Since 1994, every single person who has come to Australian shores by boat without a visa ― most of them asylum-seekers ― has been taken to mandatory indefinite detention. Mandatory, as in there are almost no exceptions. Indefinite, in that it could theoretically last forever. And detention is just like what it sounds like.
While some detention centers are hotel rooms or rented housing on the Australian mainland, the most notorious ones are prison-like facilities. They have high, sometimes electrified walls, as well as guards, poor health care and education, and an almost total lack of freedom of movement. They were or are located on Christmas Island, an Australian territory located just south of Indonesia, on Nauru, a Micronesian island, and Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.
For more than 20 years, this policy has wreaked havoc on the people who have tried to migrate under dangerous conditions, primarily trying to sail from Indonesia to Australian territory.
The number of asylum-seekers that have come to Australia via boat is relatively small compared to the number of refugees Australia has formally accepted. At the peak of arrivals by boat, in 2013, about 10,000 were held in both onshore and offshore detention. In contrast, Australia formally resettled more than 24,000 refugees in 2017 through their humanitarian program.
But the small group of unauthorized refugees and asylum-seekers has suffered tremendous pain in Australia’s custody. People detained in the highest-security centers have staged hunger strikes over their treatment, self-harmed and struggled with suicidal thoughts. They have been subject to violent and inhumane living conditions with little access to medical care or appropriate living facilities for children. While in detention on offshore sites, 12 migrants have died ― most of them suicides or suspected suicides, and notably, one death at the hands of guards.
Trump has expressed admiration for Australia’s harsh migrant policy in the past. And now his administration has said it stopped separating children from their parents once they cross the border without a visa. But U.S. officials are now preparing to mimic Australia by keeping children with their families in detention.
But as Australia’s example with family detention shows, there is an immense potential for abuse, neglect and violence in indefinite detention, especially for children. Americans must do everything in their power to prevent their country from following down the same path, Australian immigrant advocates say.
“We know from over 20 years of this practice that detention harms children and should not be looked at as an example for the rest of the world,” said Asher Hirsch, senior policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, a nongovernmental immigrants rights organization. “We strongly encourage civil society in America to learn from Australia’s horrible mistakes.”
There are signs that the U.S. is already going down Australia’s path. A week ago, the U.S. Department of Justice took the first step toward indefinite detention of children and families by filing a motion to override a court order that puts a limit of 20 days on the amount of time children spend in immigration detention, saying that this was the only alternative to splitting children from their parents at the border.
Four days ago, Time magazine reported on draft plans for “temporary and austere” tent cities that could house tens of thousands of people on military bases. Ostensibly, this is to house people for the duration of their prosecution because of the new zero tolerance policy. These new facilities would be in addition to the more than 200 prisons and jails that the U.S. already uses to detain undocumented immigrants for an average of one month before deporting them.
And recent court filings allege that the conditions inside U.S. detention centers have been harmful and inhumane over the past few years, especially for the children detained alone. One complaint claims that children held at centers in Texas were forcibly injected with medication, while another describes beatings and solitary confinement in Virginia.
Australia’s “horrible mistakes,” particularly when it comes to children, are outlined in two sobering and disturbing reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission: one in 2004 and another in 2014.
The most recent one, which surveyed a total of 1,129 detainees in 11 centers scattered across Australia and other territories, was conducted between 2013 and 2014. This was a time when there were a little over 1,000 children detained in immigration centers, either with or without their parents.
Some of the most shocking findings stem from conditions on Christmas Island, an island territory of Australia a little smaller than Honolulu, directly south of Indonesia. From July 2013 to July 2014, children on Christmas Island had no schooling, which has lifelong negative effects on their cognitive development and academic progress.
Life in detention also puts children’s bodily safety at risk, too. From January 2013 to March 2014, the Human Rights Commission tallied 233 assaults involving children. It listed another 33 incidents of reported sexual assault, most of which involved children, and 27 hunger strikes that children participated in, across all detention centers.
In addition to being victims of violence, children also witnessed violence. The commission notes that there were 57 serious assaults, 207 incidents of self-harm and 436 incidents of threatened self-harm that took place in detention centers where children were held.
These experiences led to trauma-based issues like separation anxiety, aggression and regressive behaviors like wetting the bed after being toilet trained. Other effects include the development of a stammer and delayed language development in detained children.
While there is medical staff at all detention centers, there was no full-time child psychiatrist or psychologist on Christmas Island, nor were there any health services specifically for children in 2013.
When more complex medical issues arose, families on Christmas Island had to wait a long time to receive treatment for their children’s delayed speech, rotting teeth, infection and other problems. In fact, detainees told observers that they had been accused of having ulterior motives for the medical complaints ― like a transfer to the mainland.
