“WHILE I ENJOY NORMAL TUESDAYS” Immigration detention through the eyes of a 13-year-old

May 15th, 2015  |  Published in Asylum; Refugees, Favorites

Listening to the radio on her way to school, thirteen-year-old Imogen Senior heard Julian Burnside, QC, talking about children in Australia’s detention centres, including a five-year-old who would rather die than go back to Nauru, and an eleven-year-old who tried to hang herself.

I can’t get my head around the fact that while I live my life, while I get driven to school by my dad, while I enjoy normal Tuesdays, children younger than me are killing themselves…because we lock people away who just need safety and help, Imogen subsequently wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

And there’s nothing I can do, she regrets. But you can, Mr Abbott. It is your government that is doing this to human beings. You have the power to save people’s lives.


Imogen’s letter was published by Crikey, and subsequently circulated on social media. I posted part of it on social media, where I often post about refugee policy, and where there is often heated response. This post, however, opened the floodgates, and with Imogen’s clearsighted views as a benchmark, I sorted the responses into categories.

Party-political responses

Responses about party politics were (as usual) the most numerous. For example:

  • These kids were in detention before Abbott was elected.
  • Krudd and Gillard are treated with cotton wool gloves, while Tony Abbott gets the iron fist.
  • Just sink the boats halfway. That’s how Labor like it.
  • For the LNP (government) it’s not about keeping people alive. It’s about keeping people out.
  • You’re a puppet of the left. You’re pushing the left agenda.
  • Stop the leftist lies.


Islamophobic ‘Othering’

Writing about asylum seekers at this time in Australia invariably draws Islamophobic responses, and this post was no exception:

  • For me it’s definitely about keeping Muslims out. Screw them. I would rather see them floating in the sea. Nothing to do with politics. I despise Muslims.
  • These country-jumpers end up back in countries like Syria wanting to kill us.
  • Fuck off with ya crap you bring with you. Why should we change to accommodate anyone?


Blaming the parents of children in detention was also a theme (and one with a history extending back to Howard’s “children overboard” fabrications in 2001):

  • The parents are probably behind some of the kids’ suicide threats, expecting to get immediate processing of their applications.
  • If we’re going to apportion blame, why not lay it on the parents who placed the kids in these circumstances.

Political spin

References to asylum seekers as “illegals”, “queue jumpers” and “economic migrants” were frequent:

  • I don’t think we can just throw out the welcome mat to all those who come here illegally.
  • I feel for the people who are waiting patiently in refugee camps and can’t pay to come on boats.
  • Real refugees can’t afford to come on boats.

Pro-refugee responses

burnsideInterspersed with this onslaught were patient (and not so patient) reminders that it is NOT illegal to seek asylum; that both major parties are culpable as far as detention is concerned and have been over many years; that Australia is complicit in wars that displace people and create the need for asylum; and, that if we lived in countries where people “disappeared” overnight or family members could be shot dead in front of us, we would also be doing our utmost to get to safety.

I don’t think it’s right for us to sit in our nice warm loungerooms, wrote one person, behind our computers, and tell these people they shouldn’t try to come here; they shouldn’t try to get to a place where they can have a safer and better life.

Decluttering our vision

Imogen, writing her letter after school, was not bogged down by these entrenched and polarised views. She was not even alive when mandatory detention was introduced. She did not see these children in terms of politics, race, or religion; she did not hold their parents responsible; she was not blindsided by spin about illegality, queues, economic migrants, and threats to national security.

What she saw through her thirteen-year-old eyes were children younger than herself in awful circumstances who want to kill themselves. Having grasped the core problem, she took it up with the person she believed could fix it – the current prime minister.

We could do well to refresh our vision and draw from Imogen’s clarity about our responsibility to asylum seekers and their children.

