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Children and parents seeking asylum are regularly detained in Canada, however little is known about the experiences of detained families. International literature suggests that the detention of children is associated with significant morbidity. Our study aims to understand the experiences of detained children and families who have sought asylum in Canada by using a qualitative methodology that includes semistructured interviews and ethnographic participant observation. Detention appears to be a frightening experience of deprivation that leaves children feeling criminalized and helpless. Family separation further shatters children's sense of well-being. Children's emotional and behavioral responses to separation and to detention suggest that the experience is acutely stressful and, in some cases, traumatic-even when detention is brief. Distress and impairment may persist months after release. Given the burden of psychological suffering and the harmful consequences of separating families, children should not be detained for immigration reasons and parents should not be detained without children. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
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Asylum-Seeking Children’s Experiences of Detention
in Canada: A Qualitative Study
Rachel Kronick
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada
Cécile Rousseau
McGill University
Janet Cleveland
McGill University
Children and parents seeking asylum are regularly detained in Canada, however little is known
about the experiences of detained families. International literature suggests that the detention of
children is associated with significant morbidity. Our study aims to understand the experiences
of detained children and families who have sought asylum in Canada by using a qualitative
methodology that includes semistructured interviews and ethnographic participant observation.
Detention appears to be a frightening experience of deprivation that leaves children feeling
criminalized and helpless. Family separation further shatters children’s sense of well-being.
Children’s emotional and behavioral responses to separation and to detention suggest that the
experience is acutely stressful and, in some cases, traumatic— even when detention is brief.
Distress and impairment may persist months after release. Given the burden of psychological
suffering and the harmful consequences of separating families, children should not be detained
for immigration reasons and parents should not be detained without children.
Immigration detention, which has been on the rise globally for
a decade (Fazel, Karunakara, & Newnham, 2014), impacts
not only adult asylum seekers but also children. Despite the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC),
stipulating that detention of children should “be used only as a
measure of last resort” (United Nations Office of the High Com-
missioner for Human Rights [UNHCR], 1989, Article 37.b), chil-
dren in over 60 countries may be subject to immigration detention
(Fazel et al., 2014).
In Canada, child migrants are regularly detained. Between 2005
and 2010 approximately 650 children were detained each year
because of their migratory status (Canada Border Services Agency,
2010); however, this is likely a significant underestimate as often
children are not counted in official statistics (Canadian Council for
Refugees, 2009). Immigration Holding Centres (IHC) resemble
medium-security prisons and are surrounded by razor-wire fences
and surveilled by guards (Cleveland, Rousseau, & Guzder, 2014).
Children and mothers are detained in a separate section and are
therefore separated from family members in the men’s section.
The literature suggests that detention has significant psychological
effects on children who seek asylum in high-income countries (Fazel
et al., 2014). Studies in the United Kingdom and in Australia indicate
that children in detention have high rates of psychiatric symptoms,
including self-harm, suicidality, severe depression, regression of mile-
stones, physical health problems, and posttraumatic presentations
(Lorek et al., 2009;Steel et al., 2004). Observational studies and
commissions of inquiry have noted that children in detention may be
witness to abusive arrests, violence, riots, fires, and adult suicide
attempts (Crawley & Lester, 2005;Mares, Newman, Dudley, & Gale,
2002). Current pediatric evidence, though limited to the United King-
dom and Australia, consistently demonstrates psychological harm
associated with detention (Lorek et al., 2009;Mares & Jureidini,
2004;Mares et al., 2002;Newman & Steel, 2008). There is only one
report including case studies on children in Canadian detention cen-
ters (Canadian Council for Refugees, 2009), though studies on de-
tained adult asylum seekers describe a deleterious effect on mental
health (Cleveland, Dionne-Boivin, & Rousseau, 2013;Cleveland &
Rousseau, 2013). The aim of this article is to describe children’s
experience of detention in terms of their daily life, routine, social
interactions and their emotional and behavioral responses.
Method
Because we aimed to generate a rich understanding of the IHCs and
of the detainees’ lived experiences, we chose a qualitative ethno-
graphic approach. An ethnographic stance was particularly suited,
given the need for in-depth description of the practices of detaining
Rachel Kronick, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada; Cécile Rousseau, Division of Social and Cultural Psy-
chiatry, McGill University; Janet Cleveland, Centre de Santé et de Services
Sociaux de la Montagne and Research Institute of the McGill University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rachel
Kronick, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 80 Workman Way,
Room 1131, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6J 1H4. E-mail: rachel
.kronick@camh.ca
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American Journal of Orthopsychiatry © 2015 American Orthopsychiatric Association
2015, Vol. 85, No. 3, 287–294 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ort0000061
287
children, especially because they have hitherto been “‘hidden’ from
the public gaze” (Reeves, Kuper, & Hodges, 2008, p. 514).
