The by-line for this exhibition describes it as ‘daily life and events as depicted by children in detention’. I would like you to imagine that we were gathered not for this exhibition, but for another exhibition of daily life and events as depicted by the children of Monte Sant Angelo up the road or the kids at Shore College next door. What daily life and events might we expect to see – kids sending text messages to each other, sports events, hanging out with friends, birthday celebrations, exams. The normal stuff of life.
Here we have an exhibition which is disturbingly abnormal. It is an exhibition of lost childhood.
The paintings in this exhibition remind me of a detainee I have befriended from Woomera. I started writing to Laila (not her real name) over 2 years ago. Laila wrote in her first letter:
And several months later.
Laila is no exception. The twenty children artists in our exhibition are no exception. DIMIA’s figures show that 97 children attempted self-harm over the past 3 years. Of these, 88 were successful.
These paintings and Laila’s letters put a human face on the situation documented in the HREOC report into children in detention released in May 2004. The HREOC report is a 900-page chronicle of ‘daily life and events’ that should cause us acute concern. It reads as a litany of lament: children witnessing adults self-mutilating; children caught up in violent disorders; the complete breakdown of parent/child relationships; children disintegrating psychologically; chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, joylessness, thinking about suicide, bedwetting, severe headaches and stomach pains.
This report is called A Last Resort? It gets its title from the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory: ‘the arrest, dentention or imprisonment of a child shall be … used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.’ To our shame in Australia, mandatory detention is seen as first recourse, rather than last resort.
The drawings in this exhibition show us that detention centres are the most dangerous places for children in our country. They are drawings from a toxic environment, and they are the pictorial record of the seeds of what will almost certainly be long-term harm. And this incredibly in our beloved land of Australia, the land of the underdog, the land of ‘she’ll be right mate’, the land of the fair go. Tell that to these child artists and their families. Children are being detained in our land, in our name, for our security, we are told.
Since the HREOC report was released 3 months ago, there has been no significant implementation of the report’s recommendations.
The government would have us believe otherwise. We have been told by the minister that there is only one child left in detention. Not true! The Minister simply ignored the 90 children in Nauru, Christmas Island, Maribyrnong, Villawood and housing projects. Children in the housing project are not free to come and go as they please. They are detained and monitored in houses with their mothers, separated from fathers and older siblings. There are young people in Baxter who are now 18 but who were children when they were first incarcerated. I met one lad there who had been in detention for 4 years.
It’s no use the government pointing proudly, in pre-election mode, to declining numbers or a change in the management company. The fundamental conditions that underpinned the abuses which we see in these drawings are still in place, and there is nothing to stop the use again of water cannon, tear gas and beating with batons.
My colleague Frank Brennan was at Woomera over Easter 2002. Frank witnessed the bruises on the legs of a 7 year old child who had been beaten with a baton and suffered the effects of tear gas. He advocated on behalf of the child’s mother, claiming that her son’s human rights had been violated. ACM claimed that the mother simply invented her son’s injury so people like Father Brennan would take up her cause, and that tear gas was not harmful. 18 months later the boy’s mother received a letter from DIMIA. In formal legal jargon the letter stated there was not sufficient evidence to establish the claim, but on the balance of probabilities he was struck by a baton by an unknown ACM officer and, yes, this constituted a breach of his human rights. The investigating officer recommended that the department apologise for this.
The letter concludes:
The mother wrote again to DIMIA, pleased on one hand with the finding, but concerned that no one had been brought to account. In her letter she said:
These drawings clearly reveal the harshest system of mandatory detention in the Western world. But do we care? Perhaps, but not much. Why? Because the people in detention have been kept in the desert, faceless and nameless. I could write to Laila simply by putting her number, and not her name, on the envelope. You can’t visit any detainee unless you quote their number. Cameras are not allowed into detention centres. The media is screened out.
Any photojournalist will tell you of the power of the close-up image of a human face and its ability to elicit in the viewer’s heart a response of human compassion. Even when shots were taken of asylum seekers on their leaky boats, we didn’t see close-ups but rather hazy silhouettes in the distance. The clearest images we had, would you not agree, were of children being thrown overboard?
So without the human image public empathy has not connected.
Robert Manne, writing in the Herald recently observed:
What will it take to engage the Australian community on this issue? It will take further exhibitions such as this one, an exhibition which allows us to come a little bit closer to, to engage at a deeper level with, these innocent victims. We need more images such as these, more stories, more personal encounters.
It has been said that part of the horror of the Holocaust was that German society refused to think themselves into the places of their victims. In order to change, to become a more humane, less mean-spirited society we have to find ways of thinking ourselves into the places of the most vulnerable in our society.
We honour the artists of this exhibition. We acknowledge their courage in reliving their trauma in these drawings. We apologise to them that Australia has failed them in the most basic duty of care. We lament with them that they have been used as political, scaremongering fodder. Most of all we thank them for inviting us through their drawings to think ourselves into their lives.
We also acknowledge the Sisters of St Joseph and warmly commend them for mounting this exhibition. This exhibition coincides with Mary MacKillop’s feastday last Sunday. Mary would, we know, endorse this exhibition. Her Sisters have followed in her footsteps of being there for ‘the lost, the least and the last’.
‘We have stolen enough of these children’s lives.’ May we be disturbed by this exhibition. May we be moved to action and find ways of giving these children some of their life back.