Yes, the US border policy is harsh – but Australia’s treatment of refugee children has also been deplorable


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Villawood Detention Centre, NSW. There are currently 200 asylum seeker children in detention, in Australia and offshore.
Australian Human Rights Commission

Deborah Zion, Victoria University

US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border has sparked outrage in recent months, both in the US and abroad. It became so heated that he eventually ended the separation of families, though their fate remains unclear.

However, Trump is not the only leader to incarcerate children and use their suffering as a form of deterrence. The detention of asylum-seeker children has a long and brutal history in Australia. Trump’s policy invites us to reflect on our own policies regarding the detention of asylum seekers and the situation of children and families fleeing persecution.

Currently, over 200 children are in asylum-seeker detention, including on Nauru, in mainland detention centres and in community-based detention. Many have endured prison-like conditions, with no clear date for their release for months, if not years.

While most children remain with one of their parents, my research has found that separation of families is common. This includes the removal of young men on their 18th birthdays from their families with no warning or follow-up as to their whereabouts.

The mandatory incarceration of asylum-seeker children is an uncommon practice globally. It contravenes important human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states:

No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily … (This) shall be used only as measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

The degree of despair felt by children and their families is well-documented and goes back many years.

In 2004, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. This document outlined the privations of the lives of those held in detention centres in Australia, including the famous case of Shayan Badraie. He was detained for nearly two years, witnessing attempted suicide, self-harming and violence that resulted in several hospital admissions before the family was released.

The report also documents physical assault by guards, mental illness and lack of appropriate food, shelter and education.




Read more:
Accusations of deliberate, cruel abuse of refugee children must prompt a more humane approach


A Last Resort not only documents terrible human rights abuses, but the ongoing effects on those who experienced them. But, far from ending the incarceration of children and their parents, the policy of detention as deterrence has continued. In this regard, Australia is unusual, being the only developed country that imposes mandatory detention on people arriving by boat.

In 2014, the HREOC conducted another investigation, The Forgotten Children. This report documents in detail ongoing breaches of human rights, unsafe living conditions, medical neglect and physical and sexual assault.

Dehumanisation occurs on every level. One 16-year-old boy stated:

People were called by boat ID. People had no value. No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.

Children are also constantly exposed to the trauma of other detainees. One father said:

The word of “suicide” is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?

The report documents other cases of despair. A 13 year-old-boy detained on Nauru expressed to the treating doctor “a complete loss of hope; despair”. The doctor described how “[h]e had no appetite and no will to eat. He lost over 10 kilograms, which would be about a quarter of his body weight.”




Read more:
Sending children back to Nauru risks creating a generation of damaged people


The Australian government has tried to hide the conditions experienced by those held in places like Nauru and Manus Island. In particular, the Border Force Act (2015-17) imposed criminal sanctions on workers who speak publicly about what they see.

However, there is overwhelming and easily accessible evidence that Australia’s policies cause both immediate and ongoing trauma to children, and indeed all those incarcerated in detention. We must recall that Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that seeking asylum is enshrined in this instrument.

So while we can express moral outrage about things that occur far from home, our own policies ensure human rights breaches that cause unnecessary suffering and trauma for long periods of time.

There is now substantial evidence of the poor treatment of asylum-seeker children. This has come from a plethora of reports from human rights organisations, healthcare providers and detainees like Behrouz Boochani, who document and publish the conditions of incarceration.

The ConversationThey remind us of what the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said: “Do not be a victim; do not be a perpetrator; and above all, do not be a bystander.”

Deborah Zion, Associate Professor and Chair, Victoria University Human Research Ethics Committee, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Islamic State schooled children as soldiers – how can their ‘education’ be undone?



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There is a fundamental difference between Islamic State’s use of child soldiers and the practice elsewhere.
Al Arabiya/YouTube

James S. Morris, The University of Queensland and Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland

Over the last few years, the Islamic State (IS) terror group has shocked the world with its gruesome public spectacles. Especially abhorrent to our moral sensibilities is its overt use of children as frontline fighters, suicide bombers and propaganda tools.

