Six weeks ago, a group of University of New South Wales (UNSW) Law students who had been visiting the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre on a weekly basis decided something needed to be done to humanise the plight of detained refugees in the country.

The UNSW students were inspired by “Humans of New York,” (HONY), a blog by photographer Brandon Stanton that shares the lives of strangers in New York City with the use of photos, quotes and short stories. The students decided to create their own blog to tell the stories of those in mandatory detention in Australia.

“These people don’t even know when they are going to get out. A lot of them don’t even know why they are even there . . . These are people with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us . . . Maybe we can change the way we look at asylum seekers and change the way we treat them,” said Benjamin John, one of the students behind "Humans of Detention".

Together with 10 other students, Benjamin is part of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS), an organisation that is concerned with the treatment of asylum seekers and whose volunteers visit Villawood on a regular basis.

Through the help of artists based in Sydney, artworks instead of photos representing the refugees are posted to help protect their anonymity.

‘Asylum seekers’ is a term that Australia and the world have become familiar with in recent years; a topic that has entered into the everyday political discourse.

In 1992, the Keating Government introduced the controversial policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who enter Australia without a valid visa. This process subjects asylum seekers to security and health checks.

However, many countries have criticised Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in recent years. Australia has even been urged to abide by international law at a United Nations human rights forum.

Many people who are in detention are often homesick and fearing for their family back home, says Benjamin. Suicide attempts are also not a rarity, and happen due to chronic depression, chronic stress disorders and severe insomnia.

Benjamin believes art is a great medium for humanising detainees in detention. He recounts a recent piece of art that was created by a former detainee as opposed to just a local Sydney artist, which was painted in detention with nothing but what they had in Villawood: coffee and water.

“It’s a really good way of expressing the mental side of it and the mental anguish that detainees suffer in detention.”

Benjamin shares with International Business Times Australia how the blog had started and what the experience has been so far with visiting the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre every Thursday.

Q: What made you want to become a part of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS) and a volunteer for the blog?

A: I personally have always been interested in the issues around refugees in Australia and stumbled upon Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney just through people I knew, and was very keen to get involved. We didn’t have too much of an idea on the details of SASS but the more time you spend doing, the more you get to know these people, the more passionate you become about these issues. And the more you realise the severity of the injustices that have been done under the Australian Government.

Q: The website states that the goal is to visit detention centres weekly. When meeting asylum seekers and refugees, do you ever have a hard time keeping your emotions intact?

A: Basically, it is difficult. And it is a confronting thing to have to expose yourself as someone who has grown up in a really privileged and happy country. You know, to go in there and talk to these people who have spent nine days on a boat out at sea not knowing whether they would even make it to land; people who have suffered horribly in their own countries and continue to suffer in detention. It is difficult and we do try as much as we can to share each other’s stories and talk each other through it. But at the same time, it never really loses its seriousness and its confronting nature. I guess you just got to try and put it in perspective, and try to do the best you can to understand what they’re actually saying and not dismissing it.

Q: Can you share an example of when you visited a detention centre and what that was like?

A: All the quotes on the page and all the volunteers associated with Humans of Detention and Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney have just been going out to Villawood so far. In our experiences there, you get some men who have committed crimes and who are in a medium security facility and they’ve got some terrible stories of torture and persecution. I’d say if you want an example, one of the worst stories that I’ve come across are those stories about the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, who have been persecuted to an extent not seen in many parts of the world. There’s one man in there who can’t return to Burma and he’s also being denied entry into Australia, so for the foreseeable future, he’s just going to remain in detention indefinitely.

Q: What would you like to see come out of Humans of Detention?

A: The core idea of the blog is to bring humanity to the people of detention, instead of them just being faceless bodies and boats that you might see on the news or whatever. Offshore detention, by its nature of being completely separate from the country and far away, perpetuates this out-of-sight, out-of-mind tactic. And so Humans of Detention - if we could eventually spread the page or spread the idea of humanising these people and realising these people - they aren’t random aliens, you know. They’re humans, suffering with hopes and dreams and concerns and families and thoughts; just as anyone else in Australia. If we could just spread that humanising message as far as we could, then maybe people might change their minds and that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that enables the policy of the current government. [It] might start to erode and we would be able to see a change in policy, by changing the way Australians actually view refugees and asylum seekers more generally.

Q: What would you like to see in the future, in terms of Australia’s immigration policy?

A: The page tries to steer clear of political opinions. We don’t,as a group, have an outlined policy ambition. It’s more about changing Australians’ attitude towards asylum seekers. I guess broadly, ending offshore detention or ending children being in detention would be some of the things that first come to mind personally. But as a whole, the focus of this page is more about changing people’s attitudes towards asylum seekers.

Q: What response has the blog received?

A: Broadly, they’ve been really positive. The blog has only been up for six weeks or so but it’s already been shared by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and also by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. The posts that we post not only get a lot of likes, they get a lot of shares too. People seem to really engage with these issues. Apart from a couple of negative ones, the comments have been really supportive and really responding to what we’re trying to do.

Humans of Detention are always looking for new artists. If you would like to get involved, please email

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