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Asylum seeker children in detention: Why the church has a duty to speak up


Julia Baird

<i>Illustration: Simon Bosch</i>

Illustration: Simon Bosch

A quiet, curious insurrection has been happening on the periphery of the public eye in Australia in the past few months. Nuns arrested, priests occupying politicians' offices, bishops slamming government policy as ''cruelty''. 

Usually dutiful Christians have been radicalised by a mounting outrage, concern and grief at the way we have been treating asylum seekers. This has prompted an unprecedented coalition of church groups determined to persuade the two Christian leaders responsible for the policy - Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison - to show more compassion to the vulnerable.

''The Lord your God … shows no partiality,'' Moses told the Israelites. ''He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.'' (Deut 10: 17-19)

The Bible is irrefutably clear on two things: first, that all Christians should show love and hospitality to strangers and, second, and crucially, we should protect and care for children. There is nothing ambiguous about these claims.

So the reaction of some to the appearance of the interdenominational group Love Makes a Wayformed to end "inhumane" asylum seeker policies through non-violent protest, was: ''At last!'' or ''Where on earth have you been?''

For this is surely one thing on which all Christians can agree. 

It was sickening to hear Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs report this week that nearly all the 174 children on Christmas Island were sick, depressed, self harming, having nightmares, swallowing poisons, wetting beds, wandering aimlessly behind barbed wire. It was chilling to hear babies were not crawling.

All of this under our watch? 

Professor Triggs says the children were suffering symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and called on the government to process them onshore. There were 128 reported cases of children harming themselves in just 15 months.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison cast doubt on Triggs' comments, saying she was not a doctor (even though she is a widely respected law professor), and dismissed her statements as "sensational" and untrue . But the next day the claims of Triggs, who pointed out as a lawyer she was trained to deal in evidence, were backed up.

At the inquiry into the detention of children, a former director of mental health services at detention centre service provider International Health and Mental Services (IHMS), Peter Young, alleged the government had covered up – or doctored data on – the level of distress among child detainees. 

Dr Young said they had collected data showing ''significant'' mental health problems among child detainees, ''perhaps a little higher'' than adults. But he added – when pushed – that the Immigration Department ''reacted with alarm and asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting''. 

A very serious, troubling claim.

There were further allegations of physical and sexual abuse on Nauru against children by staff. 

These kids are in our care. And many in the churches are horrified and furious.

In a foreword to a report by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce – which represents nine Christian churches and three ecumenical bodies – the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, the Reverend Peter Catt, said Morrison's position, as guardian of these children, was ''untenable''.

''The churches have a responsibility to speak,'' Catt said, because of their own history. ''We'll never again stand by and do nothing about child abuse … Institutional child abuse occurs in many different settings and it's illegal, it's horrific and it's unacceptable.''

Sister Brigid Arthur from the Victorian Council of Churches went further. She said the fact that we condone the indefinite imprisonment of children ''seems to be abusive and it is state-sanctioned''.

Morrison, a policeman's son, would hardly agree. He has been asked many times how he reconciles his Christian faith with the misery of asylum seekers and statements like that of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference that our asylum seeker policy ''has about it a cruelty that does no honour to our nation''.

In response, he has repeatedly pointed to the fact that their parents brought them here, and that he has effectively stopped or dramatically slowed  sea arrivals, which put children at great risk, and reduced the number of children in detention overall. If we welcome some, his logic goes, we endanger thousands of others.

There is truth in this. 

But the problem is this: What are we doing to those already in our care? Have we not all concurred, when John Howard agreed to pull children out of detention, that this is something we do not want? Tony Abbott has said no one wants children in detention. Yet the creep has continued. More than a thousand children are locked up.  

So now we need to agree to get those children back onto the mainland, where we can monitor them properly, ensure they are in good medical care, and able to go to school. Where we can make sure they don't waste precious years depressed or regressing. The Australian Refugee Taskforce also recommended an end to closed detention of children, a national policy framework, consistent standards of care and independent reviews of claims for unaccompanied children.

Speedy processing is crucial, says the Sydney Archbishop, the Right Reverend Glenn Davies, as ''vulnerable children can be scarred by detention and feel as as though they are being treated as criminals behind barbed wire''.

Even Pope Francis has condemned the ''globalisation of indifference'' towards refugees.

Obviously, this is not just a matter for the church. 

