For asylum-seeker children detained on Christmas Island, the perils of crossing treacherous seas in unsafe vessels was just the beginning of their despair. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Children behind bars

The decision to send away his son was hard, but routine bloodshed hastened it. Days before his decision, a Sunni extremist group, linked to the Taliban, blew up a school bus in Quetta, Pakistan. It killed 14 girls, murdered for the sins of academic ambition and gender. Later that day, the group stormed the hospital that was treating the survivors. They shot dead 11, some as they lay burnt and writhing in bed.

That was June 2013. Six months earlier, the group dispatched two suicide bombers to a crowded pool hall. They killed more than 80 people. The next month, the group loaded a water tank with 70 kilograms of explosives. The tank was situated in a busy marketplace comprising fruit and vegetable stalls and a language school. The explosion killed more than a hundred. “The Taliban say we are not Muslim,” the son, whom I will call Mustafa, recalls. “They shot you because we put our hand in front of our stomach when we pray. They prefer hands by the side.”

The decision was made. Mustafa’s father would give his savings to his boy’s passage to Indonesia. Then, God willing, Australia. Agents were found, money anxiously exchanged and, in August 2013, Mustafa left. He hasn’t seen his family since.


The Christmas Island detention centre is surrounded by palm thieves and jungle. The palm thieves are also known as coconut or robber crabs, desired for their meat and respected for their large claws and obstinate grip. Their numbers have dwindled perilously in much of Asia, but here, on an island of just 2000 people, there’s 100 million of them. The jungle is largely reserved as national park, and filled with ferns, orchids and vines.

Since 1958, the island has been subject to Australian administration. Like Nauru, it has been mined for its phosphate. As with Nauru, its remoteness – it sits 400 kilometres from Jakarta, and some 2600 kilometres from Perth – has served our immigration policy. Newspapers are 10 days old, the internet unreliable and the price of groceries dramatically reflects the cost of their transportation. Its residents are variously Buddhist, Christian and Muslim, and speak a mixture of English, Chinese and Malay.

It was this tiny community that flung lifejackets tied to ropes into the ocean when, one morning in 2010, they heard screams. A wooden fishing boat, carrying 89 asylum seekers, was smashed upon the limestone cliffs by five-metre waves. The boat disintegrated, children drowned. Locals felt their ropes, taut with desperate attachment, suddenly go limp. The boat had avoided detection by making its voyage at night and in a merciless swell. It was deliriously reckless, and most passengers died. “It’s bloody carnage,” Allison Millcock, a contractor for the local shire, said. “It’s a human tragedy and these bastards who are bringing these boat people should be shot – they’re criminals, they are absolute criminals.”


Mustafa made a similar voyage, like most of the unaccompanied minors on Christmas Island. For many, the route was the same: travel by land from Afghanistan to India, fly to Malaysia or Indonesia, and then seek passage to Australia on a hopelessly inadequate and overcrowded boat. When Mustafa joined the detention centre, he began bonding with other unaccompanied minors through soccer, their shared estrangement and the similarity of their trip. At the start of this year, there were at least 30 of them detained on the island – many for 18 months. I have read accounts from multiple children; each echoes the other.

“At 9pm I have to leave my home to go to airport and everyone were crying, especially my Mum...” one boy wrote while in detention. “It was a hard time and I was very sad and I flew to Abu Dhabi. I was waiting there for four hours then I flew from Abu Dhabi to Indonesia. I went to airport but no one were waiting for me there. I bought a phone card and I called my Dad and told him what’s going on. He said to me to wait and someone will come and take you to hotel. I was waiting there for two hours then one man come and take me to hotel. I was waiting in Indonesia for a long time, about 2 months and 20 days, then I come to Christmas Island by boat about six days. It was a hard way, it was really hard and now I’m still waiting in Christmas Island for my freedom.”

The accounts of these children recall the same days and nights of seasickness, Maggi instant noodles and the fear of death. Few could swim. In the words of one boy, the boat was overcrowded “for the benefit of smugglers”.

Another remembers: “Our life was in danger, the boat was full of damage.”

Teachers from the detention centre tell me the boys joke about their trips, about the vomit bags and noodles. Theirs is an accelerated camaraderie. “It is amazing to see the kids openly show their affection to each other,” says a teacher. “Arms around each other, holding hands and genuine warmth for each other. There is great humour and giggles in the room.”

But there’s little levity beyond that. Mustafa searched the detention centre for bombs the first three days he was there. Teachers noted reluctance in the boys to fully participate in group activities, preferring submissive compliance. They read this as trauma, and the learnt restraint that comes from more punitive cultures. “Receiving belts to the soles of your feet for a mistake,” says a teacher of the students’ past, “you would want to get it right. Sometimes this explains the reluctance to adjust in a way to a group approach to learning. Better to sit and take it all in – be compliant and get it right. Thank God [in Australia] we are allowed to try and make mistakes. Not so in some of the countries these kids come from.”

The detention centre was conceived as a prison, and the unaccompanied minors understood that. “It was like jail,” one teenager recalls, “and we never was happy in that detention, crying every night and pray to get help.” To be processed for the camps, they were first shepherded to a giant shed for questioning. They waited for many hours. Afterwards, they would be recognised by their boat number. It wasn’t until the middle of last year that education services were provided. The Human Rights Commission noted this in a recent report: “Up until recently, children on Christmas Island had almost no school education, while children in mainland detention were able to attend school if they had been enrolled.

“According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 24 children aged between five and 12 were able to attend school on a part-time rotational basis on Christmas Island. The department also reported that schooling was unavailable for large portions of 2013. Evidence to the inquiry indicated that most children on Christmas Island had schooling of not more than two to four weeks over an eight-month period and that this was for two hours each day.”

Many of these unaccompanied minors have been settled in Australia now – but not before they spent a minimum of a year’s detention in the compound. Some have spent two years here, sustained by false rumours of their release. Routinely, those whispers of freedom are contradicted and their hope curdles into despair or nihilism.

It is a camp heavy with mental injury – documented self-harm and suicide attempts – which is one reason that our detention of minors is contrary to our legal obligations. “Detention itself is causing harm,” a 2015 report from the Human Rights Commission said of unaccompanied minors. “In particular the deprivation of liberty and the exposure to high numbers of mentally unwell adults are causing emotional and developmental disorders amongst children.

“Given the profound negative impacts on the mental and emotional health of children which result from prolonged detention, the mandatory and prolonged detention of children breaches Australia’s obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Despite this, the teachers tell me the children are receptive to their limited education. They’re making some progress. “They don’t miss a day.” An 11-year-old Iranian girl told the Human Rights Commission: “The most important thing is my study. I want to be a doctor.”


The integrity of our borders and visa system needn’t be traded for our moral and legal obligations – nor should our cultural and economic dependence upon immigration. It is this convenient myth of mutual exclusiveness that has sustained our policy for so long now. So minors remain captive. Not only to the bars on the island, but also to our deep unwillingness to speak honestly about the messy contingencies of immigration.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Children behind bars".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.

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