Get the Facts (FAQs)


Why are children held in immigration detention by Australia?

In Australia, mandatory immigration detention is used to detain people (adults and children) who enter the country without a visa or whose visas expired during their stay in Australia. They are referred to as unlawful non-citizens. See Australian Law and Policy for more information.

Are all children seeking asylum in detention?

Unlawful non-citizens (including children) who arrive by boat (referred to as unauthorised maritime arrivals) are moved to an offshore processing facility upon arrival in Australia. Children who arrive in Australia by plane with a valid visa are allowed to undergo a refugee status determination (RSD) process in Australia.

Why do parents and their children come by boat?

Parents and their children who arrive in Australia by boat are often forced to flee their country to seek safety due to fear of persecution. More often than not, a boat is the only form of transport that people can afford. The journey across the sea is very dangerous and refugees often only choose this mode of transport as a last option.

How long are children held in immigration detention centres?

Children and their families are held in immigration detention facilities for an average of 441 days (at 30 June 2016). Twenty-three per cent of these people have been detained for more than 2 years.

Under Australian law, there is no prescribed limit to the time a child can be detained. People seeking asylum don't know when their refugee status will be assessed or how long they will be held in detention.

Average times children have been held in detention have skyrocketed in recent years

What about children who arrive unaccompanied?

Unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum are a particularly vulnerable group, but are still held in detention as are other children who arrive by boat. These children have faced the challenge of making the difficult journey to Australia alone and upon arrival in Australia, they must go through the refugee status determination process and the experience of detention without any family support. Mental health experts have reported the acute vulnerability of these children and their strikingly high rates of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

What about the children in Nauru? Are they Australia’s responsibility?

Yes, Nauru is part of Australia's immigration system and it is responsible for the people held in the immigration detention centre there. According to top international legal experts, Australia’s legal obligations towards asylum seekers are not extinguished by transferring them to a third country such as Nauru. Australia still owes human rights obligations to these asylum seekers due to the ‘effective control’ it has over the asylum seekers and over the immigration detention facilities in which the asylum seekers are held. This ‘effective control’ can be demonstrated in several ways. For instance, Australia funds the immigration detention facilities in Nauru. Additionally, contracts for services provided at these facilities are entered into with the Australian government and often involve Australian service providers.

The doctrine of ‘State responsibility’ outlines Australia’s obligations to the refugees it detains in Nauru. To determine Australia’s responsibility over refugees in Nauru, two questions must be answered. Firstly, can the conduct affecting refugees in Nauru be attributed to Australia? Next, is this conduct a breach of Australia’s obligations under international law? In short, the answer to these two questions is emphatically 'yes'. Australia does have a responsibility for the refugees in Nauru. For more detail, visit UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.

What are the conditions like in a detention centre for a child?

A detention centre is no place for a child. There is nothing natural about a child being locked up and their realm of exploration being limited to an area the size of a football field or smaller. There is very limited access to nature in detention centres. Most Australian-run detention facilities have minimal, if any, grass and trees. Children are also unable to have regular sleep routines due to the excessive noise, confined and overcrowded rooms, and regular room checks by guards inside the centres. Children are also woken for routine room checks at times when they would most likely be asleep.

The conditions inside detention centres expose children to trauma and mental distress. Repeatedly children in detention tell us they do not feel safe. They are constantly wary of staff, concerned about how they act around other asylum seekers, surrounded by self-harm and depression and above all uncertain as to whether they could be sent back to harm’s way to their home country.

Workers at the detention centre in Nauru have described the facility as ‘cruel’ and ‘inhumane’. Mental health has become a serious issue. Workers have observed anger, aggression, depression and self-harm. Children in Nauru feel like ‘animals and not people’. The UN Committee Against Torture has also described the conditions in Nauru as 'cruel, inhumane, and unlawful'.

Most troubling are repeated reports of assault of children and adults in such centres, by staff and those held within. The most recent in a long line of allegations are contained in the Nauru Files – 'largest cache of documents to be leaked from within Australia’s asylum seeker detention regime' – released by The Guardian on 10 August 2016.  

