Detention for Detention – silent protest in Sydney about children in detention

Over 3000+ students and staff from 40 Edmund Rice Education schools around Australia and New Zealand took voluntary lunchtime detention to stand in solidarity with children currently in immigration detention in Australia. Students:

  • Experienced having their voices silenced, hands tied, and sent a message to those in detention that they are not alone, and that they are welcome in Australia.
  • Signed their own Edmund Rice Action For Change petition calling on the Australian government to end mandatory detention for asylum seeker children. The activity was part of the justice agenda of the Edmund Rice Action for Change movement.

The campaign was developed and shared across a range of social media platforms:


Students from St. Patrick’s College, Strathfield, Sydney and from other Edmund Rice Advocacy Australia schools


October 17th 2014 and additional designated days. Has become an annual feature for many schools that participate in the national event from Edmund Rice schools.


Backup materials as listed on ERA for Change website (currently offline). A selection of those is included:


  • Initial publicity materials and activities are circulated within schools inviting students and staff to participate in the lunchtime detention for detention event.
  • Information and briefing sessions are held beforehand and parents are also informed of the activity.
  • On the designated day, students (and staff) use areas such as basketball courts to assemble with mouths taped and hands bound to express solidarity with those in official detention.
  • Participants are also invited to sign a petition against detention which is then collated and forwarded to the Australian Government.

Each event is also publicised to ensure the Australian public is aware of the issue and the schools responses.

Case Study

The activity is part of a broader justice agenda focused in this case on the situation of asylum seekers and refugees (other issues include disability, Australia’s first peoples, sustainability, poverty and human trafficking).

In our case, we prepared a presentation to be made at a whole school assembly (1,000+ students) in order publicise the issue and the detention activity.  Some of the points and arguments we made include:

‘Imagine if you had no voice. Imagine if you couldn’t do anything at all. Now imagine if every aspect of your life was dictated to you. Every second, of every day, with no say of your own. Almost as if it isn’t really your life. Imagine if you had once lived like we do now, being able to choose; what you eat, drink, where to go, friends and even an education. And this here beside me, happened to you. I mean, without a voice, it leads into question if they really exist at all.

By they … we mean our asylum seeker brothers and sisters… and children.  There are nearly 1,000 children in Australian detention centres growing up behind barbed wire instead of a fence and learning to use their processing number more than their names. Their view of what we think is the world, to them is pure hardship….

…Catholic Social Teaching states that all human beings have inherent dignity that must be maintained. It also calls us all to stand in solidarity with those whose dignity has been denied. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Article 14).  It is not illegal to seek asylum. It is not illegal to seek peace. And it definitely isn’t illegal to give them a voice…

…Ultimately, we stand together with these children and experience something of what it is to be voiceless and helpless. We stand together to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our gesture is our protest. A protest against the injustice, to the humanity within the detention cells…’

Learning lessons

  •  There was very considerable take up of the activity and the campaign, highlighting the fact that students respond well to issues such as this.
  • There was very considerable publicity across various media in Australia with quite a lot of hostile commentary that students should not be doing this type of activity. School management were heavily criticised by some commentators as this is a very sensitive issue in Australia.  Schools need to be prepared for this type of response and need to consider their own responses to same.
  • In our case, there was very strong support from school management and from ERA generally – this ensured considerable public debate around the issue – something we had sought to promote.


We measured success as follows:

  • Number of students, schools and staff who participated – it was very high
  • The discussions and debates that took place within and across schools
  • The nature and scale of the media response to the campaign and the discussions that followed
  • The sense of satisfaction experienced by those who took part in the detention for detention process
  • The overall strengthening of the social justice agenda across our school and other schools as a result.

Media pick-up and project links

  • Project details from the Detention for Detention campaign are listed on the ERA for Change website (further downloads, photos, worksheets etc.)
  • Pick up of the Detention for Detention schools action includes:
  • Feature story in St Patrick’s school magazine (August 2015)
  • Paul Corfield, Acting Assistant Principal in St Patrick’s College (18 June 2015) Statement on Detention for Detention / school newsletter
  • Emile Ng (24 October 2014) Students against detention in The Catholic Leader / newspaper
  • Headmaster Brian T. Roberts (16 October 2014) Statement to parents on Detention for Detention campaign as ‘St Patrick’s College Backs Down’ / radio news report
  • Written response on behalf of the Minister for Immigration to St Patrick’s students / reprinted on p.20 of St Patrick’s College magazine Just Us following student letter writing in 2015
  • News report (17 June 2015) by newspaper Northside Chronicle (based in Sydney) on the Detention for Detention St Patrick’s College campaign / reproduced on p.26 of St Patrick’s College magazine Just Us.

This case study is based on interviews with student participants and Tony Elias from St Patrick’s College, Sydney, in autumn 2014 by Colm Regan. Additional reporting by Tony Daly.