From macabre hide-and-seek exercises, in which children hunt and kill enemy prisoners in specially constructed mazes, to the mass execution and decapitation of adult soldiers, young people living under IS have been indoctrinated and encouraged to engage in violence.

Meanwhile, IS’s quasi-government instituted an education system explicitly aimed at indoctrinating and weaponising the children living under it.

Mathematics was practised by determining how many more fighters IS has than an opposing force. Chemistry was taught by discussion of methods of gas inhalation. And physical education focused on the correct body positions for firing various weapons.

Their education has been compounded by the retaliatory and sometimes excessive violence of the vast array of forces committed to destroying IS. Through this, children have been exposed to horrific violence on a daily basis – thus generating trauma and, undoubtedly, genuine long-term grievances.

How IS’s use of child soldiers differs

There is a fundamental difference between IS’s use of child soldiers and the practice elsewhere.

IS hasn’t just recruited child soldiers. It systematically militarised the education systems of captured Iraqi and Syrian territory to turn the region’s children into ideological timebombs.

These children, saturated in IS’s particular brand of violent and uncompromising “religious” instruction from about the age of five, were trained in the use of small arms before their teenage years. They constitute a new challenge for the international community.

IS’s state-building efforts appear to have been thwarted for now. But saving the children exposed and potentially indoctrinated in its ideology is key to avoiding further terror attacks in the West, tackling the root causes of regional upheaval, and working toward a future where children play instead of fight, and schools teach instead of drill.

What children have been taught

Military activity, superiority based on IS’s interpretation of Islam, and the need to defeat unbelievers are embedded in its school textbooks.

Various videos, produced both through journalistic investigation and by IS itself, show the more practical side of education under the group’s rule. Children are taught how to fire small arms and use hand grenades.

Although IS extensively forced children into its ranks, many joined voluntarily – with or without their families’ blessing. But, in the long term, it doesn’t matter whether a child is forcibly recruited or not. And this is the matter of gravest concern.

IS’s primary concern is building and maintaining the children’s loyalty. The phrase “cubs of the caliphate” is a microcosm of how it views them. Cubs are unruly, ill-disciplined and dependent on strong (sometimes violent) guidance from their elders.

However, with time, resources and patience they can turn into a generation of fighters and idealists who will foster IS’s ideology even if its current military setbacks prove terminal.

Programs need to take a new approach

Disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programs designed to reintegrate child soldiers into post-conflict society have significantly progressed in recent years. This represents the continued evolution of military-civil partnerships in the quest for a conflict-free world.

But IS’s systematic and meticulous radicalisation of an entire region’s children presents new challenges.

It’s understandable to interpret IS’s rapid retreat as its death knell, and thereby view traditional rehabilitation techniques as an appropriate remedy for yet another region recovering from violence at the hands of a radical armed insurgency. However, this conflict has been highly unusual in its pace, tactics and impacts – both now and potentially in the future.

So, we must revisit the fundamental assumptions of what it means to inspire peace within a society. This starts with the children subjected to the ideological extremism of IS and other armed groups.

If there is to be sustainable peace in the areas liberated from IS control, rehabilitation programs must be viewed as a community-wide process. Even if children did not directly participate in IS activities, the group has moulded their worldview and underpinning life philosophies.

Such philosophies may be especially productive in a region where resentment of perceived foreign – Western – interference and exploitation is long-lasting and multifaceted.

What can be done

The regular processes of identifying child combatants, disarming and reintegrating them into their communities through rehabilitation (such as by ensuring they are physically and mentally capable of rejoining their communities) and reconciliation (developing peace, trust and justice among children and their communities) are all necessary. But they are vastly insufficient in this instance.

Rarely has there been such systematic youth radicalisation and militarisation. So, the international response must be equally far-reaching and methodical.

Rapid reimplementation and revisiting of pre-IS school curricula is of the highest priority. National and local governments should ensure children are shielded from further recruitment by instituting a curriculum drawn from principles of tolerance and inclusion.

