My childhood in a detention centre

Author Sarah Darmody, age 4.

Author Sarah Darmody, age 4.

A young man was recently beaten to death in an Australian detention facility on Manus island. There are children there, too. Children in an Australian prison camp.

The little girl pictured here was placed in mandatory detention in Egypt when she was four years old. The detention facility also housed her parents and her infant brother. It was a bleak and upsetting place that was unsuitable for a child. Wire-framed beds, communal toilets, high-security walls. Barbed wire on all visible fencing. There were strangers there, speaking in other languages, their tones confused, frustrated, angry or despondent.

The girl was very frightened, even though her parents told her not to be. She was frightened because she could tell they were frightened. Because children always know. She was scared. She was small. She was me.

It was my parents’ fault that we were there. They’d done the wrong thing by that country’s entry rules, and without the benefit of speaking the language or the offer of representation, we were trapped. We had no obvious rights. We were wrong-doers.


We had travelled to the detention centre under guard in an armed forces vehicle. I knew we were in ‘trouble’ and that this was not an adventure. My parents were young; 30 years old, golden in my eyes, sensible and good. I had never seen them afraid before. I had never thought of them as capable of being bad or wrong, but these other adults showed me that they were. It almost doesn’t matter how awful the detention centre was, what matters is that being detained is awful. Will there be food? Will someone speak my language? What can we do to get out? The door shuts and you are imprisoned. And once you are imprisoned you are a prisoner, whether or not you are guilty of anything.

One day a doctor came – perhaps he was a doctor – and wanted a ‘stool sample’ from me. Being asked to use the toilet in front of a strange man is upsetting for any child, especially when she can tell that her parents don’t trust this man or this situation. It ended when my father convinced the man to leave the bathroom and then used the long surgical swab on the inside of the dirty toilet instead of on his daughter’s little body. Who knows what those test results returned.

I have many other memories of being four – my pre-school friends, birthday parties, my grandparents, special treats and story books. Unfortunately, I have many memories of the detention centre too. I say unfortunately not because it was either long or severe enough to leave any lasting scars, but because whenever I read how many children are in detention in Australian immigration prisons, I know that they will remember it, no matter how long it lasts. I know they’re scared when they go to sleep in there and as soon as they wake up and realise where they are. I know that the stress and sadness of watching your parents in a highly anxious state is overwhelming for a powerless child. And I know that as an Australian citizen and taxpayer, I’m supporting it.

In detention, my Dad stopped waiting and complying. He scaled the high walls, climbed over the barbed wire, and dropped to the other side. He was immediately arrested. Taken to a military facility, he continued to push for answers – when could we leave, what was our situation, who could he contact. Again, he was refused. He was here improperly and now queue-jumping. His small children elicited some sympathy with one man, who tipped him off to the right person to bribe. My father set about gathering a bribe and soon afterwards, the detention ended and we were released into the temporary care of a colleague of my father’s, with fresh food and comforting toys to distract us. 

Eventually the story faded into family legend, where my queue-jumping father is a hero for breaking the rules and for successfully bribing someone else to do so too.  And in our situation, unpleasant though it was, no one remotely feared for their lives.

Fearing for your life isn’t just the fear of death alone. It’s the fear of no-life. Life without possibility of parole in a refugee camp in Pakistan or Indonesia or PNG is no life, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not a literal death, but it’s no life. I know that if my father was bringing us from any of the war-zones Australia is currently in conflict with he’d be obsessed with finding the ways and means to get us out of camps in countries that could never offer us a chance at life. That he’d be looking for any way to get us on a plane or a boat headed towards a country where we could be properly safe, where we might make a start. Even if it was dangerous to do so. Of course he would. In my family, it’s what daddies do. Why would the rest of the world make such different fathers? They don’t. They just don’t look like mine, and neither do their children.