“It must end,” said Dr June Factor about the detention of children. Their plight was the motive behind a program started in order to connect with children and families in detention, give them hope, inform people about their deplorable fate and advocate for their release. AJDS co-founder, June Factor also founded Befriend a Child in Detention, and says of Australia’s decision to imprison innocent children, “It seemed to me that on so many levels it was illegal, it was improper and it tarnished whatever reputation we might have as a genuinely humane society… When it comes to children, I think their treatment is particularly outrageous, damaging and virtually life-threatening. As well, I recognise that children are the government’s weakest link in their policy, because most Australians are not happy to see children imprisoned, so it seemed to me a double reason for focusing on children,” she says.
While the #letthemstay campaign helped some of the children previously held on Nauru or Manus, many more remain in the dehumanizing and intolerable conditions of Australia’s offshore detention centres. “We treat these people harshly to deter others from coming, and this is supposed to stop a lot from drowning. But then why not torture someone very publicly, or bomb one of the boats? Oh no, that would be shocking, but what they are doing now is killing people slowly, killing them mentally and emotionally. To do this to children is just extraordinary,” says Factor.
“Take a moment to think of Australia’s history,” she continued. “Many of Australia’s well-known families have an ancestor who arrived by jumping off a boat. Then both before and after the Second World War, refugees were accepted into Australia without much in the way of formal papers – that’s what being a refugee often means. The same for the thousands of Vietnamese we accepted in the 1970s.”
As pointed out in The University of Melbourne’s Graduate Union newsletter in its interview with Factor (21 January 2016), Australia is a signatory to The Declaration of the Rights of a Child (1959): “The General Assembly proclaims this Declaration of the Rights of the Child to the end that he may have a happy childhood and enjoy for his own good and for the good of society the rights and freedoms herein set forth … and calls upon local authorities and national Governments to recognise these rights and strive for their observance by legislative and other measures …”. The convention elaborates:
- Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them.
- Children who come into a country as refugees should have the same rights as children who are born in that country.
- Children have the right to relax, play and to join in a wide range of leisure activities.
Yet these rights are not available to asylum seeker children held in detention.
The 1951 Refugee Convention aimed to identify genuine refugees and outlined their rights as well as the obligations of States towards them. Article 31 states that a refugee has “the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state.” Other rights include those of education, freedom of movement, and the right to be issued identity and travel documents. Someone doesn’t qualify as a refugee if they have committed crimes against peace, a war crime, crimes against humanity, etc. The Refugee Convention states that an asylum seeker ought not to be sent back to the country they are fleeing from because of the risk that their rights will be violated – and Australia signed this convention on 22 January, 1952. Australia also has other obligations under other international treaties to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees – regardless of how they arrive. Our own Migration Act, however, allows for the detention of any migrant who arrives without a visa.
“There is no justification of any kind other than political convenience, and there is no justification for the interminable imprisonment of children on the basis that they have arrived on a boat without a visa”, Factor said.
“What the government does is put asylum seekers on desolate islands, or in detention centres deliberately separated from the surrounding communities, declare that the asylum seekers could be dangerous as well as ‘illegal’, and give people immense power over them without any real scrutiny.” Factor elaborates on the nature of dehumanization, which in this case can be detected in the children’s tendency to identify more with their number. This is how they are referred to in detention, a tactic well known to Jews who have experienced encampment in World War II. Connecting with the children will give them some of the care that the deserve. “Befriending is to be a friend,” says Factor. “We don’t really live well without friends, and to be a friend with a child in detention is a powerful step, both for the befriended and the child.”
“Initially we have focused on getting books to children in detention with letters of greeting. For many people, this has been welcomed as a positive act of support for the children. We have received so many books, from publishers and booksellers and from people across the country, that we’ve put a temporary halt to receiving more books,” she says. After being screened to ensure that the letters do not contain anything potentially harmful, the letters are delivered to detainees.
“There are people for whom the government’s harsh and unjust policy towards asylum seekers is morally suspect, but many are not likely to take part in demonstrations or write letters to the newspaper. I think we’re providing an avenue for what turns out to be hundreds and hundreds of people who are unhappy and have found through us something that they feel they can do, which clearly is a great yearning,” says Dr Factor. “What we do doesn’t change the situation, it doesn’t free the children, but it does provide them with some comfort in friendship, as well as the pleasures of wonderful children’s books. Ours is a project that influences hearts and minds. What we stand for is a reminder that you can’t sacrifice humans for some supposed greater good. These children and their families have done no wrong, and do not deserve to be treated badly in order to deter future refugees.”
Befriend a Child in Detention has received much public support, especially from schools. Bell Primary in Preston was one such school, which engaged with the project by way of letter writing, picture drawing and donations. “When the child detainees realised there were letters inside the books, there were tears all round. They said that they were not forgotten and that Australians don’t all hate us,” says Factor. “In July we sent four boxes of beautiful new children’s books to the children in the detention centre on Nauru, and every book included a letter – a greeting and encouragement of friendship.
There were also stamped addressed envelopes, in the hope that some asylum seeker children might write back. Some of the letters and envelopes were from adults and many were from children. We know that a number of people – including 17 children from one school – have received letters from the children detained on Nauru.”
This project changes the way people talk about asylum seekers and forces the public to question their supposedly illegal status. “In the process of all of this, people talk about what they’re doing, and we very much want them to talk about what they’re doing. It changes the conversation – one weekend you might be talking with your friends, and somebody says that you can’t have all these people coming, and then there’s a discussion, and there’s a new line in it, it’s not just the propaganda,” says Dr Factor. At the end of it all, asylum seekers are people who are in desperate need to flee from danger and a homeland that violates their basic human rights. “We’re part of something important,” says Dr Factor, “we’re one of the waves that will drown this shameful policy, that will end it.”
NUMBERS & LOCATIONS OF CHILDREN IN DETENTION
The Government’s latest statistics as of the 29th of February, 2016.
- 43 Children in Immigration Detention Centres/ APODs
- 3 Children in Perth Immigration Residential Housing
- 10 Children in Sydney Immigration Residential Housing
- 0 Children in Adelaide Immigration Transit Accommodation
- 2 Children in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation
- 7 Children in Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation
- 50 Children in the Republic of Nauru
Total: 115 children in immigration detention