Impact of Detention on Children

The effects of indefinite detention are serious and complex. Below are some of the main issues, and links to further information.

Drawing Primary Scool Aged Child Darwin Detention Centre_HRComission

Mental Health and Wellbeing

Detention is an especially damaging experience for children as it deprives them of the opportunities for play, exploration, growth and learning necessary for normal development. Children in detention experience significantly higher rates of mental health issues than children in the mainstream community. Many young asylum seekers have already experienced trauma during their escape and journey to Australia, and this can be exacerbated by arbitrary and indefinite detention. 34 per cent of children in detention have been found to suffer serious mental health issues, compared with only 2 per cent of Australian children. Some persistent issues highlighted by children and parents include constant crying and sadness, nightmares, worry and anxiety, loss of appetite and weight loss. Some children engage in acts of self-harm, and there is evidence that some have been abused. Health professionals have expressed their concern that these circumstances will lead to ongoing issues as the children grow to adulthood.


Australian Human Rights Commission ‘The Forgotten Children’
Royal Australian and New Zealand Collage of Psychiatrists ‘Position Statement 52’
Australian Psychological Society ‘Submission to Human Rights Commission National Inquiry’

Identity and Culture

Children who flee their countries due to war and persecution also leave behind a familiar language, culture, community and identity. As they spend their days in immigration detention, many asylum seekers lose the ability to express themselves through simple things such as cooking, worship, celebration and socialising. Many children in detention have been found to identify with their incarceration number or boat number, seeing themselves primarily as asylum seekers, rather than normal children. Imagine being escorted to and from school by a guard, or not being able to invite a friend over to your house to play. Imagine not being able to go on a Sunday family outing, or to experience the smell of mum cooking your favourite meal. Imagine how these things would affect a young child.


Australian Human Rights Commission ‘A Last Resort’

The family unit

Incarceration can have significant impacts on the family unit – both in the short term and the long term. Parents’ ability to rear their children in the way that they wish to are compromised as children (and adults) become answerable to the authority of guards. In addition, the declining mental health of parents can impede their ability to provide proper emotional support and guidance for their children, and in some cases children find themselves needing to take on caregiving roles. These circumstances can lead to resentment, argument, disillusionment and breakdown which can persist even after families leave detention.


International Detention Coalition ‘Captured Childhood’

Exposure to violence and harm

Children in detention are exposed to unacceptable levels of violence, abuse and self-harm. The recent inquiry into children in detention by the Australian Human Rights Commission found in only 14 months:

  • 57 serious assaults
  • 233 assaults involving children
  • 207 incidents of actual self-harm
  • 436 incidents of threatened self-harm
  • 33 incidents of reported sexual assault (the majority involving children); and
  • 183 incidents of voluntary starvation/hunger strikes (with a further 27 involving children)

Governments have a responsibility to protect children from harm and abuse, but these statistics point to a dismal failure in this regard: – in fact, the government policy of detaining children is directly contributing to their exposure to harm.


Australian Human Rights Commission ‘The Forgotten Children’
The Moss Review

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