Australia in dock over detention of girl, 3

Kathy Marks
Thursday 09 August 2012 04:21

Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers is under scrutiny again after revelations about a three-year-old girl who suffered serious mental health problems after spending her life in mandatory detention.

Professional advice that Naomi Leong, a Malaysian child, should be allowed out to visit a playgroup for two hours once a week has gone unheeded.

Of the 74 children held in immigration detention centres around the country, she has been incarcerated the longest.

Her case was uncovered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which reported that Naomi - once an alert and extroverted little girl - was now profoundly disturbed.

"She's in a very anxious and distressed state," Dr Michael Dudley, a child psychiatrist who visited her in Sydney's Villawood detention centre, told the ABC.

"She's banging her head against the wall, she's gazing into the distance at times, she's mute, unresponsive, listless."

Dr Dudley wrote to immigration authorities two months ago recommending that Naomi, who turned three yesterday, be allowed to visit the playgroup to mix with children of her own age. But permission was not granted.

Naomi's mother, Virginia Leong, was two months' pregnant when she was arrested trying to leave Australia without correct papers. The girl was born at Villawood and has never experienced life outside those walls.

Dr Dudley said she suffers from severe separation anxiety. "She wants to lie in her mum's arms and be nursed all the time," he said. "She watches her mum like a hawk."

Refugee campaigners say she has bruises from banging her head against the wall.

The psychiatrist said Naomi needed to be in a place where she had a chance to develop normally. "She's been brought up in prison, in a highly abnormal environment with highly distressed people. It's not an environment conducive to child development."

In a separate case, the government was condemned by a federal court judge for its treatment of two mentally disturbed Iranian asylum-seekers.

Justice Paul Finn said the authorities had breached their duty of care by refusing to transfer them to a psychiatric hospital.

He found "culpable neglect" of one man, who claimed he was treated "like an animal" and who repeatedly mutilated himself with a razor.

Both men have been in a detention centre in South Australia for several years.

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