Children in immigration detention

As part of the Government’s response to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, it would appear that children will again be held in processing centres on Nauru. This policy has been subject to sustained criticisms by refugee advocates, human rights groups and government backbenchers. The debate in the Parliament last week reflected this, with many voicing opposition and deep disquiet to the return of such an approach. While not much is known about the arrangements and conditions specifically for children on Nauru in the past, this Flag Post provides a brief history of the effects on children in detention in the Australian context and a summary of some of the key research papers about the impact on children in detention.

Brief history (reproduced from ‘Immigration detention in Australia’ by Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks)
During the Howard Government, the Australian Human Right Commission (formerly HREOC) produced a report in 2004 which was highly critical of the detention of children. In response, the Government rejected the findings and recommendations of the report and reaffirmed its commitment to the policy of mandatory detention. At the time the Minister stated that ‘to release all children from detention in Australia would be to send a message to people smugglers that if they carry children on dangerous boats, parents and children will be released into the community very quickly’.

However, in June 2005, following significant pressure from certain Coalition members of the back bench, the Howard Government announced a ‘softening’ of immigration detention policy, including the release of families with children into community detention arrangements.

The detention of children has also proved to be a contentious issue for the Labor Government. One of the seven ‘immigration detention values’ endorsed by Cabinet in 2008 was that children should not be held in immigration detention centres, but in lower security detention alternatives such as immigration transit accommodation or in community detention. Yet as more and more people began arriving by boat from 2008 onwards this ‘value’ was put to the test. The number of children being held in detention rose steadily, attracting vocal criticism from refugee advocates and human rights groups.

In response to growing pressure by interest groups and overcrowding in detention centres generally, the Immigration Minister announced in October 2010 that children would be progressively moved out of detention facilities into community-based accommodation by June 2011.Progress on this commitment proved to be slow, but by 30 June 2011 the Government announced it had moved ‘most’ children out of centres and into community detention.
Due to the recent increase in asylum seekers (including 208 children) arriving by boat, the number of children in detention facilities increased during June 2012. As at 30 June 2012, there were 591 children (aged under 18 years) in immigration detention facilities and alternative places. Of these, 489 children were in community based detention. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) notes that the majority of children in facilities based detention have been in detention for less than two months. It also notes that no children are detained in an immigration detention centre (refer to p. 7 of Immigration Detention Statistics Summary, 30 June 2012)


The negative impact of detention on children is well known. As noted by DIAC in its submission to Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network (2011), children who spend time in detention are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, high levels of depression and poor mental health (p. 63). The likelihood of this increases with the length of time spent time in detention.

Although the sample size of these studies is small, the results are consistent across multiple studies.

  • Steel et al (2004) documented the psychiatric status of asylum seeker families in a remote detention centre in Australia. This was the first study of its kind to report on the mental status of whole families. All families in the study had been in detention for more than two years. All children had at least one (independently assessed) psychiatric disorder and most (80%) had multiple disorders. Every adult was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder and most had persistent thoughts of killing themselves. Parents also reported that detention compromised their capacity to parent their children. All children reported boredom, isolation and poor quality food. A number of children had witnessed friends and family harming themselves further compounding the negative mental health impacts of detention.
  • In the same year, Mares and Jureidini (2004) reported on referrals from a remote detention centre to a child and adolescent mental health service. All of the 20 children (ranging from 11 months to 17 years) that participated in the study had at least one parent with a psychiatric illness and had been detention for at least 12 months. The majority of preschool aged children displayed developmental delay or emotional disturbance. Of the ten children aged 10-17 years, all were diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and major depression. Around 80% of these children had attempted self harm. This study also highlighted the lack of access to appropriate services and treatment by these children and the ethical tensions faced by clinicians providing care in the detention context.
  • Similar results were found in a Demark study. Nielsen et al (2008) concluded that protracted stays in asylum centres had an adverse effect on children’s mental health. Children who spent more than a year in detention were more likely to report mental difficulties. As a result of these findings, it was recommended that a time limit be applied to time spent by children in detention.

These examples are by no means exhaustive. Submissions to the HEROC Inquiry into children in detention were sobering, especially the evidence from the Department of Immigration about the levels suicide and self-harm among children in detention centres (statistics for the past ten years can be found at Figure 13 of this report). Last year (May 2011), there were reports of children under the age of ten attempting self harm in the Darwin immigration detention centre. Although the number of children in this study was small, a clear association was documented between the time spent in detention and incidence of mental illness.

It is not yet clear what the conditions in Nauru will be like. There have been reports that asylum seekers will only be subject to a night curfew and children will be able to attend local schools. The Nauru Foreign Minister has been quoted as wanting to make ‘the process as good as it can be’. The Government has given an undertaking that there will be greater oversight for Manus Island and Nauru than previously. There are also Ministerial powers to exempt vulnerable people (including children) from offshore processing centres where it is in the ‘public interest’ (see section 198AE of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Note – public interest is not defined in the Bill).

There is strong evidence that children held in detention are likely to suffer from adverse mental health outcomes and the likelihood of this increases with time. And the children who remain in war torn countries or refugee camps are also likely to experience a similar fate. Yet for the children who are held in Australian offshore processing centres, reconciling this evidence with the concept of ‘no advantage’ will be a considerable policy challenge for Government.

Key references:

Nielsen, S., Norredam, M., Christiansen, K., Obel, C.,Hilden, J. & Krasnik, A, (2008), Mental Health among children seeking asylum in Denmark: The effect of length of stay and number of relocations, a cross-sectional study, BMC Public Health, 8, pp 293-302;

Mares, S. and Jureidini, J. (2004), Psychiatric assessment of children and families in immigration detention: Clinical, administrative and ethical issues,’ Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 28, pp 520-526.

Steel, Z. Momartin, S., Bateman, C. Hafshejmii, A. Silove, D.M., Everson, N., Roy, K, Dudley, M. Newman, L, Blick, B. and Mares, S. (2004), Psychiatric status of asylum seeker families held for a protracted period in a remote detention centre in Australia, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, December 28(6), pp 527-536


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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