Immigration

'Blackened teeth', behaviour issues: Fears for child asylum seekers held in Melbourne

The mother of two-year-old Tamil child Tharnicaa says her repeated requests for dental treatment for her child were dismissed. Source: Supplied

The Victorian children's commissioner is in talks to inspect a Melbourne immigration centre where advocates say at least five children are being detained.

Victoria's children's commissioner is desperately seeking access to inspect living conditions for asylum seeker children being held in a Melbourne detention centre, amid fears of poor health, including blackened and decaying teeth.

Advocates said at least five children under the age of seven are detained at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre facility.

Priya and the family.
Priya and the family.
Supplied

Those detained include a Tamil family with two Australian-born children, two-year-old Tharnicaa and her three-year-old sister Kopika.

A medical report and photos show the deterioration in health, particularly the dental health, of the girls.

Tharnicaa's blackened front teeth is shown in one photo, verifying the observations in a medical report detailing the health of the two girls.

Her mother, Priya, told The Guardian that the two-year-old was in pain and couldn't eat. 

"For a week she couldn’t eat anything she had to bite, I had to bite anything I gave her,” she said.

“Last week when she was eating something she got an infection and for one week she didn’t eat any solids.”

The August Report also noted both sisters have developed behavioural issues as a result of the environment, deemed "not appropriate" for young children.

Advocates say medical treatment has been delayed and inconsistently provided to Tharnicaa and her family.
Advocates say medical treatment has been delayed and inconsistently provided to Tharnicaa and her family.
Supplied

In particular, the report noted the lack of social interaction with other children and restrictions on freedom of movement.

"There is no playgroup or early childhood learning in place," the report states.

Vitamin deficiencies were also observed.

Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson Aran Mylvaganam said the physical and mental health of the children have deteriorated steadily as the months inside detention took its toll.

"You know these children are spending most of their day in a small area locked in a unit. It is not how children grow up in these communities. These two children were born in Australia and for whatever reason they have been kept in detention for 15 months."

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'Need for transparency'

Victorian children’s commissioner Liana Buchanan said she hopes to be able to provide public confidence in the government's claims that the children are receiving appropriate services, including medical treatment.

"When I see that photo I am incredibly distressed. I think everybody would be. And the idea that in a country like Australia, a well-resourced country and we think of ourselves as fairly civilised," she said.

"The idea that this may be happening to children who are essentially under our care in custody is distressing. It is alarming and it is pretty hard to fathom."

She said it is important that there was transparency about the conditions in detention centres.

"If it was clearly, publicly known how many children are in there, how long they're in there for and precisely what is being done to meet their needs; then that would give the community some confidence in what the department is saying," she said.

She said in her three years in the role, she has yet to request access to inspect an immigration detention centre to see the conditions experienced by children.

But she was prompted after hearing reports of the increasing number of children being held at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre facility.

"Healthcare needs are not always met, certain fundamentals that children need to develop. [For example:] Access to other children, access to other spaces in the community to interact with the world at large, access to early education, pre-school activity," she said.

"Those things I'm told aren't present. All of that can have a significant impact on a child."

Request for medical help denied: advocate

Tharnicaa, her mother Priya, father Nadesalingam and sister Kopika have spent 15 months in detention after being transported from the Queensland town of Biloela, following the expiration of their bridging visa.

Mr Mylvaganam said there is no good reason why the family and children should be in detention.

"The fact that they're in detention is the reason why they're going through these issues. If they are let into the community to exhaust their legal avenues - that would be the ideal situation for the family to be in," he said.

The Department of Home Affairs rejected claims the children in detention were denied medical treatment, saying options are regularly examined "to vary detention arrangements for children in detention environments within the parameters of health and security requirements".

But Simone Cameron, from the Home to Biloela campaign, said repeated requests for medical treatment have been ignored.

"I think the crucial thing is Priya has been fobbed off. [She has been told:] 'Just take some Panadol'. It is not acceptable," she said.

"That feeling of being fobbed off all the time until she keeps going back and requesting the medical appointments again, again and again until finally they might give way a little bit. But it is too little, too late."

The Department has refused to confirm the number of children in immigration detention in Melbourne, citing "privacy concerns".

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In a statement, the Department said detention remains a "last resort" and "occurs for the shortest possible period".

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SBS Flashback S1 Ep6 - Flashback On Asylum Seekers In Detention (Long Version)
SBS Flashback S1 Ep6 - Flashback On Asylum Seekers In Detention (Long Version)

Priya and Kopika are exploring the appeal options before the High Court, but the process could stretch out to two more years spent in detention.

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