Here’s an extract from the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014…


9.3.1 Torture and trauma prior to arrival in Australia

Since more than 90 per cent of children in immigration detention over the period of the Inquiry have been found to be refugees, it follows that many children in immigration detention are likely to have been affected by prior experiences of trauma.(46)

The Inquiry commissioned a literature review to consider factors affecting the psychological well-being of child and adolescent refugees and asylum seekers.(47)The paper concludes that:

research clearly demonstrates that refugee children and adolescents are vulnerable to the effects of pre-migration, most notably exposure to trauma. It is also apparent that particular groups in this population constitute higher psychological risk than others, namely those with extended trauma experience, unaccompanied or separated children and adolescents and those still in the process of seeking asylum.(48)

The Inquiry received evidence from a range of sources that children in immigration detention may have experienced significant trauma prior to their arrival in Australia. For example, the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) reported that:

Refugee parents may have experienced torture, imprisonment, persecution and institutional violence by the political regimes of their country of origin, or have witnessed a spouse or close family members undergoing such experiences.

Many families prior to detention in Australia have experienced long and perilous journeys and been in transit for months or years in refugee camps or in countries where they have had no citizenship rights, lived in very poor and overcrowded housing and where basic needs have been barely met. Children are conceived and born in such situations of deprivation, uncertainty and with minimal or no health care.(49)

The Inquiry also heard evidence that detainees were more likely than other asylum seekers to have had prior experiences of trauma:

Those who had suffered the most severe persecution are perversely at most risk of detention in Australia. This is not really surprising because these are the people most desperate to leave and hence the most likely to enter ‘illegally’ (sic).(50)

The Department acknowledges that pre-arrival experiences have a significant impact on the mental health of child detainees:

Of course, some of these people have had a very difficult and perilous voyage to get to Australia and they may well have other predispositions or issues in their life well before any thought of coming to Australia which might also be impacting on their personal circumstances whilst here.(51)

However, the Inquiry also received evidence that pre-arrival experience does not exclusively account for the mental health problems of children in detention. In other words, detention itself also had a significant impact on the mental health of children, particularly for those held in detention for prolonged periods.

International experience with refugee children resettled to Western countries indicates that while some mental health conditions from prior trauma may persist, particularly post traumatic stress reactions, children generally display a pattern of recovery and adaptation on arrival and integration in their new home.(52)

This can be compared with a 2003 report regarding asylum seekers and their children in a remote Australian detention centre, which found that the impact of detention outweighed that of pre-migration experiences on the development of psychiatric illness:

Lifetime assessment of psychiatric morbidity indicated that there was little psychopathology amongst the children prior to arrival in Australia. One child who had witnessed severe domestic violence in Iran had multiple previous disorders. In contrast at the time of assessment, after having spent in excess of two years in detention, all children were diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder and most (16, 80%) were diagnosed with multiple disorders, representing a 10-fold increase in the total number of diagnoses identified.(53)

The Migrant and Workers Resource Centre (MWRC) from Queensland conducted a study of 40 former child detainees and found that ‘[t]he detention of asylum seekers upon their arrival in Australia has a deleterious psychological effect upon asylum seekers through maintaining or aggravating these pre-existing conditions’.(54)

Furthermore, a psychiatrist who has examined several children detained at Woomera stated that detention was the worst thing that had happened to a number of them:

People are resilient and given appropriate circumstances, people can recover from the most horrible traumas, but on average you would expect a significant proportion of these children to continue to suffer, throughout their life, the effects of the detention experience. Now, that is obviously not the only traumatic experience that many of these children have had, but it is certainly – a number of the families that I’ve been involved with discussions about,the trauma – the traumatic nature of the detention experience has out-stripped any previous trauma that the children have had…

….So it has got to the point where being in detention is the worst thing that has ever happened to these children.(55)