Arun*, a refugee from Myanmar, was just eight when he was arrested by immigration authorities in Malaysia and taken to a detention camp where he spent five months separated from his mother and six-year-old sister.
“I got one small bowl of food a day. We were never allowed to go outside. In the night I had to give massages to some of the men,” he told researchers from the International Detention Coalition (IDC) which has spent the last two years collecting testimonies from refugee, asylum-seeker and irregular migrant children about their experiences of detention in 11 different countries around the world.
By the time IDC’s researchers interviewed Arun, he and his family had been released but his sister was too traumatized to eat, and she and her mother cried as Arun spoke about being detained.
“Detention, even for a short time, has a very toxic effect on children,” said Jeroen Van Hove, coordinator of the IDC’s campaign to end the immigration detention of children, which was launched on 21 March at the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed by every country in the world with the exception of the USA and Somalia, states that detention of children be used “only as a measure of last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time and taking into account the best interests of the child”.
However, according to the IDC, an umbrella organization with more than 250 member groups working in 50 countries, as the use of migration-related detention has increased globally, so too has the detention of migrant, asylum-seeker and refugee children. They estimate there are tens of thousands of children in detention every day and hundreds of thousands every year.
In Australia, one of the few countries to regularly publish statistics on the numbers of children in immigration detention, there were 1,079 children in custody in January, just under half of them in prison-like facilities in remote locations such as Christmas Island. Following public pressure, Australia’s immigration minister made a commitment in October 2010 to remove most children from locked detention by June 2011.
According to Sophie Peer, campaign director for ChilOut, a local group advocating the release of all children from Australia’s immigration detention centres, the minister has kept to that commitment by a very slim margin, but the process by which children are selected for transfer to community-based accommodation where they are allowed to live a relatively normal life, remains unclear.
“It seems to us completely arbitrary,” she told IRIN, adding that the youngest child remaining in a detention facility is an unaccompanied seven-year-old who has been locked up for nine months.
When we interview the children, the overwhelming words are that they feel helpless and hopelessShe described the conditions in the detention centres, with their lack of educational and recreational facilities, as “completely inappropriate for children”. The centres’ often remote locations also make regular visits from lawyers and organizations like ChilOut prohibitively expensive.
“When we interview the children, the overwhelming words are that they feel helpless and hopeless,” said Peer. “They ask us, ‘What have I done wrong?’ To which our answer is, ‘Nothing’.”
She added that many of the children suffered from mental health issues: “We’re seeing self-harm on an almost daily basis.”
Research from numerous studies cited in a new report by the IDC, has found that immigration detention of children “has profound and far-reaching implications for their development and physical and psychological health”. The longer children are detained, the more likely they are to suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but there is evidence that even short-term detention has negative impacts on children.
In Thailand, detention periods for migrant children can be as long as five years. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and, under its immigration law, refugees and asylum-seekers living outside camps are subject to arrest and detention regardless of their age.
“Those who cannot go back to their country or who can’t be settled in third countries are kept [in detention] indefinitely,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, founder and director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation (TCR), which has been negotiating with the country’s immigration bureau since 2010 for the release of asylum-seekers and refugees with children. In June 2011, they had their first major success with the release of 96 Ahmadi refugees and asylum-seekers, including 40 children, into accommodation paid for by TCR through its Refugee Freedom Fund.
Although no official figures are available, Tianchainan estimates that 100 children remain in Bangkok’s International Detention Centre where children are separated from parents of the opposite sex, conditions are over-crowded and unhygienic, and schooling is available only two days a week.
“Some of them are really desperate,” he told IRIN. “After six months they look terrible because of the conditions inside and the poor quality and variety of food.”
The USA has taken steps to improve its treatment of migrant children in detention but still averages around 9,000 unaccompanied minors a year in custody with the conditions they are kept in varying from “detention-like facilities” to well-run shelters with fewer restrictions on movement, according to Michelle Brané, director of the detention and asylum programme at the Washington DC-based Women’s Refugee Commission.
Officials complain that the average length of stay for such children, many of whom are teenagers fleeing abuse or gang violence in Mexico and Central America, has increased in recent years because of the amount of checks required before they can be released to family members, sponsors or foster families. “It’s striking a balance between detention and protection and making sure they’re safe,” said Brané, adding that unaccompanied children, in particular, are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
The focus of the IDC’s campaign also goes beyond encouraging countries to release children from immigration detention to recommending what kind of arrangements children should be released into.
Drawing on best practices from countries such as Belgium and Japan, the IDC’s five-step model includes assigning guardians to unaccompanied migrant children or caseworkers to those with families, and placing them in community settings while their immigration status is determined. Key to the model is the goal of protecting children’s rights and best interests.
“Treating them humanely outside of detention is a big element,” said IDC’s Van Hove, “but also making sure they understand what is happening to them and that all options haven’t been exhausted for legalizing their stay.”
Brané is hopeful the IDC’s campaign will put a global spotlight on the detention of migrant children. “Most people around the world don’t realize that children are being detained in these conditions,” she said. “My hope would be that seeing this raised at an international level will encourage governments to move on it.”