The real test of leadership starts now – just ask little George

By Claire Rogers, Chief Executive Officer

Many Australians woke recently to the face of little George on the front pages and screens of the nation. There he stood for all to see in a baby-blue T-shirt, printed with the googly eyes of a friendly monster — the sort of top you might buy a nephew for his birthday.

But as the rumblings of a prime ministerial leadership challenge were growing to a roar, the attention of the nation quickly moved elsewhere. George’s welfare (and in some of the more extreme cases, among the adolescent children — their very existence) remains in the hands of the men and women striding the corridors of federal Parliament. While they crunched numbers, George’s little sandals crunched across refugee camp rocks — it is one of the sounds of life detained on Nauru. The only life he has known.

Recently, he and the 106 other children like him heard the roar of planes delivering the region’s leaders into the tiny island where they’ve been trapped with their families, some of them for as long as five years. The Pacific Island Forum is bigger news this year than others, not because of the agenda, but because of the suffering on Nauru.

Our new Prime Minister didn’t attend the forum — Foreign Minister Marise Payne went instead. While Scott Morrison’s absence was definitely noted by his Pacific counterparts, it should not hinder him from making the decision to end the indefinite and cruel detention of children and adults on Nauru.

Anyone who has reached the privileged position of leadership — whether it’s as head of Australia’s largest humanitarian agency or prime minister of our nation — knows real leadership in the end, is not about crunching the numbers.

The qualities of real leadership are deep and enduring; and when it comes to righting a wrong, it compels you to lead from the front, be willing to bear the risk but at the same time to argue a cogent case that brings the people with you. That is what real leaders do, even if it carries some personal cost. 

That’s where George and his friends come in. It’s where politicking should end. The children on Nauru need true leadership, but up until now Australia’s leaders have let them down.

George, Rose and Melanie (not their real names) are among those children who were born on Nauru. Their parents — although passing Australia’s onerous “refugee status” test — have been held there for five years. The children have known no other place apart from Nauru. They and the other children are stuck there without adequate health care, social services and, terribly, no sign or hope that their detention will end.

World Vision Australia has launched a campaign, with the Australian Refugee Council, Oxfam and now more than 160 other organisations, to get these children and their families off Nauru and resettled either here or in a third country that welcomes them. We gave our political leaders three months, until Universal Children’s Day on November 20. The clock is ticking.

In truth, the government could have the children off Nauru today. A call to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who has repeated her country’s invitation to resettle them), a single charter flight and the children and their families could be on their way to new lives with certainty for the future.

For some time, the government has told us that no children are being detained. We know now that is not true. The gates to the camps might have been unlocked, but you don’t need a fence to detain a child.

All George and his cohort have known from a young age is a world of security guards and uncertainty. They watch their parents’ distress and that of other adults around them. They are witnesses to and sometimes a part of protests — they have seen desperate acts of self-harm.

Our policies, like our rhetoric, have been mean-spirited, demonising asylum seekers. But it is a bit hard to demonise a little one full of innocence and vulnerability like George. 

In less than three weeks, 91,000 Australians and 185 organisations have put their names to a push to get the #KidsOffNauru. They want the Prime Minister to show moral courage, to bring these refugee children who are suffering daily to safety, either here, in New Zealand or in another suitable country which welcomes them. 

The need is urgent as the condition of those on Nauru continues to deteriorate. Fresh details of the child and adult trauma being suffered by many of them are documented in a joint report released by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. The cases are so gruesome, some news sites have added a warning to readers that they may find the content disturbing. 

Children are only moved from Nauru when their ill health reaches critical levels – and even then it takes a court order to force the evacuation. This approach to protecting the most vulnerable among us is indefensible.

We should not forget that these are children who will have to live their entire lives with the damage detention causes them. I keep wondering if in 20 years from now someone will be saying sorry for all the harm we’re causing. But by then it will be too late for children whose innocence and wellbeing are being eroded every day they spend on Nauru.

Most Australians live protected and sheltered lives. We don’t have to face the uncertainty, fear and vulnerability of the world’s 68.5 million displaced people — including that of George and his family.

Instead of turning away, we should use our place of privilege and safety to challenge our leaders who make decisions that condemn children to suffering and detention.

It’s never OK to lock up children. It’s never too late to do the right thing.


Picture: Cartoonist Matt Golding calls on Australia to shake up its policies on offshore detention and free the children trapped on Nauru


First published in the Herald Sun, September 7, 2018


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