Children's voices from immigration detention

Stories of children who have experienced forced migration

Authors: Dr Mary Tomsic

Dr Mary Tomic’s work with children and young people who have experienced forced migration is informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In this article, she shares her research on how children and young people’s artistic expression can help us understand their experiences of being in detention and seeking refuge through the lens of child rights.

Children and young people’s artwork is often viewed through an archetypal lens that views children as apolitical. A more nuanced approach is to view their artistic expressions as active political understandings. Dr Tomic argues that we undervalue children by not recognising their evolving capacity.

A guiding principle in the Convention is that children have a right to express their own views freely on matters that affect them so we need to take children’s expressions through illustration seriously. This can been achieved by efforts that aim for political activism and aim to raise awareness of the detention regime on children, for example:

  • In 2014 the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention centres conducted interviews and gave children drawing materials, asking them 'to draw something about their life’. The inquiry findings were published in the report The Forgotten Children and 327 drawings were published online on a Flickr page.
  • In 2015, children in an immigration detention on Nauru created their own Facebook page to communicate with other children.

These illustrations can be read as political expression rather than just as emotional expressions of victimhood to generate sympathy or policy change. In fact, Dr Tomic argues that the inquiry drawings reveal children’s political understandings, displaying the following features:

  1. a focus on people: many of the people are crying, an emotional state which demonstrates sadness as well as demands for help and changes within the context of a system that actively works to dehumanise people seeking asylum
  2. images as representations of confinement: the images demonstrate a clear understanding of their confinement as part of seeking asylum
  3. comparisons made between people detained and those who are not: children are aware of the distinctions between confinement and freedom based on their conversations with people outside of detention.

Using a child rights lens can strengthen the argument for freedom for these children and for a life that can meet the aims of Article 27 of the Convention: Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

Articles from the Convention addressed in this paper:

  • Article 5: Governments and parents must ensure children are equipped with the knowledge to understand their rights.
  • Article 13: Children have the right to freedom of expression and can seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.
  • Article 22: Children who enter a country as refugees should have the same rights as children born in that country.
  • Article 27: All children have the right to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.
  • Article 31: All children have the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Listen to Dr Tomic talk about child rights in this short video

Read the full article (PDF, 789KB)

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