The boy was thin, angular, frenetic. He rushed into the room of strange adults. He strode to the conference table and stiffly shook hands with everyone, without any idea of who we were. His body was tense; his politeness excessive. He was 11-years-old. He was a child acting the man.
But he was alive. Thanks to his father, who a few weeks before, had found him trying to cut his wrists.
An exaggeration? We all wished it were. Behind the boy, his young brother followed, also shaking hands in a formal, tense way. Their father watched, but said nothing.
The boys were displaying the outside cool of terrible inner turmoil. They and their parents had recently been let out of a detention centre on a temporary refugee visa, after many months of being held behind wire enclosures, where they had witnessed things children should never see: such as violence, people suffering depression, people attempting suicide.
After all those months in detention, the family was out in the community but still had no promise of being allowed to stay in Australia permanently: there was no assurance of security in which to begin to recover their health and start a new life. Their father, a professional man of natural authority and courtesy, had no choice but to be staunch while he and his family remained in limbo, fearful of being sent back to the country from which they had escaped. If returned, they knew they would face persecution. Not for these boys carefree days of kicking a football about. They had to grapple with the fear of an unknown future and the helpless sense of belonging nowhere.
They were on a countdown list, a countdown while the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) decided if they could stay, or if they should go. Even if the boys did not know it, they had also been on another countdown list - on the list for the hard-fought struggle by individuals and organisations to get children out of detention before too much psychological damage has been inflicted. Fighting the Federal Government to get each child out of detention has been like pulling teeth. The battle is not yet won. At the time of writing, 58 children are still held.
Jon Jureidini, head of the department of Psychological Medicine at Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital, commented that all the adults and most of the children he had seen were “extremely badly damaged - more damaged by their detention experience than by their experience before arriving”. He said instances of children committing self-harm were prevalent and disturbing. Detainees’ “only means of protest is largely self-destructive”. DIMIA informed Parliament in 2003 that five children had sewn their lips together, three had slashed their arms, two had swallowed shampoo, one child tried to suicide by hanging themselves, and thirteen had threatened to hurt themselves over a two-week period.
Queensland lobbying group Refugee Action Collective (RAC) reported that the longest a child has been held in detention is 5 years, 5 months and 20 days. The mother and child were released from Port Headland in 2000, after finally being assessed as refugees. It had taken over five long years to convince a DIMIA “someone” they were fair dinkum.
In March 2005, the number of children in detention was 93 (DIMIA statistics), these were listed as 45 Tongans and Fijians, at Villawood; 12 Chinese at Port Augusta; 7 Tongans at Maribyrnong; 10 Vietnamese at Christmas Island; 11 Afghans at a hotel or house; 2 (unknown) at Baxter, plus 5 unaccompanied Afghan children.
Detained children included Naomi Leong, the three-year-old girl who had only known life in a detention centre. She is the daughter of Virginia Leong, a Malaysian, aged 31, who was detained when trying to leave for overseas on a false passport. Pregnant with Naomi at the time, it seems her valid visa had expired. It took a psychiatrist’s request for Naomi to be allowed out of Villawood detention centre for the first time in the three years to attend a play group for two hours. The little girl was reported to have become listless and unresponsive and her mother told the ABC that she was so upset herself that Naomi responded by banging her head against a wall and would not to talk to other children there.
In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald editor (May 9, 2005), Jane Roberts, of Lindfield, wrote:
I regularly visit the mother and child in Villawood. My understanding is that because Naomi was born in detention she is stateless and no country will readily accept her as a resident. If Virginia Leong leaves Australia she cannot take her daughter with her. To keep her child she must continue to live in detention. There are many individuals and agencies willing to support and assist Virginia and Naomi if the Department of Immigration were willing to release them from their legal limbo.