A prisoner all her life, this girl bears the scars

Sydney Morning Herald
May 7 2005
By Lee Glendinning and Joseph Kerr

Three-year-old Naomi Leong was born into detention and has known no other life but still asks her mother when they are going home. She started off warm and engaging but became increasingly disconnected as she grew. Now she is listless, will not play with other children and wants only constant nursing by her mother.

"Every time she sees me upset and feeling sad she bangs her head against the wall," her 31-year-old Malaysian mother, Virginia Leong, told the Herald from Villawood Detention Centre yesterday. "But there's nowhere I can hide. I am unstable and screaming all the time. I cannot help it."

Of the 74 child detainees in Australia, Naomi has been in detention longer than any of them.

Ms Leong says she lives only for her daughter, and has told a psychiatrist she is "exhausting" herself trying to look happy even though she "feels dead".

"She seems very weird," she said yesterday of her daughter. "She is never playing around children her own age and she will never talk much, but she always says to me, 'When can we go home?' and I say we can't and she says, 'No, let's go go home?' What can I say to that?"

Psychiatrists have said detention is indelibly damaging Naomi. According to one psychiatrist's report obtained by the Herald, Ms Leong was said to be apparently suffering severe major depression and psychotic features.

"She and Naomi are both potentially at risk of their safety if this condition is allowed to continue without adequate treatment, as it has been so far," said Michael Dudley. He also recommended removing Ms Leong and Naomi to a psychiatric unit.

It is understood Ms Leong entered Australia on a valid visa, but overstayed.

She was two months pregnant with Naomi when she was detained for trying to travel to Hong Kong on a false passport.

Naomi's case is just the latest to raise concerns about how immigration authorities are managing detainees' mental health. A Federal Court judge this week said the Government had failed in its duty of care to two long-term Iranian detainees who are now in a psychiatric hospital. The inquiry into Cornelia Rau's detention has also been widened to include 33 other people wrongly detained.

An Immigration Department spokesman said Naomi was not an Australian citizen and that Ms Leong was free to leave Australia.

So disturbing has been Naomi's behaviour - she has stopped eating and drinks only juice - that a psychiatrist asked the department in March to let her visit a children's play group centre for two hours a week.

Ms Leong said: "My brain has already been destroyed but I am trying to stop hers from being destroyed. Her life is so unfair."

 The Prime Minister has apologised for the wrongful deportation of Australian Vivian Alvarez to the Philippines. Ms Alvarez, who went missing in 2001, has a nine-year-old son in foster care in Brisbane.

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