Rainbows. Hearts. Smiles. These are the motifs that dominate my eldest daughter’s drawings and paintings.


Her little sister is keen on using textas to also draw smiles on the people in her drawings. The latest artistic creation is a giant headed mummy (different from me having a ‘big head’) And she doesn’t hesitate to scribble a smile on her own likeness – the picture is of the two of us walking hand in hand – happy to start our day.

We all know how kids use art as a way to make sense of their world.

jr pic 1

But what sort of world are we living in when children who should be drawing rainbows and smiles instead draw themselves behind fences, with tear streaked faces, and with a weeping mother lying next to them? A hot, harsh sun beating down.

This particular picture has been drawn by a twelve year-old girl on Manus Island.


Another drawing shows a sad looking girl, clutching what could be a school bag, standing near a purple school, that has a ‘close’ sign across it. This young girl is also in detention on Manus Island.


What are we doing?

Don’t all children have the right to a childhood? Haven’t their parents fled persecution, war and terror in the hope of offering their kids the chance at a better life? Isn’t that something we all want as parents? The chance to help our kids have what we do not have?

You may say I’m a softy, a bleeding heart, a latte sipping, limousine lefty… Well I am. And I am ashamed that I can not do more for these vulnerable families.

I am ashamed that the UN says we are breaching our international human rights obligations in the way we treat asylum seekers. You may say – well that is not our problem, because we have plenty of kids in need here in Australia. Yes we do. That too is a crime.

But it doesn’t mean we just look at solving one problem at the expense of another. We are a part of the international community. We live in the land of plenty. We are free. We are lucky. And with that comes a responsibility.


mi3“Here is our block. 3 people passed out and there is no doctor.”

According to the United Nations refugee agency, 221 people are being held on Manus Island – 34 are children. Just a fortnight ago, representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spent three days on Manus Island.

Richard Towle, their spokesperson, says the government should consider moving the children from the island as the situation is damaging them. “Children have been sited far too close to single males, where there’s been disruption and noise and demonstrations”.

It’s also worth remembering what the living conditions are like. The UNHCR found it to be “harsh, hot, humid, damp and cramped”. And here I am worrying about my daughter staying cool at her very comfortable school during our hot start to the year.

And children are not only being kept in detention on Manus Island. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, an health service and advocacy group, claims that 1953 children are in detention. Of that figure, 1221 kids are in facilities, and 732 are in community detention.

These are alarming numbers. Sometimes it can be easy to just look at them as numbers. But how about considering the figures in this way: that it is almost two thousand drawings, pictures drawn by almost two thousand children who see sadness, despair and chaos all around them.

We owe all children the opportunity to try to draw a rainbow. And at least the glimmer of a smile.

 jr3A ‘happy’ painting by Jess’ daughter.

Disclaimer: Apart from being a latte-sipper I am an ambassador for Join up and help us make Australia a place of welcome.




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*Jessica Rowe is a broadcaster and writer who, in a career spanning 20 years, has worked at all the major Australian commercial television networks. She is has written the best selling book, Love. Wisdom. Motherhood as well as co-authoring The Best of Times, the Worst of Times with her mother Penelope Rowe. Follow Jessica on Twitter @msjrowe or visit her website at


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  • Reply February 7, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    A beautiful story Jess – and through the eyes of children. It says so much. Thank you for sharing your daughters’ art with us. Wxx

  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Thanks Jessica. 100% correct. And, yip, pictures, whether painted or drawn by kids, or adults represent, at the very least,’ more than a thousand words’. And drawing and painting and writing and expressing are helpful for people(and yip, kids are people too, der) suffering trauma. To stop this trauma adding to the trauma already suffered by asylum seekers, the Government must take a leadership role, and backoff from policies and practices which are degrading and harmful to people who have already suffered too much which is why they have come here.Respect the Refugee Convention.

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    The Huntress

    Excellent story. I am horrified when I’m labelled as being ‘soft’ when I say it’s not good enough and we should demand better for refugees in detention. It’s not about being soft. It’s about having compassion and empathy for other human beings. These people have suffered enough in their journeys to get here and then look at what happens. Does any human deserve to suffer this? Definitely not!

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    Nathalie Brown

    Insights into a child’s world through these drawings is heartbreaking. No child should be drawing pictures like this, every child deserves a chance.

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    Nel Matheson

    Ah yes. The number of comments on this topic reveals that we are all very uncomfortable with facing the reality of children’s lives in these places. Sad children somehow don’t fit into the picture of “illegal boat people”. I truly don’t understand why we cannot afford to be a more compassionate country. Surely, in order for us to allow these people to live normally while their appeals are being heard would not hurt, especially the children.

