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Australia's detention of asylum seeker children amounts to torture

By Barbara Rogalla - posted Wednesday, 6 August 2003

Health professionals have said it for a long time; now it is the official position of the Family Law Court. An immigration lock-up, where people have numbers instead of names, where guards, razor wire and electric fences set the physical and mental perimeters to existence, is no place to bring up children. Yet this is the reality for children who travel in a refugee boat en route to Australia, until they are released from these inhumane conditions.

Because of the damage inflicted, the deliberate detention of asylum seeker children equals torture, as defined by the Convention against Torture and outlawed by all statutes of national and international law. It is my opinion that Australia is in breach of this convention, and therefore guilty of crimes against humanity.

Detained children cannot escape from the cage where they are continually neglected. It would be bad enough if the government simply turned a blind eye to their pain and suffering. But in a curious interplay of politics and the judiciary, the Australian government has written statute law in such a way that the law appears to condone the child neglect that occurs as the logical consequence of the policy of mandatory detention.


Some politicians say that immigration detention is necessary for Australia to safeguard its borders and exercise its national sovereignty. Logic dictates that the systematic incarceration of children destroys, rather than enhances, our national interests. All children should be released at once, together with both parents. Instead, the post-Tampa implementation of the Pacific Solution spreads the nightmare across other Pacific islands.

Of private pain and public scrutiny

Severe damage is inflicted on children by detention. The bureaucratic and mechanistic process damages people who are detained, as the surreal world of the detention centre badly affects their mental states. Dr Aamer Sultan is a medical practitioner from Baghdad with extensive experience in psychiatry. He is also a refugee who was detained at the Villawood centre for over two years. During his detention, he observed that people are overcome with "detention syndrome", a form of psychological damage.

Dr Sultan's initial observations, which were published in the medical journal The Lancet, refer to adults. Subsequent research published by Dr Sultan and Dr Kevin O'Sullivan made it clear that children are particularly at risk of being damaged in detention centres, as parents there are unable to provide the expected parental support. Psychologist Zach Steel from the University of New South Wales treats people who have suffered severe psychological trauma, including those who are victims of the policy of mandatory detention. In a media interview, he has described as a "nightmare" and as "systemic child abuse" the finding that 21 out of 22 children who have been in detention are damaged by the experience.

Evidence of systematic psychological damage is also emerging from camps in the Pacific. The head of psychiatric services at Nauru resigned in protest over a "mental health nightmare." His observations also confirm worsening of psychiatric problems, as the direct result of ongoing detention.

Intentional Neglect: A form of torture

Child neglect, even if it causes psychological damage, does not automatically constitute torture. But systematic involvement of a government in this process may amount to torture.

Within the framework of human rights, the agreed definition of torture comes from the United Nations Convention against Torture:


… 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

This definition sets torture apart from other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, which are also addressed by the Convention against Torture. To be defined as torture, four criteria must be met. There must be:

  1. severe pain or suffering (physical or mental);
  2. intentionally inflicted for the purpose of obtaining information/confession or to punish or intimidate "him" or a third person;
  3. with consent or acquiescence of a public official or person acting in an official capacity;
  4. which is not pain or suffering from lawful sanctions.
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Article edited by Merrindahl Andrew.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the online Journal of South Pacific Law. Click here for the full text.

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About the Author

Barbara Rogalla is a postgraduate student at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She worked as a Registered Nurse at the Woomera Immigration Detention Centre and initiated media interest by alleging that Woomera management of Australasian Correctional Management suppressed an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse at that centre. A parliamentary inquiry later confirmed a cover-up by the company.

Related Links
Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
RMIT University
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