#KidsOffNauru: the campaign we didn't want
In the past two months Liam has learned to crawl. His chubby legs have grown the strength and balance to pull himself up against a kitchen chair. He’s started to say “mama” and “dada” clearly. In January, he will turn one.
But birthdays aren’t easy to celebrate on Nauru for those forsaken as refugees on a tiny island prison.
Liam has passed these three milestones in the two months since we launched Kids Off Nauru on August 20 with a number of other humanitarian and refugee advocacy organisations. We challenged Australian politicians to free Liam and the then 118 other refugee children and their families by November 20, Universal Children’s Day.
Since then, 73 children and their families have been medically evacuated to Australia. Almost all as a result of a Federal Court order.
Although Liam is one of the little boys who many Australians now know as a casualty of Nauru detention, along with his big sister, Melanie who turns three this month, they are among the 46 remaining. They continue to suffer and wear the collateral damage in a humanitarian crisis for which Australian politicians are responsible.
It’s hard for detained adults – families, children, single women and men - to muster genuine joy for a child’s “Happy Birthday” when they lack all hope and any certainty for the future. Five years of a cruel Australian immigration policy has stolen much from every child and adult on Nauru.
Neither Liam nor Melanie can form the sentences to explain the impact this dysfunctional start to life may have already had on them. For every child, their version of “normal” is created for them. It should be the duty of every grownup and institution to make that “normal” one of nurture, support and safety. Not what you see in a barren refugee camp full of despairing adults.
Kids Off Nauru picked Universal Children’s Day as a deadline for good reason – it marks 29 years since United Nations General Assembly adopted the convention, which recognises the unique vulnerability and needs of children for protection, above and beyond adults.
Australia signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Yes, that’s right, Australia is a signatory.)
The convention underpins the child-focused work of humanitarian organisations such as World Vision Australia, recognising children can be easily damaged – physically and psychologically - and need special care.
As the campaign enters its final trimester, the broader public call for children to be removed from Nauru becomes louder and my sense of trepidation deepens; it should never have come to this.
That children should be casualties of an almighty collision between policy and humanity is something we should never condone, if we have learnt anything from our nation’s mistakes and the apologies we keep having to make.
Two weeks ago, the Herald Sun revealed Government backbenchers Russell Broadbent, Craig Laundy and Julia Banks lobbied Prime Minister Morrison to urgently bring all children and their parents to Australia. They argued that those in most need of medical care should have their evacuations fast-tracked.
We aren’t the only ones to think this. The Australian Medical Association has made clear the urgency of these cases, presenting 6000 signatures on a petition to government for the children’s removal. Faith leaders, comedians, authors, activists and Australian children have added their voices to the call, responding with horror as more light is shed on the health crisis of people on Nauru.
While I am relieved to see the growing concern among MPs of both major parties, this hard-line stance is inhumane, I am frightened that the worst may happen – a child may die.
Already, these children are suffering psychologically. Some are suicidal. Most will bear the sinister effects of this policy for their whole lives - the very reason the Convention of the Rights of the Child exists.
A respected former teacher of refugee children on Nauru, Gabby Sutherland, who still has strong ties with children on the island, put it this way in a recent social media post: “Both political parties already have blood on their hands, it's only a matter of time before it's the blood of a child. I am disgusted, angry, ashamed and totally perplexed by the utter arrogance of politicians for ignoring five years of expert advice and evidence of child abuse, torture and the destruction of lives. Where is your moral and ethical compass? I am personally assisting children to eat and drink via video communication all day every day. Every politician who condones this with voice or silence is barbaric!”
Ten days ago, I wrote to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, imploring them to put politics aside and to reach a bipartisan solution. This has not yet happened.
I am appalled by the equivocating, when it is within the government’s power to resolve this. I am sickened when politicians mislead us that offshore detention stops people-smuggling - implying we prevent children from drowning by punishing those who didn’t drown. One should not be at the expense of the other.
As the children and adults in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island deteriorate, so do we. If we continue to betray these people, what’s next?
Our leaders no longer seem connected to the principals of love, compassion, and caring for the vulnerable. We ignore these principals at our peril but the real cost is being borne by little Liam, Melanie and the other 46 refugee children wasting away their lives on Nauru.
PICTURE: Liam (not his real name) was born on Nauru to refugee parents, who have been trapped there for five years.
First published in the Herald Sun
, October 29, 2018
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