Writers In Detention

Children, Abuse and Writing Through Fences


According to Immigration Detention statistics Australia holds 647 children in closed detention, 500 on the mainland, 146 children on Christmas Island, of which 28 have disabilities, and at least 186 on Nauru. The children on Christmas Island have little access to recreational or educational opportunities; many are depressed and suffer from anxiety disorders. Concern has mounted from medical practitioners working within detention centers that medical treatment is sub-standard to the point that that they are unable to properly fulfill their professional and ethical obligations. The Medical Journal of Australia recently published results of a questionnaire conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital indicating that 80% of Australian pediatricians consider mandatory detention of children to be akin to ‘child abuse’. Only 13.4% of respondents correctly identified that most applicants wait in UNHCR camps for an average of more than 10 years before resettlement to Australia.

Previous studies indicate that long-term detention causes significant risk of mental harm as well as developmental risks, whilst also damaging the bonds that young people develop with family caregivers. It is a Stolen generation scenario. It severely limits educational opportunities and worsens the effect of other traumas (APS, 2004; Thomas & Lau, 2002). There have been numerous reports and media coverage of self-harm and other kinds of psycho-sexual abuse occurring in off-shore detention centers. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors.

Janet Galbraith has been running a Facebook group with online forums to teach poetry to detainees as a liberating practice. She facilitates the writing program from her home in Castlemaine, Victoria.  She has also visited Christmas Island to work with refugees who write, and she curates poetry readings in public spaces such as the Immigration Museum and Federation Square in Melbourne. Writing Through Fences is a workshop for young refugees offshore and onshore, those in community detention as well as some in Indonesia and Israel.  She says: ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that actively sharing writing, stories and creativity has become a life-line. Of course this is nothing new, this is what writing and art can do. To create in the circumstances these children live in is to write a self into being; to find a friend – something that cannot be taken away’.

In this short video produced by Jane Curtis for the ABC, Janet discusses her work. Poems by refugees are enacted and in the hope that language promises their names are half-spoken, their faces are masked. These poems speak of physical and emotional deprivation, but also the visible scars of institutional abuse and neglect.


Ref: Med J Aust 2014; 201 (7): 393-398 David Isaacs, Alanna Maycock, Hasantha Gunasekera,Elizabeth J M Corbett


Written by Michelle Cahill; Video credit Jane Curtis, ABC