or regressing, as “sensational“. Triggs countered by saying “the minister needs to be better advised”. There is a bevy of evidence, and medical and mental health practioners, which also beg to differ with Morrison. Meanwhile, the department’s own data shows 128 children self-harmed between January 2013 and March 31 this year, compared with 89 adults.
As a reaction to the ensuing backlash, and in a clear attempt to curry favour ahead of his appearance at an inquiry about the child refugees on August 22, Morrison announcedon August 19 that children under 10 in detention on the mainland would be released into the community – but the 331 children living in camps on Nauru and Christmas Island, and the more than 400 aged over 10 on the mainland, will remain in detention.
Indefinite detention ‘fulfils definition of torture’
While the number of children in detention has halved since the inquiry began, from 1330 to 659, Triggs told the ABC “very, very young children” were being sent to the Pacific island Nauru for detention as a method of deterring people from seeking asylum in Australia.
Bowles expressed offence at criticism of the conditions asylum seekers are being kept in on Christmas Island, saying “they have been highly emotive claims which offend greatly the skilled professionals, both public servants and service provider staff, who work to deliver high-quality care in difficult circumstances”. (Note Bowles’ acceptance the offshore detention centre exists in “difficult circumstances”.) But it was those very staff who told the inquiry of incidents of security guards and cleaners molesting children, the absence of pediatric care and the lack of legislation in place to protect children in detention.
In truly worrying terms, psychiatrist Peter Young told The Guardian: “If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.”
He continued: “But you can’t mitigate the harm, because the system is designed to create a negative mental state. It’s designed to produce suffering. If you suffer, then it’s punishment. If you suffer, you’re more likely to agree to go back to where you came from. By reducing the suffering you’re reducing the functioning of the system and the system doesn’t want you to do that.”
Detention worse than prison for families and children
Young says immigration detention is worse for people’s mental health than prison. “We don’t have families in prisons,” he said. Parents’ control over the way they raise their children is severely restricted in the detention camps, while they despair about their children’s uncertain future. Children watching their parents struggling with depression develop attachment disorders, withdrawal and development delay.
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The mothers of children born in offshore detention have been pushed to the point of believing that if they commit suicide their children will be given the chance to grow up in Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s disgusting response to this was to accuse the women of “moral blackmail” – the kind of heartless comment that should no longer come as a surprise from him. He espoused: “This is not going to be a government which has our policy driven by people who are attempting to hold us over a moral barrel.” This would appear to be an admission the government is determined to hold fast to an immoral barrel, which is being used to steamroll the childhoods of hundreds of asylum seekers.
Abbott also claimed asylum seekers on Nauru were “clothed, housed, fed and above all else they’re safe. They are not going to be subjected to any persecution in Nauru.” (Another nod from the prime minister to his awareness of detainees’ former persecution, perhaps?) Those on Nauru are no doubt as safe as 23-year-old Iranian Reza Barati was, before he was killed inside the Manus detention centre in February and 67 fellow detainees were shot, macheted and otherwise assaulted. Following the violence Morrison said he could guarantee the safety of asylum seekers if they remained inside the camp, while he pedalled the false story detainees had broken out.
The toxic environment of the offshore camps for children has also been proven countless times. Paediatrician Professor Elizabeth Elliott has said the Christmas Island camp’s proximity to a phosphate mine meant the physical environment was “totally unsuitable and children suffer from recurrent asthma and irritation of the eyes and skin is common”.
Aside from the obvious moral issues attached to jailing children, Australian government policy is made more offensive because it is one of the few countries in a position to provide high-quality care to children who have already experienced more trauma than anyone ever should. And the longer children are held in detention, the more their mental suffering is exacerbated.
Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist. She previously reported on legal, political and multicultural issues for Australian newspapers.
Follow her on Twitter: @Fiona_Broom