Fiona Katauskas


Scroll down to leave your comments…Joan Beckwith

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4 comments on ““WHILE I ENJOY NORMAL TUESDAYS” Immigration detention through the eyes of a 13-year-old”

  1. The following material, relating to a conversation between a 10-year-old girl and her mother, was sent to me for sharing, which I initially did on my 2020socialjustice Facebook page. I’m pasting it in here because of the way it connects with 13-year-old Imogen Senior’s ideas as presented in this webpost.
    “WHAT ARE PEOPLE SMUGGLERS?” a 10-year-old asks.
    “She heard news headlines,” her mother writes. “I explained, quite neutrally, that they are people who put other people on boats to take them across the ocean to Australia where they are hoping they might be accepted as refugees.”
    “Oh, that’s nice of them,” daughter responds.
    “I opened my mouth to try to explain some of the complexities, then looked at her and closed it again. That’s a valid perspective, I thought, and one we don’t hear much in the current media discourse. I’ll leave her with that one for a few more years.”
    Daughter then muses, almost to herself. “People smugglers; that SOUNDS LIKE A BAD WORD FOR GOOD PEOPLE.”
    “I just nodded, and let her sit a while with that one too.”

  2. Pasting in a complete copy of Imogen Senior’s letter (as published by Crikey) to keep it on the record:

    On the 31st of March, 2015, I was listening to Radio National on my way down to school with my dad. It was a Tuesday, and a normal day. On the radio, a lawyer called Julian Burnside was talking, and he caught my attention.
    He was talking about the effects of offshore detention on children, my age and younger. Right now, 133 children are being held in immigration detention facilities within Australia, and 107 are held in detention on Nauru.
    He was telling a story of a young girl and her family. This girl was 11 years old. To put this into perspective, she is 2 years younger than me.
    She had come over from Iran to seek asylum in Australia, and had then been sent to one of our detention centres, with the rest of her family, for 18 months. She was horribly mistreated here, abused by guards and under-nourished. They came to live in Australia, because she was in such a bad way that she needed psychiatric help.
    Here, the 11 year old child hung herself with a bedsheet. They took her to hospital. At hospital, no one was allowed to visit her because ‘visiting hours on Nauru were from 9am-5pm’.
    If an 11 year old child is trying to KILL herself, because of what us Australians are doing, what does that mean?
    Because of Australians, because we lock people away who just need safety and help, because of our law, children are trying to kill themselves.
    There is another girl right now, 5 years old, who is in Darwin. She has been told that she has to go back to Nauru, back to the place where she was treated how no child should be treated. Back to her nightmare. This child is also suicidal. This 5 YEAR OLD CHILD is trying to kill herself. And why? Because of what our law has done to her.
    Julian Burnside went on to remind us that seeking asylum is not illegal. Nor are these people criminals. You and your government claim that by keeping the ‘criminals’ in offshore detention that you are protecting Australia.
    Do you think that a 5 year old child, who wants to kill herself, is likely to be more of a danger to Australia or to herself? Do you think that sending her back to Nauru, to ‘protect Australia’, is worth her life?
    I can’t get my head around the fact that while I live my life, while I get driven to school by my dad, while I enjoy normal Tuesdays, children younger than me are killing themselves.
    And there’s nothing I can do. But you can.
    You have the power to save people’s lives. You can do more than I can.
    It is your government that is doing this to human beings. It is your law that makes children kill themselves. It is our narrowed and stubborn minds that mean innocent people die. It is Australia that needs to save lives.
    Get your act together Australia.
    I look forward to hearing your response.
    Yours sincerely,
    Imogen Senior, (Age 13)

  3. Maggie magee says:

    Sad, isn’t it? I responded but I don’t remember what I wrote. It would have been pro-refugee but I don’t think I
    looked at it thinking about how a 13-year-old would feel.
    Sometimes I get so despondent about the length of time it’s taken to protest and there have been so few positives. I must remember that others haven’t been around as long as I have.

    • Thanks for this comment, Maggie Magee. The salutary part for me, viewing the situation through Imogen’s eyes, has been the way she highlighted the extent to which so many arguments occur out of sight of real human beings with real feelings and fears. Her simplicity is also profound, and I am reminded of the quote from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I think we have to get outside the terms of reference set by the politicians and think about the global issues of war, and the inevitable effects of people seeking asylum from a human perspective, not an economic one fixated on border control…Joan Beckwith.

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