Friday, February 18, 2011

Mental illness rising among immigrant children stuck in detention centers in Australia

From The Australian:

An epidemic of mental illness is developing among children incarcerated in immigration detention centres around Australia, with the numbers of underage detainees at a record and conditions worsening, according to refugee activists.

Stories of children starving themselves, slashing themselves with razors, becoming clinically depressed and fighting pitched battles armed with makeshift weapons are emerging from the detention regime, which houses more than 1000 asylum-seekers under the age of 18.

"The psychological state of all of them is poor (and) it's reaching boiling point," says Kate Gauthier, chairwoman of ChilOut, which is campaigning for the release of all minors from immigration detention. "It's a mental health crisis, not waiting to happen, but a mental health crisis that is happening."

In one case, a 16-year-old Afghan boy, who travelled to Australia alone by boat last year after his father was killed in Afghanistan, has twice slashed himself with a razor while in detention in Darwin.

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Refugee activist Pamela Curr says "Amir" (not his real name) has no family in Australia and is in despair over his future after almost a year in detention.

"(The first time) he told me he couldn't stop himself because he had to release the pressure in his head. The next time he did it because he just couldn't stand it any longer. He'd been asking what was happening to his case and no one could give him an answer."

Amir is detained at the Darwin Airport Lodge, one of several alternative detention centres used by the federal government because of severe overcrowding at Christmas Island and to alleviate criticism of children being kept in prison-like conditions.

However, Ms Gauthier says the children in motel-style facilities are still locked in and guarded 24 hours a day.

"The government is playing with words and pretending they're not detaining them by saying they're not behind razor wire. Well, the Supermax prison at Goulbourn doesn't use razor wire either," she said.

"A motel is a very small room and a parking lot. It's designed for you to go out from it every day. (But) they leave people in these places, detained there for many months. There are no recreation facilities and very little opportunity for the children to go out."

Children aged between five and 15 at the Darwin facility are allowed out to go to school, but those under five and over 15 are not, which Ms Curr says is in breach of Northern Territory law, which requires all children up to 17 years of age to attend school.

She says conditions in the lodge, which houses 465 asylum-seekers, are "a nightmare" and a "recipe for disaster".

Last week, tensions between Iranian and Afghan youths erupted into violence that continued over two days, and led to the arrest of 11 people, including eight minors, who now face criminal charges including weapons offences.

Ms Curr says an atmosphere of fear prevails.

The High Court is hearing an application on behalf of four teenage Afghan asylum-seekers, arguing that their detention on Christmas Island is unlawful and in breach of Australia's international obligations to protect children.The Gillard government promised in October last year to remove all children from immigration detention. However, refugee activists say only about 40 children have been moved into community care, and 1040 remain in secure, locked detention facilities.