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The World

The 'Crime' of Being a Young Refugee

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


He notes that many refugees seeking asylum were imprisoned or tortured in their homelands and are psychologically vulnerable. But at Villawood, he wrote in Lancet, the treatment of detainees appears arbitrary, deliberately harsh, culturally insensitive and disrespectful.

"I and my fellow detainees came in search of freedom after suffering extreme persecution in our home countries," he wrote. "What has shocked us most is that our human rights have been profoundly violated again, this time by a country that is supposed to respect the principles of human rights. If a Western country can do this and get away with it, what hope do we have?"

One of the most poignant cases he studied is that of Shayan Bedraie, now 6. By all accounts, Shayan was a bright and happy boy when he arrived from Iran with his family in 2000.

His parents were denied asylum, a decision they have appealed. They have been in custody for 20 months and are now at Villawood.

Shayan was newly arrived in Australia when he saw a fellow detainee try to kill himself by setting his room on fire. Shayan later witnessed two more inmates cut themselves in apparent suicide attempts.

Deeply affected by detention and the gory scenes he witnessed, Shayan stopped eating and communicating. The detention center staff hospitalized him eight times for intravenous feeding and counseling.

When given a chance to draw, Shayan's pictures are of guards with batons and fences with razor wire.

Medical staff recommended that the boy be removed from detention but kept with his family. Instead, the government placed him with a foster family outside Villawood. His parents are taken to see him twice a week for two hours at a time.

"People overseas still believe like we used to that Australia is a real humanitarian country," said his father, Mohammad. "They will not understand until they are here, and then it is too late."

Shana, the 13-year-old who went on a hunger strike, says she does not understand why Australia hates the refugees so much.

"Is there anybody outside to answer me?" she asked. "Why we shouldn't be loved? Why we shouldn't be part of you? Why we shouldn't see your smile, your care, your open arms instead of those dark officers with black boots and buckles. What is life for us? Where is happiness and childhood?"

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