Iranian refugee child granted $400,000 in compensation for "psychological harm"

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Eleven-year-old Iranian refugee boy, Shayan Badraie, who suffered psychological injuries during his time spent inside Australia's immigration detention centres, will receive a Federal Government payout of AU$400,000 in compensation. The government will also pay his family's legal bill of more than $1 million.

Between 2000 and 2002 the Badraie family were incarcerated behind the razorwire of the (now mothballed) Woomera Detention Facility, a remote desert camp in outback South Australia - and later sent to the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. In 2001, video footage of his condition was smuggled out of Villawood, inciting national debate over Prime Minister John Howard's controversial policy of detaining children.

Badraie's family lawyer, Rebecca Gilsenan, said the family are "looking forward to living a normal life in the community. The settlement will enable the treatment he needs to somehow rectify the damage done in the detention centres. The fact the Government has settled the case indicates a serious concern on their part they were going to be found guilty of negligence," Gilsenan told reporters.

Shayan, his father and stepmother arrived in Australia in 2000, and were sent immediately to the notorious Woomera desert camp. During his 17 months incarceration, Shayan stopped drinking, eating and speaking.

"He witnessed a series of incredibly traumatic and violent events, the sort of events no adult or no child should be exposed to," Gilsenan said. "Within a year of being detained at the detention centre... he had developed psychiatric illness to the point of diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and later depression," she said.

The court heard evidence from former senior immigration official Philippa Godwin that detention could damage the mental health of refugees - directly contradicting the Government's claims the centres were safe. Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke said: "Children should never have been put in detention and money will never undo the damage and pain."

The Department of Immigration said the agreement was "no admission of guilt". Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone says she does not believe a $400,000 is a backdown. Vanstone said an offer was made to the Badraie family's lawyer some time ago but they turned it down.

Compared with similar countries, Australia has some of the toughest policies in the world against refugee arrivals. Policies include immediate mandatory detention of boat arrivals, the detention of workers and students who overstay their visas are sent to detention camps under harsh conditions. Immigration detainees often languish in limbo with some up to six years while their cases are being heard. These camps have been condemned by many international human rights groups.

Greens senator Kerry Nettle says "hundreds of children have been mentally scarred by their time in immigration detention and further claims are planned." She blames the Federal Government's policy of mandatory detention.

"The Government has accepted the responsibility for the health consequences of their policy of mandatory detention," Senator Nettle said. "There is a raft of children, we are talking hundreds of children, and adults, who have had their mental health significantly impacted by the policy of mandatory detention."

She rejected that the Federal Government deserve congratulations over settlement: "To have gone through these proceedings, and spent the amount of money they have spent, to put Shayan's mother in the witness box for two weeks, is not an indication of a willingness and public accountability by the Government to accept responsibility for their actions," Senator Nettle said.

Lawyer Rebecca Gilsenan says the landmark case may pave the way for more litigation by other refugee families. It is the first time the Department has conceded that a child has been psychologically harmed in its detention.

Gilsenan says the outcome sets a precedent for other detainees. "The problems that Shayan experienced were systemic problems rather than ones that were just specific to him, although the particular treatment that he received was disgraceful," she said. "So it's quite possible that there are other children or even adults out there who lived in a similar environment during that time in immigration detention and possibly have similar problems."

She says she hopes the systemic problems highlighted in the case will now be addressed. "I can only hope that the Government takes notice of this and doesn't continue to spend taxpayer money on having to compensate people for treating them in a disgraceful way in immigration detention."