Abuse in the desert

Letter from south Australia.


Chris Goddard and Max Liddell have complained
to the state government about the treatment of children at a
detention centre for asylum seekers located in a remote desert


On 21 March 2002 we reported to the South
Australian Department of Human Services on the children and young
people held in the Woomera Detention Centre. We took this action
because we formed a suspicion, on reasonable grounds, that these
asylum seekers are being abused or neglected or both – and, under
the relevant South Australian legislation, the reporting of
suspected child abuse is mandatory for social workers.


As a result of our referral, we expect the
department to investigate the children’s circumstances and act to
secure their safety and best interests, as required by law.


There are many reasons to be concerned for the
welfare of those children held by the federal government in
Woomera. In February, after a five-day visit, the Human Rights and
Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) confirmed that the camp was in
breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It said the
children were being inadequately educated, and that health services
and living standards were poor. In two weeks, the organisation
recorded 13 threats of self-harm, five lip sewings, one attempted
hanging and three self-slashings. One 14-year-old was reported to
have sewn his lips twice and slashed the word “freedom” into his


The HREOC commissioner said in February that
there were nine children who had been in Woomera for longer than
one year, and 70 who had been there for more than six months.
Australia’s Catholic bishops have called on the federal government
to reassess the way asylum seekers are treated. Former staff
doctors at Woomera complained, describing conditions as “inhumane”
and “distressing”.


Although we have never seen these children, we
know they must be emotionally and psychologically abused. The
relevant South Australian government website (www.cyh.sa.gov.au) tells us
that “emotional abuse is behaviour towards a child which destroys
self-esteem, confidence and a child’s sense of worth”.


It is our view that all this forms the
“reasonable grounds” that the Department of Human Services in South
Australia requires for a referral to be made.


It is impossible to imagine that any child
protection service anywhere in the world would regard keeping
children behind razor wire in a desert as anything but emotionally
abusive. It is not hard to imagine how history will judge the
holding of children at Woomera.


In our hearts we know that keeping a child,
anybody’s child, out of sight in a desert camp behind razor wire
cannot be justified. We know that it is through such abuse that
violence and pain is passed down from one generation to the


On 4 April 2002, The Age newspaper reported
that South Australian child protection workers will enter the
Woomera Detention Centre “to assess the mental welfare” of young
asylum seekers. We await the outcome of their assessment.


Chris Goddard and Max Liddell teach social
work at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia (chris.goddard@med.monash.edu.au).
Goddard is joint author of In the Firing Line, published
by John Wiley and Sons, 2002.





– South Australia covers 984,377 square
kilometres – four times the size of the UK. It has a population of
1.5 million, of which over one million live in the state capital


is Australia’s driest state – a region of rocky plains and desert
landscapes with summer temperatures reaching 40oC.


Woomera – a former rocket testing range – is the largest of
Australia’s six detention centres, with just under 1,000
inhabitants. It is also perhaps the most remote, being nearly 300
miles from Adelaide.


More than 25 per cent of detainees in immigration detention centres
are Afghans. Other groups include Iraqis – around 13 per cent – and
Iranians at about 7 per cent.


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