On Indefinite Detention

by Amelia Issa

”I feel like I am dying everyday, losing hope and myself in this jail…all I want is a better life for me and my family…”

Having been a refugee myself, I became interested in the struggle that these individuals were enduring in order to find a place to call home. When the role of an advocate for Therapy4Refugees presented the opportunity to help those who were detained, I immediately knew that it was the perfect fit to combine my skills and knowledge in communication and empathy, as I am currently studying a Master of Counseling, as well as my personal experience in my journey in settling in Australia. These refugees and asylum seekers have been forced to flee from their homes, their families and all that they have ever known in order to start a new life in a country so unfamiliar and to an extent, unwelcoming. I felt it important and an obligation to help those who have been detained for a prolonged period of time in supporting and empowering them so they may be able to live purposeful lives whilst living in such destitute and dire conditions.   

Liberty, freedom and justice are three basic fundamental human rights. Indefinite detention of a refugee and asylum seeker have numerous detrimental and demoralizing effects on both the mental and physical state. Imprisoning people who have not committed a crime and have no release date is inhumane, arbitrary and unjust. These individuals flee suffering, persecution, torture, war, violence, and economic hardships in their own country in order to build a better life in a society where human rights, freedoms, and dignity are championed. 

The psychological and physical impact of prolonged or indefinite detention is irrefutable. Reports of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, detention fatigue, hunger strikes, riots, and sexual and physical abuses are prevalent in many of the detention facilities. The grief of indefinite detention affects not only the individual and their families but essentially reflects how we treat those in need. How many more lives will it take for the Australian Government to enact statutory safeguards that protect these vulnerable detainees? Inalienable human rights cannot be suspended or given to some, but are needed to be guaranteed and available for all, especially individuals who need our protection against abuse by those who are more powerful.

The effects detention has on all individuals are numerous, taking a large physical and psychological toll on the person involved. This is especially evident when concerning the detention of children. Basic childhood experiences necessary for development such as learning, education and play are deprived of the child’s lifestyle and will have a negative effect on their growth. The important notion to be highlighted is that extensive trauma and stress has been placed on many asylum seekers and refugees, as they have fled the countries and their livelihoods. This trauma coupled with immediate indefinite detention is a driving force behind the statistics reflecting over a third of children in detention suffering from serious mental issues, in comparison to merely two per cent in the rest of the community. Certain common occurring issues include anxiety, worry, loss of appetite, detention fatigue, depression, withdrawal, avoidance, weight loss and even to certain extent, acts of self-harm. In addition, the impacts on the developing brain include language delays, regressive behaviours, self-stimulation such as headbanging, language delays, difficulties in emotional and cognitive regulations, bed wetting into adolescence and the fear of separation anxiety. The detention of children is not a common practice in progressive parts of the western world and has clearly proven to be absolutely detrimental to the psyche of the child and follow them throughout the remainder of their life.

Young children who leave their homeland in such dire circumstances also leave parts of their identity behind them. Children leave behind their culture, familiarity, loss of innocence, childhood friends, and their community. These children in detention allow for the breakdown of the family unit. Parents are left without the proper tools needed in rearing their children to have the ability to develop the skills necessary to survive and thrive in the real world. Sadly the declining mental and physical health of their parents forces these children to grow up and take on the parental responsibilities.

Lastly, The Australian Human Rights Commission found that there was an ‘unacceptable level of violence, abuse and self-harm’ that was being exposed to children held in detention centres. In only fourteen months, the Australian Psychological Society ‘Submission to Human Rights Commission National Inquiry’ and the Australian Human Rights Commission found that there were:

  • 57 serious assaults
  • 233 assaults involving children
  • 207 incidents of actual self-harm
  • 436 incidents of threatened self-harm
  • 33 incidents of reported sexual assault (the majority involving children); and
  • 183 incidents of voluntary starvation/hunger strikes (with a further 27 involving children)

Australia’s current immigration policies are stripping these children and their families of their basic fundamental human rights. Their right to liberty, freedom, basic healthcare, the right to work, the right to education and so forth. These implications have ongoing consequences that will haunt these individuals throughout their lifetime. Australia’s harsh immigration policies disregards these vulnerable individuals who are seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. There is increasing evidence from around the world that shows the negative, detrimental and long-lasting impact of immigration detention of both the adults and children. Multiple studies conducted have shown that there are insufficient safeguards paid to the safety and protection of such a young population that are incarcerated due to their circumstances. Policies in Australia need to change so that they are in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Keeping these individuals in detention centres contravene these rights and it is the duty of the Australian Governments to support and protect these vulnerable individuals from further stress so that they can have the opportunity to achieve successes in their newfound country they can call home.  

Amelia Issa

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