The Forgotten Children in Detention: It is the simplest of instructions to followers of Christ: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). It speaks to our moral obligation to the most vulnerable in our society; an obligation that is central to our beliefs and one that should inform our actions. How devastating then to read of the horrors that child asylum seekers have experienced in Australian detention centres in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report, The Forgotten Children.
The report, tabled in Parliament late Wednesday night, interviewed 1129 children and parents and revealed 233 cases of assault and 33 cases of sexual assault against children and 128 incidents of self-harm by children over a 15 month period. While the numbers alone should be sufficient to horrify us, it was the stories of young people so traumatised by a system of our creation that they actively sought to end their lives that moved me most. The story of a 17 year old boy from Iraq who self-harmed ten times, including attempting to jump off a building, punching through a window, and cutting himself. The story of a 17 year old girl from Somalia who had to be hospitalised on the Australian mainland for three months due to her severe depression, only to be sent back to a locked detention centre once she was discharged from the psychiatric unit. If the measure of a society is how we treat our most vulnerable, then we have failed as a nation, and it is a stain on our very soul.
The report detailed the failures of successive Ministers who are charged with the care of young asylum seekers. Currently, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection is both the legal guardian and the jailer of unaccompanied children in detention. The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce has long called for this to change, arguing for an independent advocate to be appointed to protect children without parents caught up in our detention regime. While all children in detention suffer unnecessary and almost unimaginable horrors on a daily basis, those without parents are forced to endure this nightmare alone. Denying them even the right to an independent advocate is one of the cruellest aspects of our punitive immigration laws.
The response of the Government to the tabling of the report is telling. Our Prime Minister suggested that former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison be sent “a note of congratulations… saying well done, mate,” and when questioned about whether he felt any guilt over the 211 children still detained in Australia or the 119 children detained on Nauru, his response was an emphatic, “none whatsoever”. This callous disregard for the welfare of children shocked many of us, and yet it has been the driving ideology behind our immigration system for the last 23 years. For over two decades we have known about the negative impacts of detaining children, and yet the practice continues. Australia is – shamefully – the only country in the world that treats children in this manner.
In the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus speak of his love for children: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”. As Christians, we must not allow those in detention to be forgotten; we must not allow the suffering of child asylum seekers to continue unabated. Our moral duty is clear: we must welcome these children and end the practice of mandatory, arbitrary and indefinite detention once and for all.