BANGKOK, 21 October 2014 (IRIN) - An increasing number of migrant children are being detained in countries where they are seeking asylum despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such incarceration leads to long-term psychological and developmental difficulties.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2013 declared detaining migrant children is "never in [children's] best interests and is not justifiable" and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it should be conducted with an "ethic of care - and not enforcement". However, according to a June 2014 article in The Lancet, more than 60 countries detain migrant children, which causes "deleterious effects on children's mental, developmental, and physical health".
So when, in response to a recent surge in migrant children, the US was discovered to be detaining large numbers of migrant children, analysts flayed the tactic. Between October 2013 and September 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southern border, a 77 percent increase on the previous year; 70 percent reported they were held for more than the legally-allowed 72 hours. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued: "a wide variety of research studies link immigration detention with mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention."
And when Australia, home to the notorious Operation Sovereign Borders programme, announced on 19 August 2014 that it would release some migrant children from detention, the plan's limitations - an arrival cut-off date of 19 July 2013, and age limit of 10 years - drew criticism that the move might, in fact, exacerbate mental health problems. Karen Zwi, a paediatrician and head of the Community Child Health department at Australia's Sydney Children's Hospital, said the new release plan "will affect only 16 percent of those currently in locked detention", arguing it could "heighten the despair of the other 745 (84 percent) children who have been excluded from the release."
"What we see in children in detention is a huge range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) for a prolonged period of time," Zwi told IRIN, referring to ACEs, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) defines as: "some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer", ranging from neglect to violence. "The more of those that you are exposed to, the worse your outcome in adulthood is in terms of physical and mental health," Zwi said.
A 2014 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the majority of a representative sample of the country's paediatricians "consider mandatory detention a form of child abuse". Even among the 18 percent of respondents who "strongly approved" of detention of children in general, 92 percent said "detention of asylum-seeker children and their families is a form of child abuse."
Evidence of the long-term impacts of child abuse is mounting: a 2014 statistical analysis by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that abuse in childhood, including mental violence inflicted by conditions of detention, can have adverse impacts on educational achievement and personal income, and cause "damage at the societal level, including direct and indirect costs due to increased social spending and lost economic productivity". For example, a 2013 study estimated the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific to exceed US$160 billion.
Today there are more forced migrants (51.2 million) than at any point since World War II, according to UNHCR - the majority from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Half of them are children; at least 25,000 unaccompanied migrant children filed asylum claims in 2013. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), global migrants increased from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013. The International Detention Coalition (IDC) says states are increasingly responding by detaining migrants, and the NGO Coalition on Migration estimates one million migrant children are affected by detention globally.
Exposure to violence
Detained migrant children are exposed to all of the mental strains experienced by adult detainees. "The longer a child is detained, the more likely they will be exposed to... riots, hunger strikes, and self-harm incidents," explained Oliver White, the head of policy and advocacy for Jesuit Refugee Services-Australia.
In Thailand and Indonesia, HRW documented detained migrant children witnessing fights and guards beating detainees. In Malta, which shoulders a heavy burden as migrants cross the Mediterranean and reach its shores, HRW found that children at immigration detention facilities suffer abuse at the hands of other detainees.
In a 2013 report on Manus Island, one of the off-shore locations where Australia processes asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Amnesty International quotes a service provider at the facility there as saying: "These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma." In its 2013 report on Nauru, another Australian off-shore detention centre, UNHCR noted "the deteriorating mental health of children".
Researchers say the impact of detention can be harsher on children, whose brains, when exposed to multiple negative stressors, can be re-wired with stress responses that last into adulthood. According to Zwi, this is a process of creating "neural pathways", or tracts in the brain through which information is transported between brain cells.
"Fundamentally the problem is a threatening adverse environment," Zwi said. "A child with well-developed pathways for fear is more likely to be scared and avoidant, impacting learning and how they face challenges for years after," echoing UNICEF's claim that "moderate or severe acts of violence can alter brain development and compromise a child's potential."
Others point to the lack of opportunity for recovery from trauma while in detention.
"The natural process is one of recovery but that can only be done in situations of safety and security," explained Belinda Liddell, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Programme, which works to "understand the psychological and neurobiological effects of refugee trauma and pathways to recovery".
A full stop to detention
According to government figures in August, there were 876 migrant children in detention in Australia.
Australia currently runs some psychological counselling programmes for detained immigrants, which Amnesty accused of being insufficiently resourced. However, according to Zwi, "even a lot of psychological help cannot make good the terrible exposure kids are experiencing."
In February 2014, citing that the number of detained migrant children was higher than during its last study of the issue in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which is due out by the end of the year.
July 2014 analysis of government data by the Refugee Council of Australia found that while the total number of migrants in detention had decreased, child asylum seekers were more likely than adults to be detained, and the average length of detention had tripled since September 2013.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said in June 2014 that removing children from immigration detention was "the only way to protect their health".
Refugee campaigners agree, and say the best response is to stop detaining migrant children globally. Alternatives to immigration detention implemented in some countries - including material and legal support - have proven not only more humane, but also cheaper than detention.
"The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children's rights and a serious breach of justice," stated NGOs, including IDC and Terre des Hommes, at a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.