Understanding the Dynamics and Risks of Child Sexual Abuse in Immigration Detention: Learnings from the Australian Royal Commission



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Mark Loong, an Australian lawyer and Master of Public Policy candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Mark is also a member of the inaugural ‘Developing Strategies for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights’ program at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights. Prior to Oxford, he worked on the research and policy agendas of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney.

The treatment and welfare of children in immigration detention in Australia has been the subject of recurrent public concern and scrutiny since the adoption of mandatory and indefinite detention policies in the 1990s. Under present legislation, all persons (including children) who arrive in Australia without a valid visa are deemed ‘unlawful’ and can be detained. Detention takes various forms including placement in a closed onshore facility, removal from Australia altogether to an offshore Regional Processing Centre (‘RPC’) (such as the facility operating out of Nauru – a small island nation in Micronesia), or release into a community detention program.

The number of children in the Australian immigration detention network is in regular flux. Since the mid-2000s the government has maintained a policy of detaining children as a ‘measure of last resort’ and for the shortest practicable period – a position nominally in line with Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The number of children in closed held detention facilities rose sharply in 2013-14, raising questions about compliance with Article 37. In August 2014 for example, the number of children held on Nauru peaked at 222. Records also show there were 1,992 children held in onshore facilities (and alternative detention sites such as hostels or correctional centres) in July 2013. While community detention has since become the primary form of detention for children under status determination (with less than five children currently in held detention facilities), it remains entirely possible the elevated numbers seen in 2013-14 will return in the future.

The Welfare of Children in Detention

Numerous public reports and inquiries over the past two decades document broad-ranging concerns about the welfare of children in held detention facilities, including reported incidents of abuse, neglect, and exploitation (see, for example, The Flood Report in 2001, A Last Resort? in 2004, The Forgotten Children Report in 2014, Taking Responsibility in 2015, and The Moss Review in 2015). This includes reports of child sexual assault and exploitation, excessive use of physical force, and widespread anxiety and suicidal ideation among children including attempted and actual self-harm. Some inquiries – particularly The Forgotten Children Report – directly question the legitimacy of child detention as a practice itself, emphasising the mental and physical impacts and developmental delays caused by prolonged mandatory detention.

Despite these reports, there remains a lack of reliable and comprehensive data about the nature and extent of child abuse, neglect and exploitation across the detention network. In 2015-16 the immigration department commissioned a review of its child protection frameworks in detention which included an analysis of a sample of 214 reported incidents between 2008 and 2015 (of which 27.6 per cent were reported cases of child sexual abuse). In August 2016, The Guardian also ‘leaked’ over 2,000 case files from the Nauru RPC which included reported incidences of physical and sexual assault, and self-harm.  While these and other piecemeal data go some way toward painting a picture, the full extent remains unclear.

The Risk and Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse in Held Detention

In December 2017, the landmark Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia (‘the Royal Commission’) concluded its five-year investigation into the systemic failures of governments and institutions to prevent, identify and appropriately respond to child sexual abuse.

Throughout its lifespan, the Royal Commission examined a broad range of institutional contexts including religious organisations, schools, out-of-home care, and sporting associations. It also turned its attention to immigration detention and published a dedicated final report volume (and set of reform recommendations) on contemporary detention environments (available here). The report is uniquely placed and draws on specific observations about the dynamics of child sexual abuse in detention settings, as well as broader research and lessons from failures in other institutional contexts.

Unsurprisingly, it describes held detention as a setting with elevated risk of child sexual abuse. In doing so, it points to a range of cultural, operational and environmental factors including:

  • Situational risks associated with the physical set-up and operation of closed facilities, which give potential perpetrators unsupervised contact with children at minimal risk of detection.​
  • Secretive and prejudicial organisational cultures that are disconnected from the moral standards of the broader community and normalise dehumanising practices or prioritise organisational reputation over child wellbeing. E.g. the geographic isolation of some facilities, particularly the Nauru RPC; reports some detention staff call asylum seeker children by their boat identification numbers instead of their names; the influence of broader political discourse and descriptions of asylum seekers as ‘unlawful’ on the creation of racist and discriminatory cultures within facilities, etc.
  • Power and authoritarian dynamics between staff and detainees that allow perpetrators to more easily groom children or overcome their resistance to abuse. E.g. reports of detention staff offering children contraband such as marijuana in exchange for sexual favours; reports of detention staff under the influence of alcohol while on duty; gaps in levels of child safety training among detention staff; the contracting-out of operational services to private security firms etc.
  • Highly sexualised or violent environments that normalise abusive behaviours or make abuse less likely to be noticed, disclosed, reported or responded to appropriately. E.g. riots and protests including hunger strikes and lip-sewing; attempted and actual self-harm; children witnessing sexual behaviour between adults in open shared accommodation, etc.

The report also notes some children in held detention are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse when a perpetrator is present. This can stem from previous experiences of abuse or trauma in country of origin (e.g. war, torture, sexual violence etc.), social isolation and disconnection from family outside held detention (especially among unaccompanied children), or the disempowerment of parents and carers within detention who lose protective and supervision capacity. Here, children with disability and very young children who may also lack personal autonomy or capacity to self-advocate are identified as additionally vulnerable.

As well as profiling the impacts of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts more broadly (see here) the Royal Commission also pays specific attention to the particular additional impacts of child sexual abuse in detention. It notes, for example, that migrant and refugee children are more vulnerable to cumulative harm and that the mental distress of prolonged and indefinite detention can lead to feelings of defeat and powerlessness against further abuse or reprisals – especially when the victim is subject to ongoing regular contact with the perpetrator inside detention.

Dynamics around disclosure and identification are also augmented. For example, abuse survivors may not disclose abuse to authorities over fears it will have a negative effect on their immigration status or conditions in detention. Those escaping political and state persecution may also have a generalised fear or distrust of police and government personnel. These barriers are (naturally) exacerbated when the abuse is also perpetrated by detention staff. Victims may also be unable to disclose because they do not have the language to describe abuse, or because there is a lack of safe, accredited, appropriate and confidential interpretation services within detention that understand how taboos around sex and abuse manifest in different cultures.

What else, and were to from here

The Royal Commission’s work on child sexual abuse in detention extends far beyond the summary of the risk and vulnerability factors above. It includes an analysis of institutional responses to allegations of abuse (such as reporting procedures and the quality of available support for victims), as well as a suite of policy recommendations designed to improve child safety in detention (including the adoption of new Child Safe Standards in all detention facilities). One question that remains unanswered is the legitimacy of placing children in held detention facilities under mandatory and indefinite circumstances in the first place. The Royal Commission’s analysis of community detention as an institutional setting provides an indication of its strength as an alternative, but also raises important questions about parallels with out-of-home care and systemic issues that have also surfaced there.

Note: The views expressed in this piece are my own and do not reflect those of the Royal Commission.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Loong, M. (2018) Understanding the Dynamics and Risks of Child Sexual Abuse in Immigration Detention: Learnings from the Australian Royal Commission. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/01/understanding (Accessed [date]).

Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control; unaccompanied minors; Australia; Nauru


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