Australian government hides data on suffering refugee children


A former chief psychiatrist has told a national inquiry into children in immigration detention that he  was asked to hide information showing the extent of mental distress among young detainees.


Reporter: Jason Om




EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: A national inquiry conducted by the Human Rights Commission  heard allegations today that the Immigration Department has tried to cover up damning statistics about the mental health of children held in detention.


In sensational evidence, a former chief psychiatrist said he was asked to hide information showing the extent of mental distress among young detainees.


The Immigration Department's top public servant also appeared before the hearing and defended the department's actions.


Jason Om was at the inquiry for Lateline.


JASON OM, REPORTER: Dr Peter Young headed Immigration's mental health service up until this month and delivered the explosive evidence in his own quiet way.


PETER YOUNG, PSYCHIATRIST: Sort of reacted with alarm and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting.


JASON OM: Dr Young was compelled by the Human Rights Commission under oath.




PETER YOUNG: They asked us to withdraw the figures from our reporting.


NAOMI SHARP: Who asked you to withdraw the figures from your reporting?


PETER YOUNG: Um, I'm not sure exactly. It came from the department.


JASON OM: The figures were based on an assessment of young detainees showing high rates of distress.


PETER YOUNG: It's quite clear that we've got a large number of children with significant mental distress and disorder in this population.


JASON OM: The inquiry heard there were 128 instances of self-harm in the past 15 months, some involving children. One child is said to have harmed themself 16 times.


NAOMI SHARP: Are you aware that some children have tried to poison themselves or ingest harmful substances?




NAOMI SHARP: Are you aware that some children have tried to choke themselves?


PETER YOUNG: Um, I haven't seen the specific reports.


NAOMI SHARP: Are you aware that some children are banging their heads against walls?


PETER YOUNG: Yeah, that's a common method of self-harm.


JASON OM: Immigration's most powerful public servant entered the inquiry defiant, but at times, he was met with derision from the gallery.


MARTIN BOWLES, SECRETARY, IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT: Sorry, sorry, Miss Sharp. Can I ask the audience to remain quiet? They're distracting me at the moment.


NAOMI SHARP: Certainly, Mr Secretary.


JASON OM: Several times, Martin Bowles contested the line of questioning.


MARTIN BOWLES: I reject the imputation that we are either misleading or lying to anybody in relation to the reduction in children in detention. There has been a significant and considerable decrease in the number of children in detention.


JASON OM: Currently there are 659 children detained, down from 1,330.


Mr Bowles, can you tell us a bit about ...


MARTIN BOWLES: No comment.


JASON OM: ... these allegations of cover-up by Dr Peter Young?


Martin Bowles rejected Dr Peter Young's evidence that medical opinion was overridden by his department. And Mr Bowles told the inquiry he was not aware of any attempt to hide the extent of mental health problems among young detainees.


MARTIN BOWLES: If in fact there was a problem and some of our staff did an inappropriate thing, I will deal with that. I cannot say that that actually happened in that way.


JASON OM: The doctors and medical experts giving evidence all agreed that the detention system is not safe for children.


Case after case, the inquiry heard stories of violence, self-harm and abuse in offshore detention. In one of the worst cases, a 16-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by a cleaner on Nauru.


Kirsty Diallo was a social worker on Bauru for the charity Save the Children.


KIRSTY DIALLO, CHILD PROTECTION WORKER, NAURU, 2013-'14: He touched the young - the boy's genitals and then grabbed his own genitals and said, "Jiggy jig." And at that point, guards were alerted because the young person was screaming out and had kicked at the guard and pushed - sorry, kicked the cleaner and the cleaner away from him.


JASON OM: Kirsty Diallo told the inquiry of flirtatious behaviour between teenage girls and guards.


KIRSTY DIALLO: And I also had a colleague report to me that he had observed an adult male guard stroking a 15-year-old girl's hair.


NAOMI SHARP: To your knowledge and observation, what child protection framework was available at Nauru?


KIRSTY DIALLO: There's no child protection legislation that exists in Nauru and there's no child protection authority that exists in Nauru, so the capacity to I guess put in place strategies to prevent child abuse - well, it just doesn't exist.


JASON OM: The Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has agreed to appear at the inquiry at a later date.

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A coalition of Church leaders has accused the Federal Government of "state sanctioned child abuse" and called for the Minister for Immigration to be stripped of guardianship responsibility for unaccompanied child asylum seekers.


The claim follows the launch in Melbourne of a new report detailing what the Australian Council of Churches Refugee Taskforce says is neglect and abuse of many of the unaccompanied child asylum seekers held in closed and offshore immigration detention facilities  by Australia.


However, a spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison says claims of state sanctioned child abuse are shocking and offensive and the Minister rejects these categorically.


The report is called Protecting the Lonely Children: Recommendations to the Australian Government and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with respect to unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia.


"These vulnerable children are being locked away behind razor wire for the 'crime' of being born in countries in political and social turmoil," the chair of the taskforce, Dr Peter Catt, said.


"It is a sick joke that under Australia's inadequate Guardianship Act their jailor is also their guardian, the Minister for Immigration.


"These children are held like animals in conditions that are inhumane, interrogated without support or representation, shipped around the country and offshore in the middle of the night, and denied basic rights including education.


"Given the Government continues to ignore irrefutable independent evidence from health and legal experts about the plight of these children we have no hesitation in labelling this what it is - state sanctioned child abuse."


Dr Catt said the Taskforce, made up of representatives from Anglican, Assyrian, Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ, Lutheran, Quaker, Salvation Army and Uniting Church denominations, called for:


    Fundamental reform of the Guardianship Act to ensure an independent guardian of unaccompanied child asylum seekers;


    Establishment of a properly resourced independent Statutory Office for the Guardianship of Minors;


    A new inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission into the conditions of children in community detention programs;


    Ending offshore detention of unaccompanied minors and in favour of community care in Australia;


    Developing better care standards to end the "care lotto" - wildly varying conditions depending on provider and location.


"We gave the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, and his Labor counterpart, Richard Marles, right of reply to the draft report we published, back in October last year,"  Dr Catt said.


"That neither politician provided substantial or satisfactory responses to the serious issues raised by the Taskforce back in October last year, confirms the utter moral failure of leadership in this country."


However the spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration said the Government takes the protection of children very seriously and is committed to ensuring they are protected from exploitation and abuse.


"The overwhelming majority of unaccompanied minors in Australia live in the Australian community, either in specialised care arrangements for minors in community detention or through a dedicated care programme for those who have been granted a visa (the Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minors Programme).


Full story at

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Australia's detention regime sets out to make asylum seekers suffer, says chief immigration psychiatrist

Guardian Australia exclusive: Doctor who was responsible for mental health of people in detention

becomes the most senior figure to condemn system from within, saying immigration department

deliberately harms vulnerable detainees in a process akin to torture