Young at Heart: Suffer the little children

MIKE Richards posed the question recently in an article in The Age (January 3): “How do we give effect to Australia’s moral and international legal obligations and responsibilities to provide safety and protection to asylum seekers?”

In my mind’s eye I am haunted by a photo of a group of children taken in a Jewish concentration camp during World War II. Their eyes are vacant, fearful, their fate almost certainly pre-ordained.

I see those same faces 70 years later standing behind a similar fence ringed with barbed wire, guards surrounding the compound, faces of bewildered, confused and innocent children. It won’t be the gas chambers for this group of children but it will be death of a sort, if somewhat slower.

I am talking about the concentration camps (it is difficult to apply any other name) on Manus, Christmas Island and Nauru, all holding desperate people who fled death and destruction in their own countries to seek a safer life for their children in Australia. The UNHCR estimates there are 16 million refugees worldwide and one million asylum seekers. Our refugee numbers to Australia are miniscule.

I worked on Ocean Island, close to Nauru. I know those quarries where the phosphate has been removed and where the detention centre is now placed. If conditions are as inhumane as is claimed for adults, then for children, some without parents, they must be intolerable. Those sharp white stones resemble shards of glass. Many of the children have grown out of their shoes so walking is painful and almost impossible. No more shoes have been forthcoming.  

These children have no school they can attend, no toys The white stones of the quarry resemble a heat bank during the day.

Unaccompanied children without family support are entitled to a family environment in Australia where they can feel safe and protected. Look at your own children – would you want them fending for themselves at such a vulnerable age, and in conditions that are so brutal and squalid?

Conditions on the other two islands are equally intolerable.

Who is driving this inhumane treatment? We have an ex-seminarian who is a committed Catholic and is also our prime minister, and a born-again fundamentalist Christian who is the minister for immigration.   They do a disservice to Christianity. Australia has always been a sensible, generous, fair country, not inclined towards fanaticism.  We have matured and enriched our society, absorbing the vulnerable refugees of the world in decades past. 

We are so “not Australian” at present, completely at odds with basic standards of human decency, and neither major political party is willing to change. The Greens party is a lone voice in this wilderness. 

Australia is breaking the 1951 Refugee Convention. The UNHCR has reported that conditions in the camps are inhumane, unsafe and unfair. That should be a wake-up call to all Australians to demand different, better options in the treatment of refugees, and in particular the children, accompanied or unaccompanied.

We now know of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children, the stolen generations of children of single mothers, the sexually and physically abused children who were in the care of religious orders,  and we are about to experience the next horror story, our treatment of refugees, particularly the children. 

We should not, must not remain silent when basic human rights are being transgressed by our lawmakers.

Our own federal member Lisa Chesters is another lone voice in this wilderness. Good for her.  Email her. Our voices can make a difference!

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