But the church has a moral duty to press for this. 

The founding director of the Australian Centre for Public Christianity, the Reverend John Dickson, says while the church has ''lost some credibility'' when it comes to the treatment of children, the Bible ''placed the highest demands on believers to honour and protect children, especially orphans, as special examples of God's own precious children''.

 ''When Jesus saw his own disciples preventing children from being brought to him, 'he was indignant', the text says, and uttered those famous words, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,' '' he said.

''These words should haunt the Immigration Minister, every Australian politician, every Australian with a vestige of respect for Christ, as our policies prevent children, many of them deeply traumatised, from entering into the freedoms and protection of our little kingdom.''

Trauma. Mental illnesss. Self harm. 

We can't ignore this any more. Enough. 

163 comments so far

  • This will all be seen as the equivalent of the stolen children debacle soon enough. We will all have to share in this without the veneer of it being the sins of the fathers. A pox on both the political houses that allowed themselves to be railroaded by the lust for power at any cost.

    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 8:43PM
    • yep

      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 9:06PM
    • The churches want the public to pay the billions (and future billions) as you open to the world a life for their children here. Let the churches sell their vast properties to pay for their ideology.

      I am catholic and completely disagree with my churches tactical solution.

      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 9:53PM
    • Perhaps, Basil at 9:53 pm, you would have better spent your time explaining how you personally reconcile this dreadful cruelty with your Catholicism.

      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 11:32PM
    • @AndreP
      It is interesting to see you compare this to the stolen generation.....Who do you think was involved in that event in Australia's history....It was religious organisations....And they are pointing the finger at children in detention?

      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 7:26AM
    • Records of early settlement of Queensland have a similar melancholy ring. They detail the efforts of a humane few to speak out against the savagery and violence being visited upon the country's indigenous inhabitants. And those new arrivals (our forebears) who murdered or stole women and children, or imprisoned them or indentured them, were Christian and 'civilised' too.

      Wonder Fly
      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 8:00AM
    • Basil,
      as a practising Catholic I have a hard time reconciling what these so called Christian gentlemen of the LNP are doing in our name. Many of these so called leaders are described as devout Catholics. I have no idea what that means, but I suggest that they come down from their lofty pillars and become practising Catholics again. I also suggest that they practise really hard because from my understanding of my faith they are lousy Catholics.

      Dean Clark
      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 8:49AM
    • Yes, interesting indeed that you mention the stolen generation. A dark policy from the past that removed children from neglect and abusive situation. A horrible policy. Now that the numbers of children in detention is decreasing instead of increasing as was the case under labor, now is certainly the time to put the government under the microscope.

      The alternative is to let more people drown. 1200 have already died due to labor compassion. How many more need to die the fore the left say enough? Are the left so ideologically blind that they cannot understand cause and effect and that any other approach will lead to more deaths at sea. Don't those people matter because they are not anglosaxon?

      What about children in refugee camps whose parents are too poor to pay a people smuggler? Why does the left ignore them? Don't they matter because they are poor?

      All the faux outrage from the left is enough to make a sane man sick. The outrage only happens under a coalition. You don't care about kids in detention, you don't care about kids drowning, you don't care about kids in refugee camps, you do care about destroying Abbott. This is not about issue but about side. The left are on the side of money and death while conservatives advocate life and the poor.

      Southpark conservative
      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 12:33PM
    • Jesus didn't command Christians to be suckers, Jesus did not command Christians to empty their pockets and impoverish themselves, their familys and their neighbours for everyone with a sad sack story.
      The UNHCR is being abused and Australia should withdraw as a signatory to it and select genuine refugees from the camps.

      Rory the Red
      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 12:59PM
    • Cambalong whilst I agree with you re the children I do not see the point of your question to Basil. Each one of us must reconcile our Christian beliefs with this situation and do what we can to convince our politicians that we believe this situation is most unchristian. Most politicians will only do what is popular within their own electorate regardless of their religious beliefs.
      This covers even the major political parties who seem to be in an unholy haste to win the race to Hell. We proudly declare that we are Christians and that Australia is a Christian country. This has a hollow ring when we conveniently turn a Nelson's eye to the very basic tenets of Christianity. This is where the Christian Church leaders (?) can play a part. We must let our politicians know that they have read us wrongly.

      Date and time
      August 02, 2014, 1:01PM

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