Immigration Department’s Own Top Doctor Acknowledges Detention Harms Children


In a Senate Estimates hearing today the Department threw a hissy fit about media coverage, but maintained that ending the policy of child detention was not possible. Max Chalmers reports.

The Department of Immigration’s own top doctor has acknowledged to a Senate Estimates hearing that detaining children is harmful to their wellbeing.

In a fast moving opening to the Estimates season, leaders of the Department of Immigration and Border Force fronted senators, confirming in the process that the leak of a sensitive document to Lateline had been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

Dr John Brayley, who was announced as the Department’s new Chief Medical Officer in September 2015, was asked by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young whether detention was an appropriate environment for children.

Dr Brayley, a former South Australian Public Advocate, complimented the professionalism of the staff providing medical services in Australia’s immigration detention network, but said a number of measures demonstrated the negative implications of detaining children.

“The scientific evidence is that detention affects the mental state of children: it’s deleterious. For that reason, wherever possible children should not be in detention,” Dr Brayley said.

As New Matilda reported last week, a standard paediatric assessment used by doctors visiting the Wickham Point detention centre as part of an Australian Human Rights Commission visit returned record breaking results.

Dr Brayley said cases flagged during the Commission’s visit had been followed up on, and that the number of children in the centre had declined since the inspection.

Dr Brayley’s comments were quickly followed up by Department of Immigration Secretary Michael Pezzullo, who said the Minister’s instructions were for all children to be released where possible. However, Pezzullo also told the hearing that refusing to detain children at all, regardless of their mode of arrival, would ‘open the doors’, apparently referring to a potential increase in the number of people attempting to reach Australia by boat if the policy of mandatory detention were to change.

Secretary of the Department of Immigration, Mark Pezzullo.
Secretary of the Department of Immigration, Mark Pezzullo.

According to the Department’s most recent statistics, 91 children remain detained in Australia.

The fate of children in offshore detention was a particular focus of the hearing, with Pezzullo telling the committee some of the 267 people attached to the failed High Court challenge and now facing deportation back to Nauru could be returned “within days”. He said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, although none of those involved in the case had so far been removed.

Rallies are due to be held around the country tonight protesting the return of refugees and asylum seekers currently being held on the mainland.

GetUp! has a list of times and locations of the rallies here.

In his opening statement Pezzullo appeared to hit out at groups calling for the children to be kept in Australia, decrying those “yielding to emotional gestures”. When Senator Carr put it to Pezzullo this might be referring to state premiers and leaders who had done so, the Secretary rejected the assertion.

“I didn’t have anyone particularly in mind,” he told Carr.

Pezzullo said the Department didn’t have a view on the statements of those leaders, but added: “The moment you have a chink of light, the moment you give some [idea]of how to game the system, you will put people’s lives in danger.”

In later evidence the Department told Senators there were 102 reported incidents of self-harm on Nauru in 2015 and 41 on Manus.

Michael Vs The Media

Throughout the hearing Pezzullo regularly hit out at the media, accusing some journalists of engaging in “pamphleteering essentially of a political nature”.

“It’s getting to the point where there is advocacy parading as journalism,” the Secretary said.

Stories reported by the ABC were twice raised in the hearing, with Department figures denying details reported by a 7:30 program in relation to children previously held on Nauru.

A subsequent online version of the story said a five-year-old boy who was “allegedly raped” on Nauru was facing return.

A file image of plane on final approach to Nauru. (IMAGE: Tatters, Flickr).
A file image of plane on final approach to Nauru. (IMAGE: Tatters, Flickr).

However, the Department told estimates the age of the boy was wrong, and that the incident had involved “skin on skin” contact but was not classified as a rape.

They said Dr Karen Zwi, the paediatrician interviewed in the program, had subsequently told the Department she did not know where the information about the age of the child had come from.

Dr Zwi has been contacted for comment.

In an unrelated matter, Pezzullo also confirmed the leak of a ‘sensitive’ document to the ABC had been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

“It’s criminal, and people could go to jail,” he said.

Pezzullo backed statements made by the Prime Minister as well as the Immigration Minister denying knowledge of the specific document involved, which linked the humanitarian intake to national security threats and angered the Lebanese community by claiming, “Australia’s historical experience with the Sunni Lebanese community illustrate potential community safety and national security risks associated with unsuccessful integration”.

In an unusual departure from partisan lines, LNP Senator Ian Macdonald gently criticised Pezzullo and Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg for the length of their opening statements.

“They are getting longer and longer every time, which stops the committee asking questions they’re interested in,” Macdonald said.

The hearing continues.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.