Detained families are difficult to reach because researchers are
not usually permitted to enter the IHCs and because families are
often reluctant to participate in research, given their vulnerability
as asylum seekers and/or as detainees. After we secured clearance
as researchers to enter the IHC, we were linked to detained
families by community organizations that visit the IHCs and
provide legal information to detainees. Previously detained fami-
lies were recruited through clinicians working in a community
health center and immigration lawyers.
Because of the participants’ high vulnerability, our sampling
strategy favored a strong participant–researcher alliance, with a
heightened attention to and respect for avoidance strategies—that
is, their desire not to evoke some parts of their experience. The
research encounter had to foster empathy and support for the
children and their parents. We sought to diversify the sample to
capture a range of experiences. Specifically, we included families
that had been previously detained and families of which only a
parent (or parents) had been detained, given this is sometimes
proposed as a policy alternative to the detention of children.
Further, given UNCRC, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Pro-
tection Act, and the UNHCR guidelines on detention do not
differentiate between the rights of children based on status, we
included children and families who were asylum seekers as well as
failed refugee claimants.
Detention interviews were conducted in both the Toronto and
Montreal IHCs, community health clinics, and in family homes.
Because interpreters were not permitted to enter the IHCs, detained
families without fluency in English or French were excluded from this
study. For interviews conducted outside of IHCs, professional inter-
preters were used for parents and children not fluent in English or
French.
Our primary method of data generation was in-depth semistruc-
tured interviews conducted with parents and children between the
ages of 13 and 18. The interviews lasted between 1 and 3 hr and
focused on demographics, the context of the asylum claim, and the
subjective detention experiences of children and parents. Consent to
participate was obtained for all interviews. In the IHC, recording
devices were not permitted and thus detention interview transcriptions
were based on hand-written notes of the interviewer. All other inter-
views were recorded with participants’ consent and later transcribed.
In addition to semistructured interviews, we also undertook
ethnographic participant observation in the IHCs. A researcher was
immersed in the field 1 day per week for 6 months, observing the
children’s environment and the daily life practices of the setting. In
this article, we draw on participant observation to contextualize
interview data, expand on participants’ accounts of life in deten-
tion, and to provide observations on children’s emotional re-
sponses to the experience of detention. Finally, we conducted
play-based interviews with children between the ages of 6 and 12.
In this article, we only analyze the symptom-expression observed
through the play interview and review themes and narratives
emerging in play interviews elsewhere.
The McGill Faculty of Medicine’s Institutional Review Board
granted ethics approval for the study. All interviews and observa-
tion were conducted between March 2011 and June 2012. The
interviews and participant observation were undertaken by Rachel
Kronick, who is a clinician (psychiatry) and researcher.
Transcribed interviews and field notes were entered into qualitative
analysis software, HyperResearch (Version 3.5.2, Researchware Inc.,
2013) and were coded inductively and guided by principles of the-
matic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The codes were then subject
to refining and synthesis by all authors (Braun & Clarke, 2006),
generating the main themes that structured our results section. The
research team then examined data across the following axes: case
(family), theme, migration status, length of detention, and ages of
children. Identifying information was altered to preserve anonymity,
though narratives and dialogues are unchanged.
Results
Twenty families participated in the study. Table 1 captures the
demographic characteristics of the participants. The majority of fam-
ilies were asylum seekers (65%), and the remaining 35% of families
were failed refugee claimants. Table 2 summarizes the detention
duration and grounds for detention. The mean length of detention at
the time of interview was 56.4 days, whereas the median was 13.5
days. In our sample, 12 of the families were interviewed during their
detention, and another 8 families were interviewed after detention.
Three families were interviewed on more than one occasion, and in
one case, both during and after detention.
Given the opportunity to describe the basis of their refugee
claim, 60% of families disclosed significant prior trauma or per-
secution including physical assault, rape, torture; threats or harass-
ment by an organized group; murder or disappearances of family
or friends; witnessing murder; religious persecution; domestic
violence; forced separation of family members, including children.
Some families had also experienced significant adversity during
Table 1. Participant Characteristics
Cases (N20)
Region of origin
Europe 2
Southwest Asia 4
West Africa 3
East Africa 2
North America 1
Middle East 1
Central Africa 3
South Asia 1
Latin America 3
Children (n35)
Ages of children (years)
0–2 6
3–6 16
7–12 8
13–20 5
n35
Sex of children
Female 15
Male 20
N20
Immigration status
Asylum seeker 13
Failed claimant 7
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288 KRONICK, ROUSSEAU, AND CLEVELAND
the migration process (living with precarious status in another
country, previous immigration detention, dangerous journeys by
boat or on foot, and starvation). Parents also reported high rates of
postmigratory stress, particularly for those who were failed
claimants.
Life in Detention
Arrests. Most families arrived at the IHC after an arrest by
Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials. Apprehen-
sions took place at a port of entry or immigration office where the
refugee claim is made, or, in the case of failed claimants, the
apprehension occurred at a routine immigration meeting or hear-
ing. One family was reported by hospital personnel to the CBSA
after presenting to the hospital emergency room. In another case,
a mother was apprehended in her driveway with her breastfeeding
infant in her arms.