To get a sense of how long families waited for specialized medical attention, the report told a story of a couple who were both deaf and their hearing aids had been destroyed on the boat journey to Australia. Their first language was sign language, and the camp didn’t have an interpreter. For the first six months of their stay in detention, they had gone without hearing aids, and could only communicate, with great difficulty, by reading people’s lips. They also felt concerned about their daughter, who was 19 months old by then and also deaf, because she wasn’t developing her language skills or “using her voice at all.”
Finally, by May 2014, their seventh month of detention, the parents received new hearing aids. At last check, their daughter was still being assessed ― almost one year after arriving in Australia.
Doctors spoke out about these issues in hearings, but in 2015, a law went into effect banning medical and social worker staff at detention centers from speaking to the press about their work or the conditions of the migrants. If they did so, they would have faced prison sentences of up to two years. This law was effectively rescinded two years later.
Detainees spoke of the dehumanizing way that everyone was referred to by their “Boat ID” — an identification issued them upon processing. Children learned very quickly this was their primary identity — even going so far as to sign their drawings with their ID number.
“People were called by boat ID. People had no value,” said a boy who began detention at age 16. “No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.”
But it was the fact that detainees had no idea when, or if, they would ever make it out of custody that had a particularly paralyzing effect on their mental health, said child and family psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Mares, who is now a senior lecturer with the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Indefinite detention is particularly harmful because people have no way of anticipating or planning for the future,” she wrote in an email to HuffPost. “In addition, length of detention is clearly associated with increased problems — the longer you detain people, the more of them, adults and children, become unwell.”
At the time the report was published, children had been in detention centers an average of 14 months.
The most foundational harms took place among babies that had been born in the camps — 128 at the time of the survey — who knew no life other than the detention centers. Their parents were depressed and often disengaged, resulting in subpar care for the infant. Parents also had to line up every day to get their allotment of three diapers, three baby wipes and three scoops of formula at a time.
“If they required more than this ration, which was likely, they needed to line up again,” the report stated. “They would queue for long periods in extreme heat or torrential rain and often holding a newborn baby.” There were also no baby baths on Christmas Island, so women had to stand in the shower holding their newborns under the water.
There were few toys or books for children, and even crawling space was at a premium, as the spaces were cramped. The floors were made of concrete or stone, and the grounds were rocky and dusty.
“There is no space for my baby, no place to put him down,” said a mother of a six-year-old and a 10-month old. “There are centipedes, insects, worms in the room. Rats run through. We have no eggs, no fruit. We get out of date food. I don’t want a visa, I just want somewhere safe and clean for my child. Serco [detention service staffers] is not sympathetic – they say just put them down. The guards said if you don’t calm down we will get the police dogs onto you.”
“The family compound on Christmas Island is bordered with jungle and there was a constant scuttling of giant centipedes around the pathways,” noted Mares, whose observations were included in the 2014 report. “Red crabs would enter both the compounds and the individual rooms. They have claws strong enough to remove a human toe with ease. Children taking their first steps at 12 months of age would be wandering past these creatures daily.”
And because guards were the ultimate authority in detention, the parents’ standing with their own children was constantly undermined.
“It is the parent that should provide, but I feel powerless,” said the father of a four-year-old. “Our son says that the guards are stronger than we are. Now he is only a child, but I am scared he will be worse when he is a teenager. Already he doesn’t listen to us anymore, I am worried he won’t listen as he gets older and will get into trouble.”
Due to this and other reports exposing the human rights abuses against children, the Australian government decided in 2016 to release all of the children and their families from mainland detention centers into the community on special visas. But that still left them without a final word on whether they will be allowed to stay in Australia for good.
To this day, there are still a few hundred children in detention, mostly on Nauru, where migrants are in the process of applying to the U.S. for resettlement.
“While the Australian government has now ensured there are no children in onshore detention centers in Australia, 158 children are still detained in Nauru and there has not been any legislative change to Australian migration laws,” said Hirsch. “Meaning at any time, the government can re-detain children.”
This “fix” also doesn’t address the potentially lifelong consequences of the trauma children experienced on the island. There are currently no published reports following up with children who were detained in Australia’s migration facilities, but Mares points to research on the mental health of refugee children now living in rich countries. A 2011 review paper states that children do better when their asylum cases are processed quickly and carefully, and when they are detained in “routine” reception facilities rather than restrictive ones. It also states that after a migration detention experience, intrusive memories of fires, rioting, violence and self-harm experienced in the facility are common among children.
At first, the Australian government denied that these abuses were occurring, Mares said. But when the evidence became undeniable, they switched tactics and began calling the detention policy “a deterrent” ― treatment so awful as to discourage people from trying to make the journey to Australia. White House chief of staff John Kelly said the decision to separate children from their families “would be a tough deterrent” for illegal immigration back in April. Instead of inspiration, Australia’s example should serve as a warning to Americans, Mares said.
“Most people do not believe that it is right to harm some people (particularly children, but actually anyone) with the aim of making other people behave differently,” Mares said.
“Immigration detention results in child neglect and maltreatment undertaken deliberately by our governments,” she concluded. “We would never condone this for American or Australian children.”