On a rainy day in the rolling Adelaide Hills in South Australia, children step off a school bus that has just driven into a gated community. Parents greet the kids with hugs and kisses, sheltering them with umbrellas as they walk to their homes, modest brown, brick bungalows built in the mid-1970s.
It looks like an ordinary suburb, except for one significant factor: These people cannot leave. This is Inverbrackie, an immigration detention centre for asylum seekers who have come to Australia by boat with their families. The 371 men, women and children here are from countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, all waiting to see if Australia will accept them as refugees.
Inverbrackie is dubbed an alternative place of detention, which means it's much less restrictive than more controversial detention centres in the outback. In December 2010, Australia's Department of Immigration spent $10 million converting the shuttered Woodside army barracks into a low-security facility, wrapping the cluster of homes and green lawns with a six-metre-tall chain-link fence and staffing it 24/7 with security guards employed by Serco, the private company that manages Australia's detention centres.
Refugee advocates and mental-health professionals say while Inverbrackie is better than remote, high-security detention centres behind barbed wire and electric fences, people here are still deprived of freedom, with sometimes lasting emotional and psychological effects.
In Canada, the mandatory-detention scheme for any so-called irregular arrivals — introduced under the tougher refugee reforms of Bill C-31 — could see asylum-seeker children under 16 put into foster care and separated from their parents, who will be locked in provincial prisons while their refugee claims are being processed. If they want to stay with their parents, children could be detained inside the Burnaby youth detention centre, as was the case with 63 women and 49 children who arrived in Canada on the MV Sun Sea two years ago.
Accompanied children may be permitted to remain with their detained parents in an "immigration holding centre" if a border services officer considers it to be in their best interest and appropriate facilities are available, the Canada Border Services Agency said in the statement, noting that while in detention, children have access to the outdoors, a play area and schooling.
The Conservative government backed down from provisions that would subject children to mandatory detention, because the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should be detained only as a last resort.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says the separation of children from their families is just as worrying as children being in detention.
"It's a shocking way to treat someone on arrival in Canada, to separate someone from their parent," said Janet Dench, the council's executive director. "The alternative is to see the child in detention. It's not the sort of way most Canadians want to treat someone who has fled from persecution."
The Australian government has promised to stop holding children in long-term detention, following a damning inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2004 that said Australia was violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In July 2008, the Labor government announced major reforms to the mandatory-detention system, including no longer holding children in immigration detention centres.
However, refugee advocates say the government is playing with semantics, calling less-restrictive places like Inverbrackie "facilities," differentiating them from high-security centres. As of August, 664 children remained in immigration detention facilities.
To Paul Sweeney, director of detention operations for South Australia, Inver-brackie is "the jewel in the immigration detention crown."
He said Inverbrackie focuses on preparing families for life in the country, rather than simply keeping people locked up.
"It is like living a normal life, preparing people before they get into the community where they have to fend for themselves," Sweeney said. "We do have a lot of services on site, so there is still a lot of support here, but we try to emulate what it would be like in the community."
The three-bedroom homes with tidy yards line streets called Lucknow Avenue and Balaclava Road. They typically house six people, which could be a large family, two families or three couples.
Families cook for themselves, buying groceries in the shop using a points system. Every individual gets a certain number of points per week, more if they attend English classes or activity programs. Inside the brightly lit grocery shop, the shelves are lined with fruit, breads, cereal and traditional Western food, as well as Middle Eastern spices, Halal meat and fish.
Being able to cook, keep house, attend appointments and send the kids to school makes life less institutional for detainees, Sweeney said.
Yoga and fitness classes, knitting, movie nights, sports games and, of course, English lessons are offered to stave off boredom, which can become a serious problem that can lead to depression.
But the constant presence of security guards reminds the children that they are still in detention. There are also twice-daily head counts and Serco officers on the school buses.