One mother, arriving alone with her two teenage children and
six-year-old by plane described a process of 10 hr of interrogation
by CBSA officials before they were arrested and detained. The
family’s bags were cut open with scissors and searched in front of
the children, and mother was told they would be returned home if
she did not “agree” to detention. Two other asylum-seeking fam-
ilies were also threatened with deportation on arrival.
Although per official CBSA guidelines, parents are not sup-
posed to be handcuffed in front of children, 3 parents in our study
reported being handcuffed in the presence of their children. When
a detained 11-year-old was asked what she understood about her
mother being shackled and handcuffed (and being detained), she
stated that it was “because they think we are terrorists” (Case 2).
Parents were also frightened by the lack of information they
received regarding detention:
[. . .]when you come nobody gives you any explanation or nothing on
what is going on [. . .] You just have to be there in your room like a
scared animal, and then they say “you have your court appearance in
48 hours.” But nobody explain to you anything. (Case 17)
In summary, parents described the arrests as frightening, often
humiliating, and at times made worse by long interrogations, the
intimidating actions of officials, the handcuffing of parents, and by
a lack of information.
The mother–child section. Women with children are
detained in a separate section from women and men. The mother–
child section consists of a common room with couches, a TV, a
table and chairs; a shared bathroom; laundry facility; and bed-
rooms. Women and children can move freely within the area but
need permission and to be accompanied by a guard to go outside,
go to meals, or enter another section of the building.
Families held in one IHC reported that often there were not
enough beds for family members. For example, a mother shared a
cot for 11 months with her 12-year-old son. In another IHC,
families would sometimes have to share rooms with other families,
including two families with infants.
Play. Parents and children reported that there was little to do
in the IHC, and boredom appeared pervasive. Many described
spending most of the day watching TV in the common area. In one
IHC, minimal toys, such as coloring books, were provided. The
other IHC had a playroom for younger children with donated toys.
Parents expressed concern that sometimes children would not have
interactions with other children for weeks (if there were no other
families detained with them) and that children would be idle,
sleeping or lying on the couches for long periods during the day.
One family even hypothesized that they had been unknowingly
drugged because they felt so sleepy and lethargic.
Small yards could be accessed twice daily in one IHC and with
permission from the managing guards at the other IHC. Sometimes
children did not have access to winter-appropriate clothing and so,
for example, one family was detained for 2 weeks before the
children received donated jackets and were able to go outside.
Education. The IHCs are expected to provide education to
children if they have been detained for more than 7 days (Citizen-
ship & Immigration Canada, 2007) to comply with the UNHCR
guidelines stipulating that “children have a right to education,
which should optimally take place outside the detention premises”
(UNHCR, 2012, p. 36). In both IHCs the schooling took place on
site. In one IHC, the program was described positively by children
and parents. In the other IHC, however, children were only pro-
vided with a few hours of second-language tutoring with a retired
teacher, and families felt it was “not a real school” (Case 2).
Rules and routines. Daily life in the IHC was shaped by
strict schedules and routines. Meals and wake-up times were held
at set times, and in one IHC mothers and children were required to
travel outside, accompanied by guards, to another building for
meals. After being awakened at 5 a.m., a mother had to wait 40
min outside in the snow with her two children before eating.
Detained for 3 months, a father thought that this schedule was
deliberately intended to disrupt the detainees’ sleep:
They have a system. I compare it to Africa. Because in Africa they hit
prisoners. But here they cannot hit prisoners. They have a system to
Table 2. Detention Demographics
Cases (N20)
Time of interview
In detention 12
Post-detention 8
Longitudinal 3
Cases (n22)
Detention length
48 hours 1
2–10 days 9
11–30 4
30–60 2
90 2
150–180 2
210 1
330 1
N20
Reason for detention as understood by families
Identity 8
Flight risk 6
Identity and flight risk or unclear 6
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289
ASYLUM-SEEKING CHILDREN’S EXPERIENCES OF DETENTION
break all system...So,youcannot sleep well. They turn the lights
on...Assoon as you sleep a bit, they come: “everybody outside!
Showers!” They try to break your rhythm. They break you.” (Case 19)
Guards and surveillance. As in a medium-security
prison, detainees are surveilled constantly by guards. Within the
mother– child section, guards on duty were always female. Their
shifts changed every 30 min, and parents noted that young children
found the presence of rotating strangers frightening.
Monitoring of detained mothers and children happened both day
and night, as one mother noted:
The red light in the room at night, its...toseeifalldetainees are in
theroom...Imean, they follow you like...like criminals. So, they
do not speak to you, they watch you.” (Case 19)
Her 10-year-old daughter expressed that this made her feel like
“a caged animal” (Case 19).
