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The inhuman culture of despair among children in our detention centres

By Tom Mann - posted Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Michael, an 11-year-old Iranian boy, arrived at Woomera detention centre at the end of April 2001. He was the best gift any teacher could have – bright, keen to learn and tackling his assignments with studious care. He seemed a thoughtful lad and full of promise in our November compound classroom.

When my teaching contract finished five months later I could not believe any children like Michael could last out much longer than six months without succumbing to the culture of despair that had pervaded the centre. In my eight months as a teacher at the Woomera detention centre I could see children start to go downhill by about six months. Usually they were more resilient than their parents, who would often show distressing signs after three months, following rejection of their cases for refugee status. In the end though, the detention syndrome prevailed. How could children not be affected when parents become depressed and dysfunctional and when witnessing acts of violence and self-harming?

In my first six-week contract in late 2000, one of my students was a rather restless bright young lad called Shayan. His parents had fled political persecution in Iran. With a bit of coaxing and extra attention Shayan responded and joined in with the activities but I had no idea at the time of the trauma and suffering that would befall him.


In August 2001, I watched an ABC Four Corners program on the case of six-year-old Shayan, who by then had been in detention for 17 months, first at Woomera and subsequently at Villawood detention centre where he had completely withdrawn from life. I barely recognised him as the lad I had known in the classroom. At Woomera, Shayan had seen guards beating refugees with batons during riots. And at Villawood, Shayan had not spoken since he had seen blood pouring from the wrists of a refugee who had tried to commit suicide. He also refused to eat or drink and had to be taken to hospital every few days for rehydration. Aamer Sultan, a medical practitioner and also a refugee from Iraq, had identified Shayan’s condition as immigration-detention stress syndrome.

As the months rolled by at Woomera detention centre children would usually stop coming to classes or if they did come they were more withdrawn and listless and not so willing to join in classroom activities. Two sisters, Nola, 11 years and Sandra, nine, came to the class initially and then withdrew. I tried to encourage them to come but they preferred to play in the dirt surrounding the classrooms. I informed the psychologist who tried to convince them that activities in the school were a better option. They came to classes for a short time and then sadly withdrew again. Their brothers, Alan and Matthew, showed a similar response to long-term detention. They showed great potential in the classroom at first and then “switched off”. Alan’s drawings were displayed at a number of venues outside the detention centre.

Sarah, an Afghan girl, also showed signs of detention stress. No one was really sure of her age, including Sarah herself, who thought she might be 12 years old. At the beginning of her detention she was enthusiastic about her lessons and always turned up to class with a smile and headscarf faithfully in place. As the months passed, though, she became listless and withdrawn. There were occasions when she returned to her former bright self and turned up to class. Again the detention syndrome prevailed. About a year later, in the 2002 Easter protest the outside world caught a snapshot of her emotional distress as one of the Australian protesters hugged her outside the razor wire. Sarah and her three brothers were quite animated before the refugee review tribunal rejected their application for refugee status. From then on the whole family showed signs of depression. The children withdrew from school or only turned up sporadically. From animated and expectant faces they became lifeless in a sea of despair. Sarah’s mother suffered from arthritis and couldn’t function properly as a parent. Sarah became a parent by default. It was not uncommon, we found later, for a child to assume that role. Sarah was angry and would often say, “Why are they doing this to my family?”

Sarah and her family are still in detention at Baxter and so are Anita, now 13 years old, and her brother, Samuel, now 16, who came from Iran at the same time as Michael. Anita and Samuel were a cheery and chirpy duo in the classroom, always happily engaged in any school activities. From recent reports of a social worker at Baxter detention centre, Anita, like Sarah, had also become very angry and despondent with their case being rejected at each stage of the tortuous processing system. After my teaching contract had expired Anita wrote to me after her family’s first rejection:

Mr Tom hello,

Excuse me that I have nothing that I send you. I don’t think I can come to see you again very soon because we have [been] rejected. I miss you and I still remember your face. Never forget you. I would like that I had something to send you good teacher but if God we can get visa and we will see [you] very soon. Thank you for your picture. Anita.


Now we know the danger zone for children in a detention centre environment from our own observations is definitely six months. We actually witnessed their demise over time and it was reinforced by an environment essentially devoid of compassion and counselling with a culture of despair that repeated itself across the detention centres of Australia. This emotional abuse was not picked up straight away, it was an insidious affliction, like a benign tumour, burning inside but not devouring. Children became more listless, often angry and more aggressive, sometimes assuming a parental role and responsibility for their family members. They turned to self-harming and absorbed negative elements of the detention system culture.

Family and Youth Services (FAYS), as part of the Department of Human Services in South Australia, was responsible for investigating any kind of child abuse, whether emotional, physical or sexual. Ironically, the only case of significance at Woomera that was brought before FAYS was the one involving sexual abuse. A strong case could be mounted for emotional abuse of all children in detention, especially for those staying more than six months. Not much was said at first. Slowly the tide turned and more people spoke out against children being in detention and suffering emotional abuse. Many of the children would witness hunger strikes and self-mutilation by other refugees. According to concerned leaders in the community the children had committed no crime and it was a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Australia in 1990.

Two types of behaviour, described by FAYS and relevant to asylum seekers in detention with respect to emotional abuse were:

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About the Author

Tom Mann was a lecturer at the Roseworthy Campus (formerly Roseworthy Agricultural College) of the University of Adelaide for 20 years. He then spent eight months teaching English and Australian life skills to asylum seekers detained in the Woomera Detention Centre. His experiences have prompted him to write Desert Sorrow: asylum seekers at Woomera.

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All articles by Tom Mann
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Children Out Of Detention homepage
Department of Immigration and Mulitcultural and Indigenous Affairs
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