Do children go to school while being held in detention?

National Inquiry has found the biggest barrier to education on Nauru to be the sense of hopelessness surrounding the children’s vision of their future.

Notably, school opportunities differ dramatically for children in detention depending on where they are detained. The New Arrivals Program, run in schools outside of detention centres, is an intensive learning environment targeted at detained children with second language needs and limited schooling experience. Children are escorted to and from school by a security guard and not all children attend school outside of detention. Schools inside detention centres provide a less wholesome education. Often, neither an appropriate curriculum nor satisfactory resources are provided.

In the past schooling on Nauru provided inside the centre was basic, under resourced and took place in barely suitable 'classrooms', which were often tents. The island lacks appropriate facilities and resources. Given the major disparities in both age and literacy, it is hard to manage and cater for the children’s learning requirements.

The Australian immigration department recently closed the school inside the Nauru detention centre and has transferred children to local schools in Nauru. The closure of the school inside the detention centre sparked concerns as there is no clear protection framework in Nauru, and Nauruan schools are significantly under resourced, as well as unsafe and unhygienic. The quality of the teaching at the local schools is considered to be poor with many teachers possessing limited English skills. Some reports suggest that children are subject to corporal punishment at Nauruan schools.

Australian teachers who taught on Nauru have claimed that the offshore detention regime is 'engendering illiteracy and robbing children of their childhood'.

What happens when children are released from detention? Where do they go?

Children who are released from detention are usually transferred into community detention or are granted bridging visas. Bridging visas are temporary visas that are granted in the interim whilst a new substantive visa application, such as a temporary protection visa, is being processed. Bridging visas have been criticised for being inadequate to meet children’s needs and vulnerabilities. Given their temporary nature, temporary protection visas (TPVs) have also been criticised for instilling within refugees a sense of uncertainty regarding their future.

Children released on Nauru are placed in the community. Repeated attacks on people outside detention clearly show that this is not a safe option.  

Are children released from detention alone or with their families?

ChilOut believes that it is in the best interests of a child to be released from immigration detention and resettled into the Australian community with their families. Most of the time, this is what happens. However, in exceptional circumstances, such as where one parent has an adverse ASIO assessment, children may be released without one of their parents. In some cases – like that of Ranjini and her three children – children have been held in detention with their parent for many years.

How do other western countries treat children seeking asylum?

Many countries around the world have legislative safeguards in place to protect children. The United Kingdom (UK), for example, amended their legislation in 2014 so that detention of children is limited to 72 hours at specially designated accommodation. In 'exceptional cases' in the UK, detention may be extended to one week, but only with authorisation from the relevant minister. Unaccompanied children may not be detained for more than 24 hours and additional conditions must be met to detain an unaccompanied child for this brief period.

In Sweden, the Swedish Aliens Act states that children may only be detained for 72 hours, which can be subject to renewal of another 72 hours in exceptional circumstances. The average length of time that children spent in detention in Sweden in 2013 was just five days. This reflects the role that detention plays in the immigration system as a last resort.

Does Australia need consent to make an application for asylum to the Nauruan government?

Under Australian law, the consent of people seeking safety is not required in order to make an application for asylum to the Nauruan government.

Does Australian law offer alternatives to child detention?

The Australian government may remove any adult or child in detention (offshore or onshore) and bring them to Australia to live at a specified residence in the Australian community.

Do courts have the power to release children? 

Regardless of their individual circumstances, courts are strictly prohibited under Australian law to authorise the release of any adult or child from immigration detention.

What percentage of people seeking asylum are genuine refugees?

  • As at 31 May 2016: 77 per cent of people processed on Nauru had been found to be refugees.
  • As at 31 May 2016: 98 per cent of people processed on Manus (PNG) had been found to be refugees. (We include the number here as this includes children who have been held so long they are now adults.)

Where can I find further information?

Many excellent reports published in the last few years provide detailed information on children in Australian-run immigration detention:

For excellent information and educational resources on the broader question of asylum seekers in Australia, check out the Refugee Council of Australia.

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