It’s essential to develop locally run initiatives to measure the level of radicalisation among a community’s children and to construct child-friendly spaces for young people to socialise, reconnect with their wider community and “unlearn” what they adopted under IS.

The ConversationSuch practices will help to heal the wounds of IS occupation and ensure the potential for cyclical violence is removed. Done right, it will hinder IS’s ability to rise anew.

James S. Morris, PhD Student in International Security and Child Rights, The University of Queensland and Tristan Dunning, Lecturer in Modern Middle East History, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Electronic games: how much is too much for kids?



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When played in moderation, electronic games can be beneficial for children’s learning and development.
shutterstock

Sue Walker, Queensland University of Technology and Susan Danby, Queensland University of Technology

Most parents view their children’s playing of electronic games as potentially problematic – or even dangerous. Yet many children are engaging with electronic games more frequently than ever.

Concerns about electronic gaming do not stack up against the research. So, how much gaming is too much for young children?

Electronic games (also called computer or digital games) are found in 90% of households in Australia. 65% of households have three or more game devices. Given this prevalence, it’s timely to look more closely at electronic game playing and what it really means for children’s development and learning.

A study of more than 3,000 children participating in the Growing Up in Australia: Longitudinal Study of Australian Children explored children’s electronic gaming. This national sample was broadly representative of the Australian population.

The study had two phases:

  • parents reported on their children’s use of electronic games when their children were eight or nine years of age; and

  • teachers reported two years later on these children’s social and emotional development and academic achievement, when the children were 10 or 11.

How much time do kids spend gaming?

As the table below shows, there was wide variation in the number of hours per week the children spent playing electronic games.

Most children (52%) played electronic games for four or fewer hours per week. But nearly one-year of the children (24%) were reported as playing electronic games for more than seven hours per week.

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How much time should kids spend gaming?

Taking into account family background and parental education, the good news is that low-to-moderate use of electronic games (between two and four hours per week) had a positive effect on children’s later academic achievement.

However, over-use of electronic games (more than seven hours per week) had a negative effect on children’s social and emotional development.

Children whose parents reported they played electronic games for two-to-four hours per week were identified by their teachers as showing better literacy and mathematical skills.

Surprisingly, children who were reported as playing electronic games infrequently or not at all (less than two hours per week) did not appear to benefit in terms of literacy or mathematics achievement.

However, children whose parents reported that they played electronic games for more than one hour per day were identified two years later by their teachers as having poor attention span, less ability to stay on task, and displaying more emotional difficulties.

As the graphs below show, moderate game playing was associated with the most benefits both academically and emotionally.

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Are some games better than others?

It is likely that the relationship between the use of electronic games and children’s academic and developmental outcomes is far from straightforward. The quality of electronic games and the family context play important roles.

Electronic games known as sandbox games are recognised as offering opportunities for collaboration with others while engaging in creative and problem solving activities. One of the well-known examples of a sandbox game is Minecraft.

Social interactions are important in supporting children’s engagement in electronic games. A closer examination of children’s experiences at home may be beneficial in understanding the context of gaming in everyday life.

Often viewed as a leisure activity, studies show that when parents and siblings participate in the game playing, they offer opportunities to negotiate with each other, and engage in conversations and literacy practices. All of these potentially contribute to the child’s language, literacy and social development.

It is important to note that while we know the amount of time children spent playing electronic games, we do not know the detail of the kinds of games that were being played, with whom they were being played, or even the device on which they were played.

The ConversationThis contextual information is clearly relevant for consideration in any further research that explores the relationship across children’s electronic game playing, learning, and wellbeing.

Sue Walker, Professor, School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology and Susan Danby, Professor of Education, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pauline Hanson is wrong – we need to include children with disability in regular classrooms


Linda J. Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Kate de Bruin, Monash University

Yesterday, One Nation leader and senator Pauline Hanson suggested it would be better for teachers if students with autism and disability were put in special classrooms.

Hanson used children with autism as an example. She argued that their inclusion in regular classrooms was detrimental to non-disabled students, because “it is taking up the teacher’s time”.

She suggested moving students with disability “into a special class [to be] looked after and given that special attention … to give them those opportunities”.

Do Hanson’s claims stack up?

Hanson claimed that students with disability have a negative impact on their peers. Yet international research shows otherwise. Some research suggests students with disability have no impact on the learning of other students – whether they are present or not.

Other research shows that students appear to benefit from having disabled peers. They develop greater appreciation for human diversity and capacity for positive relationships.

Hanson also claimed that students with disabilities were better served in separate classrooms or schools. Evidence shows the converse is true. Decades of research has concluded that students with disabilities who learn in inclusive classrooms make far greater progress.

For example, students with disabilities in mainstream schools achieve higher grades than their counterparts in segregated schools and classes. They also develop more proficiency in language and mathematics and perform better on standardised tests.

Hanson claimed that students with disabilities take a disproportionate amount of teachers’ time, at the expense of non-disabled students. Yet studies exploring the views of teachers strongly indicate that they perceive inclusion as beneficial and valuable.

Teachers are more likely to feel anxious about their ability to meet their students’ needs and overwhelmingly express a desire for more information and training in order to become better teachers for all their students.

Interestingly, teachers often cite students with autism as a major group with whom they want to improve their skills. Our research shows there are many highly effective strategies that can be used in regular classrooms to achieve this.

In addition, teachers who receive appropriate professional learning about disability and inclusion report feeling more knowledgeable and less stressed.

This points to the importance of providing high-quality education and training for teachers. It also suggests the need for ongoing professional development in the teaching workforce.

Support for students with disability in class

Students with disability are not always well supported in Australian schools, but this does not mean that they are better off in special classes or that “special attention” will lead to opportunity.

In fact, too much individualised support and attention can increase disablement by fostering dependence, reducing the range of learning opportunities, and hampering achievement.

For this reason, it is critical that students with disability are included in the “real world” of school. This is important for them to become socially competent, independent and financially secure adults.

Preparing for life after school

Having desegregated classrooms is also an important step in paving a positive future after school. Inclusive education makes a powerful contribution to creating a more equitable and productive society. This prepares adults with disability for life after school and connects them in the wider community.

Students with disabilities who are educated in inclusive classrooms are far more likely to complete post-secondary education, making them much more capable of engaging in the workforce and obtaining meaningful employment.

Additionally, students with disabilities who attend their local schools are also more socially connected and engaged in their community as adults.

Hanson’s comments were based on anecdotes from conversations with a limited number of teachers. However, there is both established and new evidence that clearly indicates Hanson’s claims are unsubstantiated.

The ConversationMost importantly, when considering the placement of children with disability in the schooling debate, we should focus on both promoting quality education for all kids (regardless of their backgrounds), and providing the tools for a society in which all adults can work, study and interact socially.

Linda J. Graham, Associate Professor in Education, Queensland University of Technology and Kate de Bruin, Researcher in Inclusive Education, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How we can help refugee kids to thrive in Australia


Karen Zwi, UNSW

When we think about refugee children’s health, we tend to assume bad news. But refugee children are highly resilient. This means they can thrive, mature and develop despite poor circumstances, and can adapt despite severe and long-term hardship.

Our newly published research is the first of its kind to track the long-term health of newly arrived refugee children in Australia.

We showed which children tend to do well in the community, and the factors that predict this. We also give evidence for what Australia can do to help all refugee children thrive in the longer term.

Who are these refugee children and their families?

Between May 2009 and April 2013, a total of 228 refugee children under 15 years, who were granted refugee status under Australia’s humanitarian program, arrived in our study area. We followed 61 of these children for three years. None of them had been detained for any length of time, as they had been granted refugee status overseas and flown to Australia.

The children were on average six years old, with equal numbers of boys and girls. They came from south-east Asia (46%), Africa (33%) and the eastern Mediterranean (21%) regions (as defined by the World Health Organisation).

When they arrived, 30% of children were living in a family with one parent absent (almost always the father).

