Crying Out for Compassion

Children in detention: it’s been on my heart for a while. Here I am, writing this blog about ways to have fun and create memories with kids. And yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t use this space to raise awareness of about the children whose daily lives are spent without freedom.

Sure, I know there are a lot of complex issues, but you know what? Some things are more black and white than grey. And some grey things should be black and white. I asked journalist Cath Johnsen, to put a piece together about this issue with ways we can all help.

Christmas Island Detention Centre

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre ©DIBP

By Cath Johnsen  

As a mother of three young children, I am haunted by the knowledge that innocent children – just like mine – are being imprisoned alongside adults that are strangers to them.

While my children play in the garden or skip through the school gates, these children are staring out hopelessly from behind a barbed wire fence.

Shockingly, it’s happening right here in our country and is sanctioned by the Australian government, despite the fact that it breaches the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Australia is a signatory.¹

I’m talking about children being held in detention centres – children with no criminal record; simply children and families who are trying to leave the trauma of their homeland behind to begin a new life in a free and peaceful country.

Dr Josh Francis, an Australian paediatrician who regularly treats children who are seeking asylum from persecution, famine and war said children in detention have typically suffered immense trauma and continue to live in an uncertain, unstable and traumatic environment.

He adds that, sadly, it is not uncommon for them to present with trauma-related mental health problems, depression, anxiety, developmental delay or regression.

“Recently I met a boy whose family escaped the very real dangers of their home country, in hope of new life and opportunity in ours,” Dr Josh said.

“This child is only young, but nevertheless the marks of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are undeniable.”

“He has developed secondary nocturnal enuresis (night time bed wetting after previously being continent), and more recently has been incontinent during daylight hours. His sleep is poor, postponed by unspoken fears and interrupted by nightmares. He startles easily and has trouble engaging with peers his age.”

Dr Josh describes him as a thoughtful boy, all too aware of the anxious thoughts that plague his parents and the uncertainty of his own future. Like many other families, his has been moved between detention centres in Perth, Darwin and Christmas Island with minimal notice or explanation.

“Their most recent transfer to the mainland came about because of his younger brother’s chronic illness,” Dr Josh explained. “For this child, the traumatic experiences of a desperate flight, a shipwrecked boat and the untimely deaths of close family members are compounded on a daily basis by the ongoing trauma of life in an Australian detention centre.”

In addition to overcoming the traumas they’ve left behind and the new ones that are experienced in detention, Dr Josh says these children experience the same broad spectrum of illness that can be expected in children of their age, though these problems have frequently been unrecognised or inadequately treated because of limited access to services in their home countries, in transit, and in detention.

“Some children also suffer with heart problems, recurrent chest infections, kidney disease, cerebral palsy, and many other conditions that complicate an already difficult existence,” he said. 

Asylum seekers – separating the facts from the myths

Children, families and individuals seeking asylum (to live safely and freely) in another country are known as asylum seekers. Once they have been checked by relevant authorities and granted permission to live in Australia, they become referred to as refugees.

Asylum seekers are sometimes unfairly called “queue jumpers” or “illegal immigrants”. This is untrue as there are simply no queues to jump – these people are fleeing desperate situations where there is no opportunity to fill out official applications. Seeking asylum is a basic human right and is not illegal.

According to the government’s most recent statistics², dated 31 January 2015, there are currently:

  • 211 children held in detention facilities within Australia
  • 119 children held in detention on Nauru
  • 1551 children detained in the community under residence determination (community detention), and
  • 2423 children living in the community on bridging visas, which generally means their parents have no work rights and limited access to government support.

The reasons for seeking asylum in Australia are many and varied. Pastor Jack Kamst and his wife Anne spent 14 months on Christmas Island visiting the detention centres, teaching, offering pastoral care and running church services. In their time on the island, they heard many stories that touched their heart.

“One young married couple had to flee from their country because if they did not, they would certainly be imprisoned for a lengthy period, if not killed,” Pastor Jack explained.

“We became friends on Christmas Island but it was not that long before they were transferred to Nauru. They have one child now (born in detention) and yes, life is tough for them. Their faith sustains them and one day they know they will be free, but the waiting and uncertainty of it all extracts a heavy price.”

Jack also adds that if Australians could meet the human faces behind the fear mongering and politics, they would feel more compassion towards their fellow human beings. But a system that refers to children in detention by their boat numbers instead of their names does not make a happy environment for children to grow up in.

“It is very difficult to raise children in an environment like Nauru, where there is little or no privacy, very little to do, where you have to live in tents 24/7, where you cannot cook for yourself, you cannot study courses, you have no employment. All these things are very difficult issues,” Pastor Jack said.


Drawing by preschool age girl, detained 420 days, Christmas Island, 2014
 © Australian Human Rights Commission – Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)

Drawing by primary school aged child, Christmas Island, 2014.

Drawing by primary school aged child, Christmas Island, 2014
 © Australian Human Rights Commission – Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)


Drawing by primary school aged girl, Christmas Island, 2014
  © Australian Human Rights Commission – Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)

Crying out for compassion 

Dr Josh says the children and families he meets affect him deeply, and he hopes that legislative change will remove them from the trauma of detention.

“Like any of us, they have real hopes and dreams for their children. Like us, they know what it is to love and to be loved,” Dr Josh said.

“I have talked with them in person, heard their stories, listened to their hopes, and held back tears as I have examined their children, so precious to them.”

“Paediatricians love to ask kids what they want to do when they grow up. ‘To be free…’ doesn’t seem like it should be too much to ask, does it?”

How your family can help asylum seeking families

It sounds heart-breaking and hopeless, but there are many ways caring Australian families can help children and families being held in detention. Here’s some ideas:

  1. Volunteer for a community organisation such as Chill Out (children Out of Immigration Detention)
  2. Visit families in detention and hear the stories behind the people, offer support and encouragement. More information here.
  3. Send practical gifts such as art and craft supplies to children in detention. For details on how to do this, visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
  4. Encourage your children to regard asylum seekers and refugees with compassion. The Little Refugee by Anh Do is the true story of how the popular Australian comedian escaped war-torn Vietnam for a better life in Australia. It is suitable for school aged children. Older teens will enjoy Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee.
  5. Contact your local politician and tell them how you feel about children being held in detention. Governments are very sensitive to public opinion and real change is possible.


The Guardian: Sadness and fear: what the drawings by children in detention showed us

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  • Reply
    March 11, 2015 at 11:13 am

    This subject both infuriates me and breaks my heart.
    How can we sit back and do nothing about these children?? How can we have so little compassion?

  • Reply
    Matthew Burstow
    March 12, 2015 at 10:12 am

    My heart was touched by this…so much scaremongering obscuring real life tragedy. “To be free…’ doesn’t seem like it should be too much to ask, does it?”

  • Reply
    kate @ livinglovinglaughing
    March 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I too am both heartbroken and infuriated. How can this continue? Those poor children… let alone their parents. It is absolutely inhumane and I am so thankful you have used your blog to spread awareness. Bc we need to keep talking about it, until they are released. I am going to look into sending some gifts to the kids. Thanks for providing practical links to mobilise your readers xx

  • Reply
    March 18, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Thank you for this article. I feel so sad and angry that this is happening in my own backyard and yet generally feel powerless to do anything. The practical ways listed that we can help are very useful, thank you.

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