The ‘Crime’ of Being a Young Refugee


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.”

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.

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?”