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The 'Crime' of Being a Young Refugee

Australia: Hundreds face years in lockup. Doctors warn of harmful effects.


SYDNEY, Australia — Thurgam al Abbadi has never been convicted of a crime or sentenced to prison, but he is locked up indefinitely here behind high metal fences and razor wire.

A refugee from Iraq, he has spent two years with his family in Australian detention centers. He has no idea when he will get out.

"They think we are criminals," he said bitterly during a recent interview at the Villawood Immigrant Detention Center in suburban Sydney. "There is no freedom."

Thurgam, angry and disillusioned, turned 12 in November.

Unlike other Western-style democracies, Australia has a policy of locking up all applicants for political asylum who have arrived without proper documentation. Some remain in custody for years while the government decides their fate.

Children who arrive without their parents are locked up with adults in the country's booming chain of detention centers, run by a private American-owned company. A handful of children born in detention have never lived anywhere else.

Doctors worry that the long-term confinement of children in facilities where they frequently witness violence and are denied adequate schooling is causing serious psychological harm. Some children, they fear, will never recover.

Several children have attempted suicide. Others have gone on hunger strikes. At least three teenage boys have sewn their lips shut to protest their incarceration and treatment, according to detainees.

Some officials say the detention centers are worse than the country's prisons. Human rights activists worry that when long-term detainees are eventually granted asylum and released, they will be so psychologically scarred by their experience that they will have difficulty adapting to life in Australia.

Children Out of Detention, a citizens group opposed to the mandatory incarceration of children, says that guards have the authority to strip-search anyone older than 10 and that children as young as 3 have been placed with parents in the high security lockup used for punishment.

A 2-year-old was put in leg locks for 45 minutes and an 8-year-old boy was handcuffed, the group says. Children at the centers generally receive no schooling after they turn 12, and even up to that age it is not always available.

Sexual Abuse a Concern

Some former staff members say that the detention system creates opportunities for sexual abuse of children and that allegations of abuse are not properly investigated.

Prime Minister John Howard contends that he must take a hard line against unwanted refugees because the country of 19 million people cannot absorb large numbers of immigrants.

The incarceration of all asylum seekers is part of a strategy to make Australia appear as unattractive as possible to refugees overseas. Detention of the refugees also makes it easier to handle their cases, officials say.

"We detain people in order to have them available for processing and ensure they are available for removal if they have no lawful entitlement to be here," said Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, one of the architects of the tough refugee policy.

The government reports that 582 children are in detention, including 53 unaccompanied by any family member. Ruddock says many of the unaccompanied minors are teenage boys who would likely have been fighting if they had been in Afghanistan. Releasing any children, he says, would encourage parents to send their offspring alone to Australia in the hope that they could join them later.

The minister maintains that all long-term detainees remain locked up by their own choice. They are free to go back to their homeland any time, he says, or to a country through which they passed en route to Australia.

"They believe if they stick it out long enough, they will break our resolve," he said. "Nobody is held against their will."

Seeing 'a Hopeless Life'

Shana Avesta would disagree. A refugee from Iran, she has been incarcerated since November 1999 when she arrived in Australia with her family at the age of 11. Her father, Hossein Avesta, fled with the family from Iran because he feared imprisonment or execution for criticizing the government.

At first, Shana was enthusiastic about the new life she expected to begin after a brief period in detention. But her father's request for asylum was rejected, and since then she has remained at the Curtin Immigration Reception and Processing Center in Western Australia.

Citing confidentiality rules, Australian officials would not discuss Hossein Avesta's case or that of any other individual, including those who have remained in custody for years. The Avestas are attempting to overturn the government's decision in court.

In a statement to the family's attorney, Shana described what it is like in detention.

"I have seen ill people who hang and cut themselves and a hopeless life," she said. "I have seen fire and violence, children and women on the floor when they were crying and screaming and a lot more."

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