The interactions of guards and detainees, especially incarcerated
children, were marked by a tension between the guards’ obligation
to act as a security force and the reality of child inmates who
required care. The guards’ actions could be kind and nurturing,
whereas at other times they behaved harshly. Some guards would
bring gifts to the children, such as hair barrettes or used clothes.
Security guards who routinely worked in the mother– child section
often began to develop affectionate relationships with the children.
One guard often referred to infants with diminutives, such as “my
baby” or “my love.” Guards also sometimes challenged institu-
tional rules to provide better conditions for families. One mother
told us that a guard agreed to care for her infant so the mother
could have a nap, whereas another mother, in contrast, described
how guards are forbidden to provide supervision to children, or to
pick them up and hold them, such that she was not permitted to use
the washroom without bringing her children.
Parents also described troubling interactions with guards. One
mother, detained with her 21-month-old child remarked, “They
believe that we are prisoners” (Case 5). Another mother said,
“They treated us like we were terrorists” (Case 11). Our researcher
observed one 11-year-old girl, detained with her mother and
4-year-old sister, notice her father across the barbed wire fence in
the men’s yard. The child ran toward the fence smiling and waving
a greeting. The guard yelled at the child to stop and told her not to
acknowledge her father. The child backed away from the fence
appearing frightened.
In summary, children and their parents experience the surveil-
lance in detention as invasive, frightening, and criminalizing, even
as it is marked with individual guards’ attempts to care for
families.
The Family System in Detention
Family separation. Family separation caused by deten-
tion emerged as a prominent concern for the families. In 14 cases,
detention forced family separation (see Table 3). For some, this
separation was layered on earlier traumatic separations, and for
others, separation represented a new postmigratory stressor.
Separation within detention. Mothers and children
are always separated from their male spouses and fathers in de-
tention. Visits occur approximately twice per day for 15 to 30 min,
and sometimes families were permitted to eat meals together.
Despite these visits, children appeared anxious regarding the ab-
sent parent. A five-year-old girl separated from her father handed
her mother fruit during an interview, asking that it be brought to
her father, saying “tell him I love him” (Case1). Another child
refused food asking that it be given to her father.
Parents detained alone. Of the families in our study,
45% underwent separation when one (or both) parent(s) were
imprisoned without their children. In some cases, a parent is
detained alone because the children are Canadian-born and cannot
be detained for immigration reasons, although they may informally
accompany detained parents (Canadian Council for Refugees,
2009). Families may be given the option of having their children
accompany them in detention or to separate and leave the child in
the custody of extended family (if available) or in the care of
provincial youth protection services.
Parents highlighted several factors that made separation highly
distressing. Two mothers were separated from their breast-feeding
infants. In both cases, their babies were permitted to join them in
the IHC after approximately 4 days of separation. One mother told
us that
for 4 days I couldn’t eat. I cried every day from morning to night.
Yeah, I think he [my infant] became sick because he was away from
his mother. He cried every day [too]. (Case 16)
Another asylum-seeking family was separated from their teen-
age son who was being treated for end-stage cancer. Mother,
father, and his two younger siblings were all detained.
Mother: “The people who arrested us knew there was someone sick,
who had cancer...whowassuffering.”
Daughter: They knew, but they...
Mother: I begged them, let me go, someone is sick. He cannot spend
the night alone. (Case 19)
During the family’s detention their lawyer took the son to
hospital for his cancer treatment.
Nondetained family members are permitted to visit detainees
during appointed visiting hours, yet families noted that the
conditions of the visit were frightening and upsetting for chil-
dren. In one IHC, visitors, including children, could only meet
with detainees behind glass, speaking through a telephone. In
both IHCs, visiting children had to be searched. As one detained
father described,
[t]hey searched my kid! He was three years old....Mysonwas
searched like a criminal. Once I told the guys “Hey, he’s a kid! What
Table 3. Family Separations
Separation Cases (N20)
Total separations 17
Pre-migratory 5
Within detention 6
Children from detained parent(s) 9
Mother (& children) detained in separate facility from
father 1
Separations due to detention 14
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290 KRONICK, ROUSSEAU, AND CLEVELAND
are you doing? Why are you touching my son?” That’s all I could
[do]. He just told me it was an order. Somebody had ordered that. It
wasn’t easy. (Case 18)
Several families reported that visiting detained parents was so
distressing to their children that they ceased to visit. A father of 5-
and 3-year-old boys noted that
[t]hey began going there [IHC] but they cry a lot. Until I told them that
I did not want them to go there. But they had not seen their mom for
a month and a half...They knew their mom was there...It’s him
[child] who asked his mom “Why do you not want to come home. You
should come today.”
Child: She does not want to come. (Case 20)
When released from detention after 3 months, the mother ex-
plained how these visits, the separation from her two young boys,
and the detention itself had affected her:
They [my sons] came to visit me. He pushed the person who was
watching us at the door. He pushed him and said, I was leaving with
him...this...hurt me. I was crying myself...Isaid “really, I want
to suicide”...Iwould prefer to go home, to die at home. If they want
to arrest me, they’ll arrest me. Here they arrested me, this tortured me
again. (Case 20)
In this case, the family had already undergone traumatic
separation in their country of origin before fleeing to Canada.