Many parents had high levels of education (20% had university or trade qualifications) and had been employed before coming to Australia; only 6% had no education and 20% reported unemployment in their home countries.

What physical and mental health issues did we see?

We checked the children’s physical health when they arrived and their development and social-emotional well-being over the next two and three years after settling in Australia.

Refugee children have well known physical, mental and developmental health issues, and our research supported this.

Iron and vitamin D deficiency were the most common conditions we saw. Only a few children had infectious conditions needing treatment.

After two and three years in Australia, most parents said their child had good access to primary health care and visited their GP every one to four months. About half the children had visited a dentist.

About a quarter of young children had developmental delay (mostly delayed speech and language) at the start, but all had caught up by their third year in Australia.

However, children’s social and emotional wellbeing was most strikingly affected by their refugee experiences. After two years of being in Australia, over 20% of children were experiencing emotional symptoms (such as sadness or fear) and/or peer problems (like difficulties making friends).

But by year three, these problems had decreased to below 10%, no different to the general Australian population, illustrating their resilience.

Which children do well and not so well?

Many studies have highlighted factors that make it more likely for refugee children to have poor health and well-being. These include economic and social conditions related to where people come from and where they settle.

We cannot change certain factors before children arrive, like pre-migration violence. But we can change factors once they’re here. In fact, research suggests post-arrival factors have a bigger impact than pre-arrival factors on refugee well-being.

Post-arrival factors that lead to poor outcomes include: time in immigration detention, exposure to violence post-migration, family separation, poor mental health of carers, negative school and peer experiences, perceived discrimination, parental unemployment, fall in socio-economic status and financial stress.

The most common stressful life events children and families experienced in our study were changes in the child’s school and home, parental unemployment, marital separation and financial stress.

For instance, single parent families became more common (38%) three years after settlement, largely due to marital breakdown; almost all families were receiving government financial benefits and living in rented accommodation two and three years after settling; half of the families had a weekly income under A$800, about 30% below the average weekly income in Australia; and unemployment was high (by year three, only 12% of parents were employed, mainly in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs).

Refugee children with stable accommodation tend to do better than those forced to move home multiple times.
from shutterstock,com

Researchers have also identified factors linked with better outcomes and resilience, and that increase the chance of good health and well-being.

These include living close to the family’s own ethnic community and having external support from the general community.

In our study, most families (more than 80%) knew someone in Australia before immigrating and felt supported by either their own ethnic (more than 73%) or the general community (more than 63%). Most parents said Australians displayed tolerance towards people of other religions, cultures and nationalities (more than 78%), although several volunteered anecdotes of their perception of discrimination related to property rental.

What can we do to make a lasting difference?

By addressing the factors that predict poor health and enhancing those that predict a good outcome, we can make a significant difference to refugee children’s lives.

Our research and others’ shows what policymakers and governments can do to help refugee children thrive in Australia. We need to:

  • integrate children and families into host communities
  • support families to stay intact
  • provide stable settlement with minimal relocations
  • support children’s education
  • support parents’ employment
  • ensure access to health, social and economic resources
  • reduce post-migration exposure to violence and threat, including detention, racism and bullying.

The ConversationIf these recommendations are implemented, it is very likely refugee children can realise the resilience they bring with them to Australia.

Karen Zwi, Paediatrician and Associate Professor, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia has kept disabled migrant children out for decades – it’s time we gave them protection instead


Ruth Balint, UNSW

Assistant Immigration Minister Alex Hawke recently intervened to allow a 16-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder, who had been ordered to leave Australia, to stay in the country. The Conversation

Sumaya Bhuiyan had been living in Australia for eight years, but was rejected for permanent residency in 2013. Her mother, a practising doctor in Sydney, told newspapers the immigration department had found Sumaya’s “moderate developmental delay” would be a burden to taxpayers.

Hawke’s personal intervention followed media coverage of the situation and a change.org petition that received nearly 38,000 signatures.