"Inverbrackie is better than most ... but it's still a prison," says Roddy Emblem, former co-ordinator of the Hills Circle of Friends, a volunteer group that organizes visits to detainees. "The kids know they're in detention. They are watched night and day."
A Canadian who has lived in the Adelaide Hills for 13 years, Emblem took on the top position when the organization was on the brink of disbanding in 2007.
Emblem got involved because he considers himself a refugee, interned for several weeks as a young boy with his father in Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
"It's wrong to put children in jail. A lot of these people are innocent people. They are just ordinary men, women and children, just as my family was when we were interned in Egypt in 1956. I thought it was wrong to make people suffer like that."
Emblem argues that even in a low-security facility like Inverbrackie, kids are losing their childhood while being in detention.
This year, the Detention Health Advisory Group — an independent group of health experts that provides advice to the government — testified before a parliamentary committee that any form of detention can have long-term physical and psychological consequences for children.
"Although the government will describe [Inver-brackie] as an alternative place of detention, it very much is detention," said Louise Newman, a leading psychiatrist at Monash University who sits on the advisory group. "You have restrictions on your liberty, restrictions on freedom of movement, limited access to normal community activities."
Research has shown that parents can become demoralized when they have little control and huge uncertainties in their lives, Newman said. That can affect children and cause anxiety disorders, depression and development problems, she said.
In Canada, 331 children were detained in immigration facilities in 2009 and 2010. The Canada Border Services Agency said the average length of detention for children was under seven days, but the Canadian Council for Refugees said there were several cases where children were held in detention for 30 days. In one case, two siblings, ages two and five, were held in detention for four months because their parents were considered flight risks.
The Conservative government has promised that children under the age of 16 who arrive by boat are exempt from the mandatory detention provision under Bill C-31. Minors could be detained in some cases if there are concerns about their admissibility or identity, a CBSA spokesperson said. Their detention would be reviewed after two days, then two days later, then after a week and every 30 days thereafter.
Australia's Department of Immigration has promised to release children and families from detention as quickly as possible. Asylum seekers at Inverbrackie are transferred out relatively quickly compared to those from other detention centres. Ninety per cent of detainees spent less than three months in Inver-brackie, and 10 per cent spent just over three months. The maximum time spent in Inverbrackie was 109 days.
Life at school
There are 101 school-age children in Inverbrackie, 78 of whom are enrolled in nearby schools. Rosie Antenucci, a manager for South Australia's Department of Education and Child Development, is in charge of planning education programs for the seven schools that take Inverbrackie children.
As she gave a tour through the four classrooms at Oakbank Area School, which had 51 Inverbrackie students, she could barely make it through a sentence without being hugged by a student saying, "Hi, Ms. Rosie" or telling her about their day.
Antenucci's biggest challenge is planning a curriculum for students who are only in school an average of nine weeks before their families leave Inverbrackie. Teachers have adapted by having shorter units of work that tick off the basic subjects such as grammar, mathematics, social studies and geography.
That's why Inverbrackie kids are grouped by language proficiency, instead of being integrated, Antenucci said. "I can't put a 17-year-old with no English in year 11," she said. "We tried that at first, but it wasn't successful." The integration comes at recess, where kids play sports together, bridging the language gap with familiar activities. The Inverbrackie kids do a lot of field trips - to the Adelaide fair, the Central Market, the library and Adelaide University.
Pictures are posted all over the classroom depicting smiling faces of kids petting a horse or posing at a wildlife park. Antenucci said the outings are key to building a understanding of the community - how to take public transit or buy items from a store, which way to look when crossing the road and who to ask if they get into trouble.
The kids are also taught to take pride in their culture. On one wall is a world map with ribbons extending from the child's home country to a piece of paper with their comments about it. "I came from an ancien [sic] country called Iran," one boy's paper reads. "Iran is very beautiful and there are many historical places in my country. However, now Iran has many problems with the government and the people are living in Iran very difficult."