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Children call Oz immigration detention 'hell'

SYDNEY -- Children held in immigration detention in Australia have described conditions as “hell” with a human rights inquiry Monday detailing many banging their heads, biting themselves and wetting their beds.

The Australian Human Rights Commission gained access to Australia's main detention center for asylum-seekers on Christmas Island as part of its National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

Commission President Gillian Triggs said what the team — which included a pediatrician and a child psychiatrist — found was disturbing, with most of the 315 children there at the time having been held for six to eight months.

They noted that most of the children were visibly distressed during their recent visit.

The children told the inquiry “this place is hell,” “help me get out of here” and “there's no school, nowhere to play and nothing to do,” the commission said.

They also spoke about their distress at living in a closed environment with adults who were sad, angry and sometimes attempting self-harm.

“The overwhelming sense is of the enormous anxiety, depression, mental illness but particularly developmental retardation,” Triggs told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“The children are stopping talking. You can see a little girl comes up to you and she is just staring at you but won't communicate.”

Pediatrician Karen Zwi and child psychiatrist Sarah Mares said that being detained was taking its toll with recorded instances of children biting and banging their heads.

“If a parent is depressed, anxious, has any health condition that impacts on their capacity to care for their child, or the environment is frightening, then that child's development is often impacted,” said Zwi.

“This was evident in several of the children we saw, with developmental delay (usually delayed speaking), and regression such as bedwetting.”

Triggs added that many of the drawings the children gave them depicted prisons.

“These children are actually identifying themselves by their numbers, not by their names, which is shocking in itself,” she said, adding that the asylum-seekers felt they were in limbo.

“They have been detained for long periods by anyone's measure and they don't know when they will go to Nauru or Papau New Guinea for assessment of their refugee status and potential resettlement there,” said Triggs.

Under Canberra's punitive offshore detention policy, any asylum-seeker arriving by boat or intercepted at sea is eventually transferred to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea for processing and permanent resettlement outside Australia.

Triggs stressed that Australia had obligations under international human rights law to detain children only as a measure of last resort and to ensure they were protected from harm.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was not immediately available for comment.

The inquiry is investigating how immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children and will compare its findings to a similar major report it conducted a decade ago.

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