No Bubs Behind Bars: showing asylum seeking children we care

no bubs

Deciding what’s best for our kids can divide parents into categories such as bottle or breast, controlled comforting or co-sleeping, childcare or nanny. But all parents would agree that their children have the right to play and grow in a nurturing environment with access to education and quality medical services. Tragically, this is something that 983 children are currently deprived of in Australian-run detention centres.

Today, the majority of children in immigration detention, from newborns through to teenagers, are spending a minimum of nine months waiting for asylum – and many experts in childhood development and psychology say this is simply unacceptable.

Associate Professor Karen Zwi, head of community child health at Sydney Children’s Hospital, and one of the paediatric advisers to the Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, says that childhood adversity, as well as exposure to violence, trauma and parental despair, disrupts normal development, and all impact heavily on children’s outcomes.

“Parents [in detention centres], no matter how committed or competent they are, cannot adequately provide for or protect their children in this environment,” she says.

Zwi spent a week on Christmas Island interviewing 230 families in March, and was alarmed by what she saw. She witnessed children suffering from severe sleep disturbances, stuttering, bed wetting, biting themselves, and hitting their heads in distress. Many children are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal tendencies.

“Most shocking about our visit was the pervasive sadness, the despair in children and in adults, and the extreme fears about the future,” she says.

It can feel like we’re completely helpless when it comes to helping these children, but Siobhan Marren, acting director of ChilOut, an organisation opposed to the mandatory detention of children, says even ordinary Australians can help show their support.

“One of the first things that is taken from an asylum seeker in detention is hope – hope for a future, hope for their safety, hope for their families,” she says. “Making asylum seekers aware that people in the Australian community do not support punitive policies is an important part of restoring that hope.”

To this end, mother and business manager Janna Hayes has started a grassroots campaign to help parents show their support for those in detention with the children. Her Facebook page No Bubs Behind Bars encourages people to upload photos of children with the page’s name tagged on it; she then prints the pictures onto posters and sends them to both Australian-run detention centres and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison as a form of peaceful protest.

Hayes, mum to an 11-month-old, pays for it all out of her own pocket, and says her goal is to “show asylum seekers that the Australian community cares about them”. She wants to give others a voice while reaching out to the families in detention to let them know they aren’t being ignored.

“I don’t have a lot of resources or time, but I wanted to at least express my opposition to it in a really simple way, and so other parents could also do the same,” she says.

“I didn’t want just another petition to sign. My aim was to express the value of family and the need for children to be in a safe and loving environment.

“The best way for me to do that was to show my relationship with my son.”

Hayes says she has been overwhelmed with the public’s response: “I set up the No Bubs Behind Bars Facebook page and within 24 hours it had 1000 likes.” Two weeks later, it now has over 2500 likes, and she has been joined by two volunteers who assist with the website and PR. More than 300 photos have already been shared.

Hayes is adamant that her initiative isn’t about causing riots or being inflammatory about the government. “All we’re asking is for pregnant women and families with children to be settled within the Australian community,” she explains. “And to have access to proper medical and support services while their claims for asylum are being processed.

“Children are referring to themselves with their asylum seeker number instead of their names, and signing drawings with their number. The lifelong damage we are doing to these kids is just horrible.”

The juxtaposition of scrolling over the photos of smiling children on Facebook versus the knowledge that children are suffering behind bars is both powerful and heartbreaking, she says.

“Recently I went through every single photo for the posters,” Hayes says. “Most of the people have smiles on their faces, wishing all the best to the families in detention. It was such a beautiful thing to do.”

If a picture says a thousand words, these posters speak volumes of love and support to those who need it the most.

To show asylum seeking children you care, head to facebook.com/nobubsbehindbars and upload a photo with a sign or tag it with #nobubsbehindbars. You can also check out chilout.org.

Published in Essential Baby on July 30, 2014. 

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