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The World

The 'Crime' of Being a Young Refugee

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


When Hossein Avesta and his three family members arrived, they were split up and assigned to live with other families. After a month, Shana said, her father could not endure the separation of the family any longer. He held a piece of glass to his throat and threatened to cut himself until the authorities relented and let the family stay together.

In August, after the family's request for asylum was rejected for the second time, she and her brother, Parviz, now 17, went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions. Parviz sewed his lips together and refused to cut the stitches. Their hunger strike lasted for 25 days.

"We are punished same as criminals and called by numbers, not names," said Shana, now 13. "We are same as animal--they feed us in cage. I don't want this food--I want my freedom. That's why my brother and I decided to hunger strike and protest to show this life [isn't] worth anything to us."

Hossein Avesta said Shana lost more than 20 pounds during her protest. She is now completely withdrawn and spends her time alone, seldom talking or playing with girls her age, he said. She is frightened and anxious and has difficulty sleeping.

Shana learned English in detention and enjoyed going to school, the only break from her prison-like routine, but since her hunger strike she has been prohibited from classes.

"In Australia, my children have forgotten how to laugh and have forgotten how to smile," he said in a document prepared for court. "They have lost every last moment of their childhood and will never be the same again."

Howard won reelection in November largely because of his strong anti-refugee stance, but a growing number of citizen activists and officials has begun criticizing the government's approach.

Much of the disapproval stems from the treatment of detainees by guards employed by Australasian Correctional Management, the private company that runs the detention centers. The firm is a subsidiary of the American company Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which was founded by former FBI agent George R. Wackenhut.

Ron McLeod, the government ombudsman, concluded last year that detainees had fewer rights than convicted criminals and that detention center guards were less accountable than prison guards. McLeod said he is particularly concerned that women and children were kept in detention and that "there was little distinction between their treatment and that of the predominantly single male population."

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski says he would investigate allegations that children were manhandled by guards.

Ozdowski says the agency would examine whether Australia was living up to its responsibilities under the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says children should be detained only as a last resort and only for the shortest possible time.

Many youths in detention have joined adults in demonstrations that have turned violent and been suppressed by guards using water cannons and tear gas.

Steven Vose, a Perth Children's Court magistrate handling the case of two teenage detainees accused of throwing rocks during one protest, says violence is inevitable when young people are locked up indefinitely. The two defendants, ages 15 and 17, had been detained for 18 months with no end in sight.

"These boys will spend a substantial period of their youth in jail for nothing," the judge said. He said he "would be doing them a favor" to send them to juvenile hall.

Dr. Aamer Sultan, a Baghdad-trained physician, is studying the effects of long-term detention on asylum seekers and concludes that some suffer serious psychological harm.

He doesn't have to go far to see the subjects of his study. He has been locked up at the Villawood detention center for 2 1/2 years.

He says he fled Iraq in 1999 after he was accused of aiding the opposition to President Saddam Hussein. He escaped to Turkey, then flew to Sydney and asked for asylum. Australia rejected his application but cannot send him back to Iraq because the two governments have no diplomatic relations. In Sultan's view, he is serving an indeterminate sentence at Villawood.

"By law you are not a criminal, but you spend the rest of your life in prison," he said during an interview at the center. "We are not paying for what we have done. We are paying for what we are. I think we came to a very racist country. I think that we made a fatal mistake."

For his study, he observed 36 detainees for more than a year and watched as their condition steadily deteriorated. In 33 of the 36 cases, he concluded that long-term detention induced psychoses or severe depressive illness.

He wrote a brief summary of his research that was published last year in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet and co-wrote another article published in December in the Medical Journal of Australia.

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