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Growing Up in Migration Limbo

During the two years Hussein has spent in Australian immigrant-detention centers, the Iraqi-born teen has tried to hang himself and slashed his wrists with a razor. His younger brother has lost his appetite, wets the bed and suffers panic attacks. Despite three official inquiries into the centers in the past 18 months, stories of allegedly traumatized and abused children continue to emerge. Says refugee advocate Jackie Everitt: "We're told about incidents of disturbed behavior again and again. These children have no control over their lives."

Last week, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission launched an inquiry into the treatment of some 600 minors living in detention centers-53 of whom arrived without any family members. Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski says the system "needs an overhaul. Detention is bad for the children. We can't steal their childhood away from them." The commission's 1998 inquiry into the centers found that Australia's mandatory detention policy violates U.N. conventions. But Prime Minister John Howard says his government will not change its stance on asylum seekers.

As West Australian police announced they were investigating the alleged sexual assault of two 12-year-old boys by a fellow inmate at the Port Hedland detention center, Howard backed Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who has said child detainees are often used by their parents "to pursue particular claims." Suggesting that children receive coaching to simulate distress is "simplistic and cynical," says child psychiatrist Louise Newman. "These are signs of desperation, not of deliberate falsification." An Immigration spokesperson says claims of coaching are "hard to substantiate," but stresses that any reports of serious maltreatment are "always taken seriously."

Since U.N. human-rights conventions aren't enforceable under Australian law, the only power the commission has over the government is "shame," says Ozdowski. But refugee advocates vow they won't relax the pressure. Says Refugee Council president David Bitel: "The government's policy is immoral and we will keep raising allegations until they change their minds."

-Leora Moldofsky