The father had been jailed and tortured for his human rights
work, and while in jail, militiamen had arrived at the family
home and gang raped the mother in front of her two young boys.
The mother’s imprisonment in Canada was highly traumatizing
for the boys. The boys’ functioning and emotional well-being
declined. They manifested social difficulties and a regression in
academic milestones. During the interview, the five-year-old
son was preoccupied by his mother’s whereabouts, asking the
interviewer about her. He reenacted his mother’s rape (at gun-
point) holding a pretend gun to his brother’s head. Father
believed these memories were reactivated by the stressful con-
text of separation from his mother.
When the boys’ mother was released from detention after 3
months, the children’s sleep and appetite improved significantly
according to their father. They no longer had difficulty separating
from their father; their school also reported decreased anxiety and
improved academic and social functioning.
One family who had chosen to separate from their two chil-
dren—ages 6 and 4 —to spare them detention, reported how dis-
tressing it was for them to be separated from their children, the
father acknowledging that he was experiencing suicidal thoughts
for the first time in his life. Nonetheless, they affirmed their
decision to spare the children detention: “But even when it’s hard
for us not to be close to our children, it’s better than having them
here [in detention]” (Case 17).
Children’s Behavioral and
Emotional Responses
During detention. Families reported a range of symptoms
expressed by infants, children, and adolescents in detention. Many
children demonstrated externalizing symptoms of oppositionality
and aggressivity. These symptoms were particularly prominent in
children under the age of 6, who became more demanding.
Most children exhibited internalizing symptoms, most promi-
nently symptoms of anxiety. One 6-year-old girl, detained for over
6 months, would ask her parents, “Are they gonna keep us per-
manently here? Are we destined to stay here?” (Case 11). Signs of
separation anxiety were common in younger children. One 3-year-
old boy whose older sister attended the education program in the
detention facility became very distressed when they separated,
refusing to eat without his sibling and crying at the entrance of the
mother– child section until his sister returned. One 11-year-old
girl, who had previously been detained in a Central American
immigration detention facility, would become anxious when her
mother went to the bathroom saying, “Mama, where are you
going?” One 3-year-old child whose father was detained separately
would scream for him.
Families also noted mood changes in their children and indi-
cated that their children cried more often. One mother described
her school-aged child as “very depressed” (Case 2) in detention,
and another mother noted that her 3-year-old child appeared “sad”
(Case 10).
Over one half of the families interviewed during detention
reported that their children had significant sleep difficulties, in-
cluding nightmares. Decreased appetite or food intake occurred for
the majority of interviewed children. Two infants required in-
creased soothing and thus began nursing more frequently.
One 13-year-old girl, though she had been detained for only 48
hr, viewed detention as traumatic:
[Detention] is not good for the brain, also...itmakes holes. And
afterward, you are going to think about it again. That you are still at
Laval [the IHC]...Iwastraumatized. (Case 19)
In summary, children’s reactions, including those of infants and
older teenagers, suggest that the constraining and frightening en-
vironment of detention constitutes an acute stress. Even very brief
detention appears to be acutely distressing for children.
After detention. Most families reported ongoing emo-
tional distress, such as separation anxiety, selective mutism, sleep
difficulties, and posttraumatic symptoms in their children after
detention, though some noted their children’s symptoms improved
on release.
Several families reported that children, ranging in age from 5 to
18, had developed a fear of people in uniform. One 7-year-old boy
refused to attend school several weeks following detention because
he was scared that he would be “taken away” (Case 4) and put in
detention. He became frightened of police and of vans, as he had
been forced into a van by CBSA officials after trying to flee the
arrest of his family. His 8-year-old sibling became frightened of
institutional buildings, making it difficult to enter the clinic where
the family received treatment.
Two cases of selective mutism occurred after detentions of 48
hr. They persisted for nearly 6 months and negatively affected
school performance. Several families reported school difficulties
and deterioration in academic performance after detention. One
child who had developmental delays showed regression of mile-
stones and demonstrated new behavioral problems in school.
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291
ASYLUM-SEEKING CHILDREN’S EXPERIENCES OF DETENTION
One 11-year-old girl remained withdrawn, spoke little, and
appeared sad and tearful in the month following her detention,
explaining:
[I have] lots of fears...ofthefuture, I don’t know what will happen
...Iamtrying not to think...Iamafraid of being separated from
my parents and going back to jail. (Case 2)
Her play-interview included traumatic reenactment of the de-
tention and a foreshortened sense of future, a signifier of trauma in
children (Measham & Rousseau, 2010).
In summary, in a majority of cases, children’s symptoms did not
resolve immediately on release, leaving children with psychiatric
and academic difficulties long after detention.
Discussion
Overall, our results suggest that immigration detention is an
acutely stressful and potentially traumatic experience for children.
