View from within

Michael, an 11-year-old Iranian boy, arrived at the Woomera Detention Centre in April 2001. He was the best gift any teacher could have. Keen to learn, bright and studious, full of promise in our November compound classroom.

When my teaching contract finished I could not believe children like Michael could last much longer than six months without succumbing to the culture of despair which pervaded the centre. In my eight months as a teacher at Woomera, I could see that children started to go downhill after about six months. The children were however, more resilient than their parents who would often show signs of distress after three months following the rejection of their case for refugee status. In the end, though, how could the children not be affected when parents became depressed and dysfunctional, and when they witnessed acts of violence and self-harm?

In my first six-week contract in late 2000 one of my students was Shayan. His parents had fled political persecution in Iran. With some coaxing Shayan joined in with the activities. I had no idea of the trauma that would befall him.

In August 2001 I watched the ABC Four Corners program on six-year-old, Shayan who by then had been in detention for 17 months, first at Woomera and subsequently at Villawood Detention Centre where he had completely withdrawn from life. I barely recognised him. Aamer Sultan, a medical practitioner (also an Iraqi refugee) had identified Shayan’s condition as immigration-detention stress syndrome.

Shayan’s experience was not uncommon. As time progressed, children would stop coming to classes or were more listless. Two sisters, Nola, aged 11 and Sandra, aged nine, came to class initially and then withdrew. I tried to encourage them but they preferred to play in the dirt surrounding the classrooms. Their brothers, Alan and Matthew responded similarly.

They showed great potential in the classroom at first and then ‘switched off.’

Sarah, an Afghani girl, was unsure of her age. At the beginning of her detention stay she was enthusiastic and always arrived with a smile and headscarf faithfully in place. Soon, she became withdrawn. There were occasions when she returned to her former self but 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. From that time the whole family showed signs of depression. Their once expectant faces became lifeless in a sea of despair. Sarah’s mother suffered arthritis and couldn’t function properly as a parent. Sarah assumed 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, a 14-year-old Iranian girl, and her brother, Samuel 16, who arrived at the same time as Michael. Anita and Samuel were a 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 angry and despondent as their case was rejected at each stage of processing. After my teaching contract had expired Anita wrote to me following 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.

Studies now show that the danger zone for children in a detention centre environment is six months. This was not clear at first, the distress for children was like a benign tumour, burning inside but not devouring. The children progressively became more listless and angry.

Two types of behaviour, described by Family and Youth Services (FAYS) staff, relevant to asylum seekers in detention included: isolation (cutting the child off from normal social experience) and corruption (teaching the child socially deviant patterns of behaviour). Woomera was a breeding ground for such behaviours. Unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan were also susceptible to emotional abuse. With no family support, Qadir, a 16-year-old with a traumatic 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 the improvement of facilities for the new Baxter detention centre. I then 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.

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:

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 condition of the children has declined. Many reports from psychiatrists, other health and social workers, and from Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission investigations support this. According to a social welfare worker at Baxter, Michael who showed so much potential when I first met him in Woomera, had joined his parents 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 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 in January this year and he informed me the ‘Government was stuck between a rock and a hard place’. At least he conceded that families were suffering in detention.

If we are going to have a system of mandatory detention, I would suggest that three months be the limit. Otherwise we risk irreparably damaging children’s lives. Detention doesn’t work unless we are interested in making people suffer. To justify detention as a preventative measure designed to deter people smugglers casts us as torturers.

Concerned groups of people in Adelaide are mounting an operation requesting that those families remaining in Woomera be brought into community detention settings and allowed a chance for the healing process to begin. 

Tom Mann is the author of Desert Sorrow: Asylum Seekers at Woomera, Wakefield Press, 2003.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up