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    helen b

    Thankyou Jessica. The pictures say it all.

    Let the children come home!

  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Our “problem” is so minor. Why can’t we do more? Surely detention is only going cost us in the long time. If even 98% of these people are accepted to live in Australia, the cost required for health and other support services to help them heal after the trauma they have experienced must be expensive.

  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Worrying on whether I get the gist of your message, Nat~ meanwhile, those refugees who have come here in the past, have contributed so much, in every way,for all of us, as they make Australia a hopefully safe home, for them and their families.

    Meanwhile, trauma costs personally~whatever the cause(s), and inter-generationally. Really it is time services actually applied the research.

  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Jessica, thank you. Tthese pictures are heartbreakingly sad! So what can we do? Can this article be finished off with an “if you want to make a difference”? I’d like to, just not sure where to start, and what I can do to cause the most difference.

  • Reply February 7, 2013



  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Jessica, I wasn’t aware of that organization. Loved reading the stories. Will join up for sure. Thanks. Love the artwork.

    Are these children going to school? I wonder what resources are there for them and hows the advocacy group stays in contact. I don’t imagine any support agencies have access to the island or do they?

  • Reply February 7, 2013


    Sorry I posted in a hurry. What I meant to say was the additional trauma from their detention can only end up costing us as a society as we work to allow the refugees to heal and enable a “normal”, productive, contributing member of society. We need to find a better solution than this!

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    Spare us Jessica if you work for channel7

    Do you know where the kids came from that drew the picture?

    The real facts are 99% fly into Indonesia ditch the passport then pay $20000 to get on the trafficking boat.

    They can fly onto Australia if they wished. Theres currently 40 million displaced people many of them with mental illness & some with tuberculosis, some hospitals with multiple outbreaks reported.

    Do you want children with tuberculosis with your children in school?

    Do you have any of the children living in your home under Gillards offer of boarding payment of $300 Jessica?
    Didnt think so.

    We only have to go to outback Bali to see poverty worse than most that come by boat.

    Australia takes refugees, stop the guilt trip.

    As Gillard said in the future only 6% of jobs will be low skill in Australia so most coming by boat being IT graduates will be managing news blog CMS portals.

    We don’t have to look far for horrible childrens pictures.
    I’m disappointed at this article Jessica.

    Taxpayers fund the halal meals needed offshore prepared on predominant Muslim Islands. Its why they are there.

    There is a dramatic living standard drop coming for Australian middle class in 10 years time as globalisation gets traction. Its ok, well remind you.

    This is a political piece that carries the channel 7 political baton. Channel7 breakfast is so fake, you can see it on their faces.

    • Reply February 8, 2013


      David, your “facts” are wrong.

      Most do not fly to Indonesia. They take a boat.

      NONE of them are allowed to fly to Australia. We won’t grant them a visa.

      This is all on the public record.

    • Reply February 8, 2013


      David, I believe the going rate for a boat passage is between $5000 and $10000. Perhaps it’s gone up lately!

      Refugees cannot just come by plane. How easy do you think it is to hop on a plane and leave. As though Qantas lands daily to pick them all up. Most refugees would have to board aircraft flying to Australia under false pretences because of entry requirements for visas. Immigration authorities don’t muck around. There are considerable hurdles to jump.

      It’s easy to detain a refugee at an airport – not so easy when they land on a vacant beach. That’s why the focus is on the boat people.

      And last time I looked we had troops in Afghanistan. People are fleeing the war as they did during the Vietnam years. Australia took 137000 Vietnamese/Cambodian refugees. The US took nearly a million. And don’t recall either Australia or the US having a tuberculosis epidemic. Refugees are screened for it and preventative therapy is offered. Have no fear.

  • Reply February 8, 2013

    Janet G

    Pictures do indeed speak 1000 words.