Children reacted to detention with extreme distress, fear, and a
deterioration of functioning. Because the majority of children and
families had already undergone significant premigratory trauma,
incarceration evoked a reexperiencing of previous (sometimes
prolonged) trauma. Research on refugee children demonstrates that
children’s mental health declines proportionally to accumulated
trauma and stress (Bronstein & Montgomery, 2011) and that
postmigratory stressors increase rates of posttraumatic stress dis-
order and depression in children (Bronstein & Montgomery, 2011;
Fazel, Reed, Panter-Brick, & Stein, 2012;Heptinstall, Sethna, &
Taylor, 2004). In our study, detention was clearly harmful to most
children and this effect should be understood as partially reflecting
a response to cumulative exposure to trauma.
Although not directly threatening to children’s physical integ-
rity, the detention environment evoked feelings of helplessness and
fear. The pervasive understimulation and the constant surveillance
of the children and of their mothers transformed daily life into an
experience of deprivation and powerlessness. Eating, sleeping, and
going to the bathroom, small moments often associated with com-
fort and reassurance, became embedded with restrictions and rules.
Adult figures were perceived as either powerless, anxious, and
without a capacity to be protective (in the case of parents) or
unpredictably oscillating between warmth and a cold-rejecting
stance (in the case of the guards).
The detention environment gestures to the inherent tension in
holding children in detention. In our study, the guards’ interactions
with detainees illustrate this tension. On the one hand, guards were
mandated to surveil and imprison children and, on the other, they
responded to children with nurturance. Even as guards acted as
agents of detention, they sought to avoid collusion with the harm-
ful practices of detention. The guards’ position reveals fault lines
within Canadian policies of detention that simultaneously position
(im)migrant children as (part of) a threat and as vulnerable and in
need of protection (Uehling, 2008). Social science literature notes
the conflict between state policies calling for protection of borders
and humanitarian obligations to protect the vulnerable (Fassin,
2012) and acknowledges how children are often caught in this
paradox (Uehling, 2008).
Our results demonstrate that the experience of detention renders
the entire family system more fragile. Of the families in our study,
70% had been separated because of detention. Separating children
from their primary attachment figure(s) emerged as a source of
enormous distress for both children and their parents. Thus, while
exempting children from detention and detaining only their parents
is sometimes put forward as a solution (Parliament of Canada,
2012), our study provides evidence that separation of families is
not in children’s best interests. The doctrine of the best interests of
the child is enshrined in the UNCRC— of which Canada is a
signatory—specifying that “in all actions concerning children...
the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”
(United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights, 1989, Article 3.1). The principle is also recognized in
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. In the case of
immigration detention, there is generally no conflict between the
best interests of the child and the parents’ right to the care and
custody of their children, as state-imposed separation of children
from their detained parents is usually even more detrimental than
allowing them to stay with their parents (Yablon-Zug, 2012).
When determining whether a child should be separated from a
parent in an immigration context, the best interests principle
should be paramount (Lundberg, 2011). Approaching matters of
detention and family separation from this perspective implies that
children’s psychological health and their right to not be separated
from parents (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for
Human Rights, 1989, Article 7.1) be prioritized. Unfortunately, in
Canada and internationally, children’s best interests are sometimes
given no more than lip service (Canadian Council for Refugees,
2009;Lundberg, 2011).
Results also highlighted the psychological distress of parents.
This converges with the increasingly robust evidence showing
high prevalence of psychopathology among adult asylum seekers
in immigration detention (Robjant, Hassan, & Katona, 2009). In
Canada adults held in detention for even relatively brief periods
have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and
anxiety than a nondetained comparison group (Cleveland & Rous-
seau, 2013). The extensive literature pointing to a strong link
between caregiver mental illness and the wellbeing of children
(Gunlicks & Weissman, 2008;Nicholas et al., 2012), including in
asylum-seeking populations (Goosen, Stronks, & Kunst, 2014)
suggests that the detrimental effects of detention on parents con-
tributes significantly to a negative impact on children.
Although this study design did not measure rates of psychiatric
diagnoses, our qualitative findings are consistent with previous
research reporting high rates of emotional distress in detained
children. Significant anxiety, including separation anxiety, selec-
tive mutism, mood and posttraumatic symptoms were evident. It is
important to note that some families reported that symptoms
triggered by detention persisted for months. These lasting effects
impacted children’s school and social functioning and in some
cases their development.
Our findings are striking, considering that the majority of re-
search on the incarceration of asylum-seeking children has been
conducted in Australia where children are detained for longer
periods (16 –20 months) in harsher conditions (Mares & Jureidini,
2004;Newman & Steel, 2008). In our study, children were de-
tained for far shorter periods and were not exposed to physical
violence or deprivation, yet detention was harmful nonetheless.
This suggests that any incarceration, even under relatively safe
conditions, is damaging for immigrant children, especially those
with high levels of previous trauma exposure.