This isn’t the first time a minister intervened to prevent deportation of a family who have a dependent with a disability. In 2015, a Bangladeshi couple – also two doctors – with an autistic son had their application to stay in Australia approved.

For two years the Banik family exhausted all other avenues against the rejection of their autistic son for permanent residency. Their only recourse was to appeal directly to the immigration minister to intervene on compassionate grounds. After a widespread public appeal, Peter Dutton decided to let them stay.

Australia’s immigration laws require migrants to be screened for medical conditions. This is to prove they will not be a “burden” on the community, specifically its health services. Children are most affected by this policy, as costs are calculated over a lifetime.


Australia is causing significant mental harm to children in detention.

For someone found to be “burdensome”, the outcome isn’t always as positive as for Sumaya and the Baniks. A dozen or so families or their disabled members are deported from Australia every year.

Australian policies

Democracies have a long history of excluding people deemed undesirable as migrants. Those considered to have mental or physical disabilities are targeted most forcefully.

Australia has done little to ameliorate restrictions on disability in immigration policy. This is despite a 2010 parliamentary inquiry into the issue that recommended several changes to loosen them.

The chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration said at the time:

Australia needs a modern migration health assessment, with scope to positively recognise individual or overall family contributions to Australia and that takes into consideration development of contemporary medicine and social attitudes.

The Migration Act was amended in 1958 to remove restrictions based on race. But the health clause excluding people with disabilities remained. Despite ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ensured the Migration Act remained exempt from its own 1992 Disability Discrimination Act.

This means immigration is effectively quarantined from these national and international human rights instruments. The result is often that all able-bodied family members will receive permission to migrate to Australia, or gain permission to stay if they are already here, while a disabled child is refused. Families are either broken up or forced to leave.

The public has little awareness of this issue, due in part to the secrecy surrounding the formulation of migration criteria and policy.

The truly tragic dimensions of the issue were exposed most forcefully in the case of Sharaz Kiane in 2001. Kiane set himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in protest of the government refusing him a visa. This seems to have been based on the fact his 10-year-old daughter had disabilities that required expensive medical treatment.

Kiane died of his injuries. An Ombudsman’s report described the history of Kiane’s case as “one of administrative ineptitude and of broken promises”.

A history of exclusion

My research has explored stories of families who gave up their disabled children in the period after the second world war. They often did this under duress to forge new lives in countries like Australia, the US and Canada.

They were known as Displaced Persons, mainly of eastern European origin. Most had survived Nazi concentration camps and forced labour schemes. Displaced Persons’ migration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of various migration schemes.

Displaced Persons’ migration to the few western countries available for resettlement was complicated by the requirements of various migration schemes.
Wikimedia Commons

These were largely created to satisfy the labour demands of postwar economies. Physical fitness for manual work was the most important factor in assessing potential migrants for countries like Australia and Canada. Single, able-bodied men were therefore most desirable.

In family units, dependants were not allowed to outnumber breadwinners. Despite the proclaimed motives of rescue and humanitarianism towards Nazism’s victims, western migrant selection missions carefully checked each displaced person for traces of physical or mental damage. They excluded anyone who didn’t meet the strict requirements.

Many survivors of concentration camps and Nazi forced labour were rejected, as were the elderly and handicapped. A mass check of more than 100,000 displaced persons in 1948, for example, revealed half of them were still suffering from the effects of malnutrition and hardship.

Children who were disabled were also categorically rejected, often forcing parents with other children to make drastic decisions. Moral pressure by allied welfare workers to institutionalise disabled children contributed to children being left behind in Europe by families who emigrated.

The break-up of families is a relatively well-known consequence of Nazi Germany’s policies of forced labour, population transfers and liquidations. There has been far less recognition of the ways western governments furthered these separations through immigration policies that ignored postwar humanitarian ideals.

What now for Australia?

An irony is while Australia is actively excluding those classified as a burden because of their disability, it is disabling people by its policy of offshore detention.

As has been widely documented, children detained in Australia’s remote offshore detention centres suffer from sexual and physical assault. Some have self–harmed or threatened suicide.

