One day at Villawood


Villawood Detention Centre'Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.' Matthew chapter 25, verse 40

'Well, Stephanie, nobody likes children in detention, but bear in mind that the decision in I think all cases for them to be brought to this country is not made by the Australian Government ... I mean, I'm sorry for the children, but that is not the fault of the Australian Government.' John Howard, 2005 

Not so long ago I was at Villawood Detention Centre for a day visit accompanying some people who visit there each week.

There are three stages of security at Villawood. Stage 1 is the most secure. Stage 3 is slightly less oppressive and houses families with children. It is surrounded by razor wire. Inside the wire are small cabins where families live. They look like small suburban homes and appear to contain all conventional comforts — televisions, couches and kitchens. 

It was a windy day and we sat for a couple of hours in the doorway of one home, talking with its occupants. They brought us drinks and biscuits. We talked about anything and everything, but our conversation was laced with uneasy references to our surroundings.

One younger man told us of his distress: he had not heard from his family in his home country for months. He told us that he was so glad our group came to visit, because we were the only 'good' Australians he had met. Without the weekly visits by the people in our group, he would have thought that all Australians wished him ill. He had been (and was still) entertaining thoughts of suicide. 

As the conversation wound down, a ball was produced. Soon enough there was a group of children in the yard and a soccer game was about to begin. First we had to decide the teams. I asked one small boy, whose family was from Sri Lanka, which country he wanted his team to be.

'Australia,' he yelled back.

'What, really?' I said, 'what about Brazil, or Argentina?'

'No way! We're Australia! And you guys can be India!'

With that the game began. India was soon brought to its knees by the vigorous Australian team. 

Weeks later on a beautiful spring day I was walking in a local park in Melbourne. A group of children from the nearby school were having physical education class in the park and were kicking balls around, running hell-for-leather across the lawn. It struck me then that both these groups of children are equally in our care: both embody our future.

Both groups were full of life, happy to be playing games in the sun. But one group of children was behind razor wire, escorted to an ordinary local school every day by detention centre guards who picked them up and took them back when school was done. 

A comforting voice inside my head murmured: 'Well, circumstances are complex, you have to take all the factors into account, you have to be reasonable.' This voice counselled me to avoid sentimentality.

But for all its soft persuasiveness, the voice could not distract from the stark contrast. In this case, that there was one group of children playing at the park, while another played in a jail yard. And that in that Stage 3 jail yard there was an adult who thought of death.

'Complexity', I decided, 'can sometimes mask fundamental truths.'

The two quotes at the beginning of this article embody different poles in the debate about our treatment of asylum seekers. One is characterised by 'moral heroism'; it is an active position which sees a deep value in caring for the vulnerable. It can be readily derided because it does not licence 'pragmatism'.

The other is characterised by 'obligation;' it is a passive position which implies we have a 'duty' to respond in 'reasonable' terms, but no more. It does not licence empathy or imagination, fellow feeling or creative thinking, about how we might respond to these contemporary challenges.

The community debate on mandatory detention and the treatment of asylum seekers has generally hovered between these two poles; opinion has been tugged one way or the other by competing voices. 

Recently, the pendulum swung in the direction of moral heroism, but not too far from reasonableness. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has announced that over the next eight months more than 700 children and their families will be moved out of detention centres to live in the community (under supervision).

It is moral heroism in the context of the Australian debate. But it is also a decision based on a realistic assessment of the effects of detention on individuals and especially children.

It recognises that, regardless of how materially comfortable the prison conditions might be, if you take human beings who have not committed a crime and deprive them of freedom, the contradiction wedged at the heart of their imprisonment will drive them mad. Take children and imprison them and their lives will bear its mark. 

I understood this when I walked out of Villawood. It was awkward. Although we had been companions in soccer, tea and conversation, my friends and I were free to leave, while our hosts were not. And as they watched us leave, those words sounded quietly in my mind: 'whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers ...'

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: ben coleridge, villawood detention centre, john howard, mandatory detention, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

great stuff Ben, keep writing warmly.

peter roebuck | 16 November 2010  

Thanks Ben. May your empathy stir hearts and actions of more Australians.

Ray O'Donoghue | 16 November 2010  

Just a quick factual correction to make - Stage 3 is not the facility where the families I visited are kept as is stated in the article. Families at Villawood are held in the Villawood Immigration Residential Housing section(although they are all part of the same facility).

Ben Coleridge | 16 November 2010  

Perhaps you should also correct your assertion that the facility is surrounded by razor wire...

Naomi | 16 November 2010  

Good onya mate! We ignore care of children, all children, irrespective of where they are born, at our future peril. The repercussions
of disturbed future citizens will cause many community health and emotional problems.

Besides the statement from Jesus is an imperative applying to 'All' children.
Dare we as a nation ignore His words?

David Sykes | 16 November 2010  

Thank you Ben for a touching piece the empathy you clearly have for those who have been unjustly stripped of their freedom. I am actively engaged in the refugee debate on ABC Drum pages and know exactly what you mean by the polarized views that are expressed.

Today at Villawood the second suicide death within a month occurred of an asylum seeker from Iraq who sought to claim his rights under the UN Convention provisions and Australian Law, which has been cruelly misinterpreted for a long while to suit government policies of the day. The recent High Court decision will hopefully be a trigger of change. No asylum seekers should be detained after health checks. The dead Iraqi man had been locked up for about a year. Overcrowding, the negative impacts of unjust incarceration and ongoing anxiety compounded by uncertainty are compromising the health and lives of those in detention; violence & unrest erupt because of unjust and inappropriate detention of those charged with no crime. In the ABC report today, Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition said in an ABC report: "The reality is we cannot keep presiding over the dysfunctional system that is mandatory detention.”

Madeleine Kingston | 16 November 2010  

Ah but Ben, if we don't jail the innocent our borders will be out of our control.

Marilyn Shepherd | 17 November 2010  

I'm gonna visit a friend in detention and as you have observed, he said the living conditions are also good. He told me this while in the detention centre on the internet. I liked your article but you were right when you said it's a complicated issue. It's not just a moral one because we are hypocrites to live under the same laws that govern the country that also put those people in detention and say "free them" like they didn't break the law. They broke the law. So people that say they should never have been put in there and are speaking about people who have illegally entered this country or stayed here far passed their visa expiration are speaking lawlessness. So yes it's a complicated issue because they may have broken the law but may not be criminals. So my problem with it really is the amount of time many of them have to wait in detention. The processing is too slow! I believe moral needs to be taken into account and carefully applied. Not everyone's equal in the detention centres, some have bad criminal backgrounds and it needs to be investigated but not over years!!. People, families who have escaped war torn countries should they be living in there with criminals escaping their own countries laws? no. They deserve a better life. We can't lump them all together though and say "awww there's no criminals, set them all free." This is immoral. Once again I say the protests should be about how long it takes to investigate these people and determine what the gov will do with them. Way too long.

moral and law | 13 June 2014  

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