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292 KRONICK, ROUSSEAU, AND CLEVELAND
Limitations
The study has multiple limitations. The unavailability of inter-
preters in the IHC limited the expression of the parents and
children. Additionally, because of space limitations for children
and families, detention interviews were, in almost all cases, con-
ducted in front of guards potentially forcing detainees to censor
their responses. Furthermore, it is not possible to appraise the
representativeness of our sample, given the convenience recruit-
ment strategy. However, considering the significant difficulties of
doing research in a detention context, this study represents a
unique record of the experience of the detained children in Canada
and can be informative for child advocates and policymakers in
other immigrant receiving countries.
Conclusion
In keeping with the international literature, this study documents
that for children seeking asylum in Canada, detention is highly
distressing and often traumatic. On the basis of our findings,
children, regardless of immigration status, should be protected
from detention and should also be spared forced separation from
their parents. Policies mindful of children’s best interests should
mandate alternative practices to detention, as has been done in the
United Kingdom (Clegg, 2010) and Sweden (Crawley, 2010).
Further research could support this advocacy process but should
not delay a strong collective stance from health professionals to
protect children from immigration detention.
Key Points
Although not threatening to children’s physical integrity, deten-
tion appears to be an experience of deprivation that shatters
children’s sense of safety and emotional well-being.
Children held in immigration detention in Canada experience
high levels of emotional distress and psychiatric symptoms.
Distress associated with detention may persist following deten-
tion.
Separation of parents and children in the context of detention
appears harmful.
Given the evidence of harm, children should not be held in
immigration detention and should be protected from family
separations precipitated by detention
Keywords: immigration detention; refugees; children; mental
health
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... Detention often results in the separation of families. The qualitative research included in this review has shown that this separation causes significant distress among those members of family who are detainedthis was a common theme among both children 28 and adults. 31,33 In separate studies, detention centres were described as 'intimidating' and 'prison-like' and from detainees' accounts of detention, examples emerged of being treated poorly and unfairly by immigration staffthese contributed to the ongoing distress of detainees. ...
... Among many others, a particularly common emotion observed consistently among detainees' regardless of population is the feeling of 'powerlessness' or 'helplessness' that contributes to poor mental health. [28][29][30]33 The process of detention takes away individuals' sense of control and autonomy over their own lives and subsequently forces detainees into passivity. It is therefore not surprising that many individuals described how they had given up as a result, and that their perceptions of what the future held were bleak. ...
... Mood changes were common, with children crying more often and developing signs of aggressivity while in detention. 28 The qualitative papers suggest that a large proportion of children develop difficulties sleeping and commonly experience nightmares and episodes of bed-wetting. 28,32 This review shows that detention is a frightening experience for children in particular which is typified by these physiological responses to stress. ...
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Full-text available
Background: The number of individuals forced to leave their home and seek asylum in other countries has risen alongside political instability, conflict and persecution in many parts of the world. These individuals are therefore extremely vulnerable. Many asylum-seekers have witnessed and experienced traumatic events that have contributed to mental illness. Detention is often used to incarcerate asylum-seekers who are waiting for asylum decisions to be made, however many are held in inadequate conditions for long periods of time. With governments using immigration detention increasingly more often, there are serious questions surrounding the impact this has on the mental health of detainees.Methods: A systematic review was undertaken using a comprehensive search strategy across six databases. Both qualitative and quantitative studies were included in the review providing that the mental health implications of immigration detention were explored or measured. Grey literature was also searched. The quality of the included studies were appraised and a narrative synthesis conducted in order to establish the main findings of the review. The results of the narrative synthesis were included in a conceptual model that explains how detention works to influence mental health. Results: 22 studies were included in the review. Six themes were identified from analysis of study findings from around the world. Five of those themes also occurred within studies conducted within the UK. In both the UK and globally: detention was associated with poor and deteriorating mental health outcomes; specific conditions inside detention centres were found to contribute to poor mental health; longer durations spent in detention were associated with poorer mental health outcomes; several negative behavioural and emotional responses to the detention experience were observed – particularly in children; the trauma of detention and mental health difficulties developed while in detention remained with individuals after release. In addition to these five themes, a higher number of relocations between detention centres contributed to greater mental distress among detainees outside the UK.Conclusions: This review provides evidence to suggest that an association exists between immigration detention and poor mental health outcomes and that many of the mediators of this relationship are universal. The findings of this paper have several implications for further research and policy. The UK must end indefinite detention and move towards alternative solutions for dealing with asylum-seekers. Detention should only be used as a last resort. Vulnerable individuals, such as children and individuals with existing mental health issues should never be detained. Finally, greater care should be taken to ensure that families with young children are not separated from one-another. Due to the implications of the findings included in this review, it is vital that scientific research of this type is allowed to continue. Future research must evaluate the feasibility and suitability of alternative policies to detention.
