“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 Dr June Factor, convenor and founder of the Befriend a Child in Detention project. “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.”
Since then, says Dr Factor, more books and letters have gone to Nauru, and to every asylum seeker detention centre on the Australian mainland.
Befriend a Child in Detention is a community project which aims to alleviate the suffering of asylum seeker children held in detention, raise awareness of their parlous circumstances, and strive for their release. It was founded a year and a half ago by Dr Factor, an historian, academic and writer who found herself becoming increasingly furious, frustrated and desperate about the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. “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,” she says.
“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.
“ It must end,” she replied firmly when asked what her stance is on current child detention issues.
“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.”
“Take a moment to think of Australia’s history,” she explained. “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.”
Dr Factor points to the fact that the government has refused to end the current detention of asylum seekers, including more than 150 children, a harsh and damaging detention that has been condemned by every review that has been held, including those held under the government’s auspices, such as the Moss Review on Nauru. All have said that the children must be taken from the detention centre on Nauru, brought to Australia and released. “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 Dr Factor.
Dr Factor presents a fair point. Australia is a signatory to The Declaration of the Rights of a Child, which insists that governments must act in the best interest of the children:
“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 for the Rights of the Child includes the following rights:
- 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.
Then there is the 1951 Refugee Convention that seeks to identify which people meet the criteria of refugee status, as well as outlining the rights of refugees and the legal obligations that every state has 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, or they have engaged in activity contrary to the principals and purposes of the United Nations. The Refugee Convention includes the principle of non-refoulement: 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.
However, the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) section 178 states that asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without a valid Visa must be held in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or removed from Australia. Furthermore, what policies apply to these asylum seekers now depends on their mode of arrival, and on what date they arrived.
These aren’t the only disheartening matters for Dr Factor. There is the treatment of the detainees, especially, of course, the children. She reflects for a moment, and refers to a psychological experiment in obedience from 1961. It was the Milgram Experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University, where he sought an answer to the question: Could it be Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices? In essence, Milgram wanted to see just how obedient someone will be to an authoritative figure, even if the requests have the potential to harm another person.
Milgram’s participants were selected as either a ‘learner’ or a ‘teacher’; however, it was rigged so that the learner was an actor employed by Milgram. Electrodes were attached to the learner and they were then supposed to learn a series of word pairs. The teacher sat in another room where he could not see the learner, and had in front of him an electric shock generator with marks starting from 15 volts, to 375 volts, to 450 volts. The learner’s memory was then tested: they were given a word and required to recall its pair from four possible options. A shock was given every time a mistake was made – but unknown to the teacher, the shock generator was a mere prop, and produced only sound. The learner would feign their cries when shocked. If at any point the experimenter was contacted, the teacher was responded to with one of the following prods: please continue; please go on; the experiment requires that you go on; it is essential that you continue and you have no other choice, you must go on. If the subject asked who would be responsible for any hurt that was inflicted upon the learner, the experimenter simply responded, “I am responsible,” and the teacher would continue.
Milgram’s experiment found, rather disturbingly, that all 40 participants obeyed authority for up to 300 volts. Twenty-five from the 40 administered the full 450 volts.
“What it tells you is that people can be persuaded to do terrible things,” says Dr Factor. “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.” There are certain dehumanising aspects in these detention centres, explained Dr Factor, which includes detainees being addressed by their Boat Identification Numbers, rather than their names. This has seen a number of child detainees identifying more with their numbers than their own names. “The last time I heard about that was in World War II concentration camps,” she remarked grimly.
And so the idea of befriending these children who are continuously being marginalised and dismissed by a system that does not seem to be handling them with the care that they deserve was realised. “Befriending is to be a friend,’ says Dr 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 befriender and the child.” Imbued with a sense of empathy, Dr Factor reached out to her network of friends and colleagues, and the Befriend a Child in Detention project began.
“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. Every letter that comes through Befriend is checked– this sort of screening process ensures that no letters are sent that have content that could harm the children. One bundle of letters from a primary school began with “welcome to Australia.” These letters were included in books sent to the Australian detention centres, but, sadly, not to the detainees in Nauru.
“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 created waves among the public, especially schools, so much so that entire schools are getting in touch with the project, the children writing letters, drawing pictures and donating books. One school, Bell Primary in Preston, caught the eye of ABC news program Behind the News (BTN). Their grade five and six students had sent letters to Nauru in July through the Befriend project, and were jubilant to discover that a number received PenPal letters back in return. As funding restrictions prevented BTN from sending a film crew to the school, the students filmed the segment themselves, as well as interviewing Dr Factor and noted children’s author Gabrielle Wang who is also involved with Befriend. “It’s aroused immense interest in schools,’ say Dr Factor. More and more are emailing us asking us how to get involved and what they can do.”
Befriend regularly receives encouragement from the public, praising them for their altruistic work. It’s because Befriend is seeking to change the conversation, to attempt to alter the negative discourse surrounding asylum seekers and review descriptors attributed to them like “illegal”, as well as to encourage a better understanding of the complex legalities surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. “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.”