The forgotten children: national inquiry into children in immigration detention 2014

Children Immigration detention Refugee children Human rights Refugees Youth justice Australia

This report argues that prolonged detention of children leads to serious negative impacts on their mental and emotional health and development.


Australia currently holds about 800 children in mandatory closed immigration detention for indefinite periods, with no pathway to protection or settlement. This includes 186 children detained on Nauru.

Children and their families have been held on the mainland and on Christmas Island for, on average, one year and two months. Over 167 babies have been born in detention within the last 24 months.

This Report gives a voice to these children.

It provides compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact that prolonged immigration detention is having on their mental and physical health. The evidence given by the children and their families is fully supported by psychiatrists, paediatricians and academic research. The evidence shows that immigration detention is a dangerous place for children. Data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection describes numerous incidents of assault, sexual assault and self-harm in detention environments.

Importantly, the Government recognises that the fact of detention contributes significantly to mental illness among detainees.

The aims of the Inquiry have been to:

  • Assess the impact of prolonged immigration detention on children’s health, wellbeing and development by collecting the evidence of children and their families, scholarly research, Department of Immigration and Border Protection data and the views of medical experts and the Australian community
  • Promote compliance with Australia’s international obligations to act in the best interests of children.

There is nothing new in the finding that mandatory immigration detention is contrary to Australia’s international obligations. The Australian Human Rights Commission and respective Presidents and Commissioners over the last 25 years have been unanimous in reporting that such detention, especially of children, breaches the right not to be detained arbitrarily. The aim of this Inquiry was not to revisit the Commission’s settled view of the law, but rather to assess the evidence of the impact of prolonged detention on children.

As the medical evidence has mounted over the last eight months of the Inquiry, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the policy of both Labor and Coalition Governments. Both the Hon Chris Bowen MP, as a former Minister for Immigration, and the Hon Scott Morrison MP, the current Minister for Immigration, agreed on oath before the Inquiry that holding children in detention does not deter either asylum seekers or people smugglers. No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has been offered.

Australia is unique in its treatment of asylum seeker children. No other country mandates the closed and indefinite detention of children when they arrive on our shores. Unlike all other common law countries, Australia has no constitutional or legislative Bill of Rights to enable our courts to protect children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not part of Australian law, although Australia is a party. The Convention is, however, part of the mandate of the Australian Human Rights Commission to hold the Government to account for compliance with human rights. This Convention accordingly informs the findings and recommendations made by the Inquiry.

This Report is fundamentally different from previous reports by the Commission as it focuses in both a qualitative and quantitative way, on the impact of immigration detention on children as reported by children and their parents. The Commission conducted interviews with 1129 children and parents in detention, providing a much needed foundation for objective research findings. Standard questions were used in all interviews so that the reported impacts are measurable.

The evidence documented in this Report demonstrates unequivocally that prolonged detention of children leads to serious negative impacts on their mental and emotional health and development. This is supported by robust academic literature.

It is also clear that the laws, policies and practices of Labor and Coalition Governments are in serious breach of the rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also suggests in his opening address to the Human Rights Council that Australia’s policy of offshore processing and boat turn backs is ‘leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries’.

Publication Details
Access Rights Type: