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The slow torture of kids in detention

  • 26 March 2012

Julian Burnside taunted his audience at La Trobe University in 2010 with the suggestion that we take a couple of children out of detention and publicly execute them.

'And if killing seems a bit tough, well then what say we just take half a dozen kids from detention and torture them for a while. Publicly, so that everyone will get the message.'

The idea of his 'thought experiment' was to illustrate that we are not bothered by the torture of children in immigration detention because it is out of sight. Burnside's logic was that if the torture was conducted publicly, and not behind razor wire, most Australians would be bothered. The politicians would act immediately to stop child detention.

The torture is also out of sight because it is mental and there are no physical wounds. The evidence will only come to light in the form of mental illness, which the children will suffer in years to come. 'The torture is slow and unseen and the damage much harder to fix.'

Sister Anne Higgins has been involved with families in immigration detention for over ten years. She says it's well documented that people detained for even three months suffer mental illness. She stresses that children are especially vulnerable.

'I recall in particular a 12-year-old girl who arrived at a detention facility with her parents and younger sister.  She was a bright-eyed child relieved to be safe from the danger experienced in her country of origin.'

Higgins was alarmed to learn that after several months, the young girl was suicidal. As in many detention cases, the refugee determination and review processes were drawn out. 

'Her parents were powerless; they could not change the situation. The local guards also did not know what to do. As the child's life was now in danger from her situation, the doctor attending the centre placed her in hospital. This bright-eyed, engaging young girl had now become a sad, listless child. After many more months the family were eventually accepted but severe damage had already been done to this young person and to her family.'

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), Australia currently holds 528 children in secure and remote facilities. Last week it released its Captured Childhoods report at the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The authors spent two years listening first-hand to the stories of children and parents from all over the world who have