    Here is the UNHCR’s recommendation for how to deal with asylum seekers:

    The terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
    National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection. Those judged through proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, can be sent back to their home countries.
    The efficiency of the asylum system is key. If the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place, thereby benefitting both the host country and the refugees for whom the system is intended.
    During mass movements of refugees (usually as a result of conflicts or generalized violence as opposed to individual persecution), there is not – and never will be – a capacity to conduct individual asylum interviews for everyone who has crossed the border. Nor is it usually necessary, since in such circumstances it is generally evident why they have fled. As a result, such groups are often declared “prima facie” refugees.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    In advocating for the rights of asylum seeking children, it is necessary to address the concerns of the proponents of the detention of ‘illegal’ asylum seekers who will argue that keeping refugee families with children out of detention will encourage illegal people smugglers to persuade more families to use their dangerous, inhumane services. However, as Pam Cahir (previous CEO of Early Childhood Australia) affirmed, government policies on discouraging illegal people smuggling should not compromise our nation’s responsibility to care and protect these vulnerable children (ECA, 2011). Asylum seekers and refugees will always exist where there are countries experiencing poverty, injustice and war – this appears to be the core of the problem.
    When our country signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, the government agreed to Article 27 – to “recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” and to assist parents and guardians to “secure the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development” (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 1989, p. 8). Children that have dealt with war, violence, oppression and poverty and danger must be provided with access to opportunities to address and heal the damage to their development.

  • Reply February 8, 2013

    helen b

    Thanks Janet G and Faith. Good info.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    Thanks Jessica for continuing to speak out. I just don’t get it. Those pictures are heart breaking.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    I just wanted to reiterate how important self expression is for anyone suffering trauma which feels unspeakable~ the arts have so much to offer, dance, singing, music, drama,painting, writing, drawing etc…especially when offered in a group setting~these activities give voice to what is often unspeakable, ofen shared, and a means of mourning and reconnection.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    Beautiful article, Jessica and well done representing such a great organisation.
    I fail to see how anyone with a heart would fail to be moved by those pictures.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    These pictures really tell a story. Thank you for the article and for the link to ‘Welcome to Australia’. Good on you Jessica!

  • Reply February 8, 2013

    lesley walker

    Rockiya, writes “G4S is laughing”. Does she see the security staff laughing at the suffering of the detained families? Let’s not forget this daily trauma is endured by powerless ppl thanks to the direction of PM Julia Gillard & the Australian Labor Party. Tony & his Cronies aim to be even ‘crueller’.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    Lesley, not forgotten, and not forgiven.

  • Reply February 8, 2013


    And really there should be a big BIG review of some of those global companies who have tendered for and got, despite their bad reputations overseas, and here, below par service eg Mr.Ward, and still given secure places in correctional and detention facilities in the push to privatisation. YUK.

  • Reply February 9, 2013


    Trolling David, if you actally had a point to make, you sure lost me in the vitriole.

  • Reply February 9, 2013


    Open your eyes Jessica and have a good look around
    Australia. There are hundreds of thousands of children here
    who have far less belongings and worse living conditions than these refugees.I have a university degree and have lived and WORKED in most states of this wonderful homeland of OURS. Charity begins at home. Get out of your comfortable surrounds and help some of our own.
    I am an 83 yr old alltime Aussie, with some 40 progeny, all
    good citizens, working hard,and doing well without drugs or
    weird Gods.

  • Reply February 9, 2013


    Well, D.Campbell there is hope for you yet in spite of your degree, age and progeny~ room for more learning and less ignorance.

  • Reply February 9, 2013


    Maybe that last post of mine was wishful thinking?

  • Reply February 9, 2013


    D.Campbell, poverty isn’t the reason they leave their home countries. Persecution is. There’s a really good doco exploring the reasons people take boats to come here. It’s touring the country at the moment. Try and catch it if u can – or download it (for free)

  • Reply February 14, 2013


    If you look at the child detention prisoner pictures you can see they have provided you with their new detention names. Their birth names no longer exies. Their birth names no longer exist for everday use in the system that they will will be held indefinately. The detention names are applied as soon as they are formally detained and refer to the boat code name and the position in the line that they are processed as they que after reaching land at phosphate hill detention camp on vagabond road near the community rubbish tip on chirsmtmas island. This is where the dehumanisation and loss of identity commences for the kids. When you visig families in detention it is not use requesting the birth name and you must use the detention name. I have heard parents refer to the children by the detentjion name. So here is to a positive outcome for the kids now known as BLL021 and BO35 who drew these pictures

  • Reply February 27, 2013


    I’m also a very proud left leaning, latte sipping, bleeding heart. The pictures the children have drawn are moving beyond words, but as Kaye says, what is worse is that they are “signed” with detainee numbers. Many atrocities occurring in detention are well documented but this one I’ve only seen through these drawings, and it cuts so very deep. Who is responsible making these children use serial numbers as their primary identifier? I’m having visions of slavery and concentration camps. And ffs (sorry for cussing) we are in 2013 in a “developed” nation and we’re practising harm and abuse of this nature? I’m very genuinely saddened today.

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