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Do we Sacrifice a Child to Stop a Boat?

Four-year-old Tharnicaa, an Australian born child of Tamil Sri Lankan parents, spent her fourth birthday in hospital being treated for pneumonia and sepsis and every previous one in detention on Christmas Island. Again, we are confronted with the reality of detaining children and the question of whether this is a justifiable deterrent to other refugees seeking asylum in this country.

A study by Zwi (2017) compared ‘a community-based population of recently arrived refugee children flown into Australia, not detained, resettled in a non-urban area, with a population of children who arrived by boat seeking asylum, detained since arrival.’ The parent version of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire was chosen due to its high sensitivity and specificity and its validation in assessing social – emotional well being across cultures and in migrant and refugee children.  While community children’s scores were like Australian normative data, those in detention showed significantly impaired social-emotional wellbeing across all age groups. Subscale scores indicated the greatest difficulties were in the domains of emotional problems, hyperactivity and conduct disorders showing that these children are ’significantly symptomatic’ across multiple domains.

As the authors note, ‘If the objective is to optimize the health and wellbeing of children seeking asylum, removal of post-arrival detention is one of the most powerful interventions available to host countries’ Additionally, if these children do become members of the community we will then need to provide the proper care and services out of an already overburdened mental health system. Is it really worth it?


Karen Zwi, Sarah Mares, Dania Nathanson, Alvin Kuowei Tay Derrick Silove. (2018) The impact of detention on the social–emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community‑based children European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2018) 27:411–422

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