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Close encounters in immigration 'prison'

  • 07 December 2015

Walking into the centre that first time the very first thing I see is a familiar tableau of my faith: Mother and Child, seated, the sweep of the lines of the mother's body sculpting a circle of security and warmth around the gentle wrigglings of her baby. Except that this is no Christian Madonna.

Dressed in traditional attire, she is a young Muslim woman, perhaps in her early 30s, quiet, gentle and shy.  Seated on her lap is a little child who has my heart the minute I lock eyes with her.

Her head is framed by a halo of jet-black hair that fans out chaotically in all directions. She has a permanent look of sleepy surprise, at having woken in such a strange world.

Occasionally, and not nearly often enough, a lopsided smile breaks through her incredulity. It has since become something of a weekly mission of mine to tease that smile into more regular existence. I guess I feel that if that is still possible, in this place, then there is still hope. For all of them. For all of us.

Dancing around our Mother and Child is a skinny, black-haired seven-year-old girl with the same lopsided smile, and with far, far too much energy for the space permitted her. She is so full of life and joy that it beggars belief that this place is able to contain her. It certainly tries.

If she was shy, withdrawn, fearful, that would be okay. That would be expected. But she is none of those things. Not now, at least. That she dances around the visitor centre with the unselfconscious ease that my own children, your children, would the family living room is what brings me completely undone.

Because this is not a family living room, this is no place for a child, not for this child, or for any of the 16 or so others currently imprisoned there.

(Yes, let's stop saying 'detained'. People are 'detained' for a few days, weeks, perhaps a couple of months. When you have spent most — and for some of the younger ones, all — of your childhood behind bars, then you are most definitely imprisoned. Everyone in this place is.)

This is my 'initiation' to the visitor centre at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, MITA. Don't let the name fool you. From what I can see, there's not a lot of 'transitting' getting done there.

And it is all too clear from