... Qualitative clinical and observational data is reported from visits to detention centres in six papers [53][54][55][56][57][58], and from a detained child in a single case report [59]. The sample in two quantitative Canadian studies includes observations and data from children collected during and post detention [60,61]. Two papers, [50,62] (one already mentioned) are comparison studies between children or young people held in restrictive detention compared with a more open setting or community resettlement. ...
... The mean time detained was 56.4 days and the study included 35 children aged 0-20 years during or after detention. The first study included ethnographic participant observation by the first author who visited the IDC weekly for 6 months; in-depth semi-structured interviews with parents and children aged 13-18 years; and play based interviews with children aged 6-12 years [60]. The second involved narrative enquiry and analysis to understand detained children's experiences [61]. ...
... Detailed information about the physical and psychological environment within which children and families were detained was collected and reported through observations from studies in detention centres in Hong Kong, Guantanamo Bay, Australia and Canada [49,53,54,56,57,60]. The study undertaken with Cuban adolescents held in Guantanamo Bay [49] records their cumulative experiences of camp confinement in the context of prior loss and trauma. ...
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... At the intrapersonal level, mental health issues have been pointed out in 12 papers as hinderers of well-being (Brabant et al., 2016;Buchegger-Traxler & Sirsch, 2012;Chase, 2013;Closs et al., 2001;DeJong et al., 2017;Deveci, 2012;Ekblad, 1993;Gatt et al., 2020;Groark et al., 2011;Hamilton, 2013;Kronick et al., 2015;Liebkind & Jasinskaja-Lahti, 2000;Lincoln et al., 2016;Mohamed & Thomas, 2017;Roupetz et al., 2020;Zwi et al., 2018). Particularly among asylum seekers and refugee children, detention experiences have been described as having a negative impact on the mental health of children not only in the short term (acute stress symptoms) but also in the middle and long terms, leading to more social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (DeJong et al., 2017;Zwi et al., 2018). ...
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... This sharpens the condition of psychological "exile". Amongst the most frequently noted risk factors during the resettlement phase, there are the lengthiness of juridical asylum procedures, the uncertainty of living conditions, prolonged stays in immigration detention centers (Kronick et al., 2015;Laban et al., 2008); the feeling of being discriminated in the resettlement country due to ethnicity or religion, aggravating the experience of migrants which have already suffered from oppression in their country of origin and injustice; the accumulation of stressful circumstances such as poverty, loss of social roles and status, unemployment, social isolation, identity and culture loss, precariousness of dwelling, discrimination, separation from family members (Betancourt et al., 2015;Ellis et al., 2008;Weine, 2008Weine, , 2011. ...
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CMPR does not have a centre view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this document are only those of its independent author. This briefing paper was commissioned by the Wales Family Returns Group to inform discussion but does not necessarily represent the views of organisations who are members of the group.
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Organised violence, persecution, and community instability cause millions of children to flee their native countries every year. About 7·6 million people were newly displaced by conflict or persecution in 20121 (the highest number in a decade), of which approximately half were younger than 18 years. Regions prone to disaster and adversity often have disproportionately young populations, and thus larger numbers of children and adolescents are now moving across country borders, with or without their families.
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There are concerns about negative effects of relocations between asylum-seeker centres on the mental health of asylum-seeking children. However, empirical evidence comes from cross-sectional studies only. In this longitudinal medical record study, we aimed to assess: (i) whether relocations during the asylum process are associated with the incidence of newly recorded mental distress in asylum-seeking children; and (ii) whether this association is stronger among vulnerable children. Data were extracted from the electronic medical records database of the Community Health Services for Asylum Seekers in The Netherlands (study period: 1 January 2000-31 December 2008). Included were 8047 children aged 4 to 17 years. Case attribution was done using International Classification of Primary Care codes for mental, behavioural or psychosocial problems. The association between annual relocation rate and incidence of mental distress was measured using relative risks (RR) estimated with multivariate Cox regression models. A high annual relocation rate (>1 relocation/year) was associated with increased incidence of mental distress [RR = 2.70; 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.30-3.17]. The relative risk associated with a high annual relocation rate was larger in children who had experienced violence (RR = 3.87; 95% CI 2.79-5.37) and in children whose mothers had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression (RR = 3.40; 95% CI 2.50-4.63). The risk of mental distress was greater in asylum-seeking children who had undergone a high annual relocation rate. This risk increase was stronger in vulnerable children. These findings contribute to the appeal for policies that minimize the relocation of asylum seekers.
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Measham T., Rousseau C. (2010). Family disclosure of war trauma to children. Traumatology, 16(2), 14-25. Original DOI: 10.1177/1534765610365915. This article has been retracted due to the republishing of this article in the December 2010 issue of Traumatology, 16(4). The republishing is due to the necessity of including this article as a part of a Special Issue on “Culture and Trauma” in 16(4), for which this article was originally picked by Special Issue Guest Editors Dr. Sandra Mattar and Dr. Boris Drožđek. Please find the republished article now in Traumatology, 16(4), 85-96. DOI: 10.1177/1534765610395664..