One Square Metre of Space: Children in Detention

Standing in a noisy Sydney airport waiting to get on a plane recently, I rocked my 6 month old off to sleep and read this. Every few moments my eyes flicked to my toddler running excited circles around the departure gates, his little legs burning off energy before being buckled in to a seat for a long flight.

Waiting passengers moved past me as I read the report of the Human Rights Commission's July visit to Christmas Island as part of its Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

The Inquiry team, including the pediatrician of more than 30 years standing, Professor Elizabeth Elliott, visited Christmas Island and came away very disturbed by what they saw

Visible levels of distress among infants and children, including head banging, self-biting, and developmental delay. Regression such as bed-wetting and stuttering that had come on after the children entered detention.

The team spoke to kids suffering nightmares and flashbacks; who had withdrawn to their rooms or refused to eat. Professor Elliot described the symptoms she saw as ‘consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.’ She also noted the high rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm, and the crowded, dirty, and unhygienic conditions of the camp.

All of the then 174 children detained on Christmas Island were sick. 

Families are housed in 3m x 3m air-conditioned metal containers with a bunk bed, sink, and cot. This leaves only 1 square metre of space for movement in the room. 

Not nearly enough space for an infant or child to play, to learn how to crawl or walk. It's a tropical island and very hot, so it's tough to spend much time outside. There's no shade or suitable play equipment outdoors. 

There's no full time specialist health and mental care on the Island. Ten mothers are so desperate for fresh food, space, and safe, clean and appropriate play areas for their kids that they are under suicide watch. This means they are under constant surveillance, 24 hours a day, including when they breastfeed and sleep.

These conditions are not for a few nights. The average length of time a child spends in an immigration detention facility is 231 days. 

I stood in the crowded departure gate and stepped out 1 square metre of space in front of me. Imagined my 6 month old baby in there, and my toddler, for long periods of time. Sick. With respiratory problems because of the constant air-conditioning and crowded conditions. Distressed and suffering, mentally and physically, in an overcrowded, dirty detention camp behind locked gates.

I imagined the crushing heat outside, the guards, the constant surveillance, the fences, the fear, depression, distress, uncertainty and sense of helplessness and hopelessness those conditions must create.

No child should be treated like this. No person seeking asylum should be locked up and treated as inhumanely as our country routinely treats people coming to our shores.

This information is not new. The Human Rights Commission, humanitarian organisations, advocates, and medical practitioners who have witnessed the conditions in immigration detention facilities first hand, have reported distressing, and deteriorating conditions for some time.

Even the Government’s own data shows the high levels of distress among detainees, with 128 children and 89 adults self-harming over a 15 month period to 31 March 2014 on Christmas Island alone.

Our obligations under international law are clear. Those seeking refugee status in our country have the right to seek and enjoy protection from persecution. They have the right to fair and robust consideration of their claim for protection, and the right to access legal advice. Our government consistently fails to meet these international legal obligations.

Instead, we punish people for the way they enter our country (by boat), often hold them in indefinite detention, and subject people (including babies and children), to long periods of detention in terrible conditions.

This is illegal. It's also morally indefensible and deeply disturbing. 

There are things we can do.

:: Write a letter to a politician - here's how.

:: Reach out and write to an asylum seeker detained in Nauru or Manus Island.

:: Read up on the issue here. (I also wrote more about it in Overland Literary Journal here). 

:: Follow the Commission's Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention here.

:: Support your local advocacy group helping refugees in your area.

:: Sign your name on an open letter to the Government, asking them to abandon mandatory detention, and abide by our international law obligations.

Tens of thousands of Australians do not agree with the government's inhumane policies concerning detention of asylum seekers. 

If you don't either, add your voice. All our actions count.

*The above picture is a drawing by a child in immigration detention via the Australian Human Rights Commission

* On Tuesday, 19 August, Minister Morrison announced his government would be releasing some children from community detention in Australia. This does not apply to the some 300 children in offshore immigration detention on Christmas Island and Nauru. 


  1. So heartbreaking. Surely the government will end this cruel policy soon.

    1. Thanks for visiting Kirsty. I hope so too.

  2. Thank-you so much for this post and all the informative links. I am disgusted that we are still allowing this to happen, but feel so helpless to do anything. These resources really help.

  3. Thanks for reading One Small Life. I'm glad the links and information help, there's some really practical actions we can take to help!



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