Research also shows that children who spend time in immigration detention are often plagued by nightmares, anxiety, depression and poor concentration. They may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder for many years after the experience.

The protection of children is often hailed as the strongest evidence of a civilised society. This claim cannot, at present, be held by Australia if its most vulnerable members – children who are refugees and who might require first-world care because they are disabled – are being actively discriminated against in the name of an impoverished calculus of burden, cost and contribution.

Ruth Balint, Senior Lecturer in History, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s another reason kids don’t belong in detention: trauma changes growing brains


Julian G. Simmons, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

A bill that would release the 112 children in immigration detention in Australia will soon go before the House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate last week, but it could be rejected by a government-majority House.

While it’s widely accepted that detention is bad for child asylum seekers, the long-term effects of that harm are rarely spelled out. Our recently published research sheds some light on this.

So what should members of parliament consider when casting their votes?

Growing brains are vulnerable

The brain has evolved to respond effectively to stressful situations, many of which are normal challenges of everyday life. Indeed, some researchers argue that humans’ extended period of childhood and adolescence (compared to other species) has evolved to maximise our adaptability to the varied environments and social dynamics we traverse. What defines these periods, in this context, is a changing brain, a brain trying to adapt.

This adaptability, however, comes at a cost: growing brains are more vulnerable. Repeated trauma in childhood appears to change children’s enduring hormonal function and brain development, and increases the risk of developing a range of psychological disorders.

Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress” hormone. It plays a complex and wide-ranging role in the human stress and arousal response. Cortisol is also central to glucose availability, blood pressure and immune function.

Alterations in cortisol function are found in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are also a risk factor for these disorders. A recent study found soldiers with lower cortisol output before going to war in Afghanistan were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after traumatic events experienced during their deployment.

Cortisol has traditionally been measured in saliva, blood or urine, reflecting output over minutes or days. These studies have found either unusually high or low levels of cortisol in children who have experienced maltreatment. This defective regulation suggests a system initially pushed into overdrive, and then overwhelmed, becomes fatigued.

But this changing physiological picture, and our constantly varying levels of cortisol, has led to many inconsistent findings.

What did our research find?

Our new research studied the cortisol levels of 70 nine-year-old children living in and around Melbourne. We recorded these levels from scalp hair to determine their total cortisol output over months.

We found that the number and types of traumatic events experienced earlier in childhood correlated with hair cortisol levels. These events included illness and deaths in the family, and being sick or hurt in an accident. More extreme events, such as fires, floods or being threatened or attacked, were relatively uncommon.

Traumatic experiences in childhood alter the development of brain structures during adolescence. These structures include those directly linked to cortisol production, such as the pituitary gland, as well as others linked with emotion processing and memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Alterations in these structures have been identified in mental health disorders.

We have shown that adversity increases the risk of mental health disorders in adolescence. These disorders in turn further alter the way the brain develops.

Childhood adversity, particularly maltreatment, is associated with increased risk for numerous behavioural problems. These include drug use, suicide attempts, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections. The earlier the experience of adversity in childhood, the greater the risk of poor mental health outcomes.

What does this mean for detained children?

Clearly there are differences between the environments of our Melbourne families and those of detained children. But these differences are largely matters of degree.

Children in detention are at very high risk of exposure to physical and sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation and forced relocation. They also commonly witness traumatic events affecting loved ones. These experiences roughly double their risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

The more traumatic events a child experiences, the more likely lasting problems will emerge. A recent German assessment of families seeking refugee status found that 86.5% had already experienced multiple traumas involving war, torture and involuntary displacement.

Children entering detention in Australia already have elevated rates of psychological problems. The trauma of detention is likely to compound these harmful effects, which may persist long after the resolution of the immigration process.

Childhood is a sensitive and vulnerable period; experiences of trauma and adversity can produce harm that endures into adulthood. This inescapable knowledge should inform policy on the release of children from detention and remind us of the care and support they will need when they are finally released.

The Conversation

Julian G. Simmons, Research Fellow in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.