Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Jesus said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Australian policy on asylum seekers seems to understand only the first word of that instruction, with nearly 1000 children in detention in Australia and another 177 in grim conditions in Nauru. Many of them are suffering acute psychological stress and other traumas.
Ten years ago and, again at the last election, there was a strong public consensus that children should not be behind wire fences, deprived of recreation, education and family security, but that conviction seems to have dissipated.
Last Friday the Anglican bishops of Australia spoke of our “profound disquiet” at the plight of children in detention. In a plea to the federal government, we said that while it has been highlighting the number of days since a boat arrived, there was another number that needed close scrutiny – the number of children in detention.
“These children are innocent victims of tragic circumstances,” our statement said. “Those who flee from desperate circumstances by boat should not be punished by prolonged detention whether in Australia, Nauru or Manus Island. They are not the people smugglers. They are people made in the image of God, who deserve respect from all Australians, but especially our government and its agencies.
“They come to Australia out of desperation, fleeing religious, ethnic or economic persecution. They seek asylum under the Refugee Convention that as a nation we have signed. Many will be found to be refugees, as the government’s own statistics demonstrate.”
It seems refugee crises are always in the news. This week, according to media reports, lawyers asked Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to undertake not to move 26 babies born to refugee parents in Australia from difficult living conditions at Christmas Island to an even harsher life on Nauru or Manus Island.
Last week, the Jesuit online journal Eureka Street reported on an Edmund Rice Centre study of 40 refugees to Australia who were returned to their country of origin. The study found that many were brutalised and tortured on their return, and several were killed. It said that 35 of the 40 found themselves in dangerous circumstances as soon as they landed.
The litany of human misery is endless. And Australia is one of the few countries well placed to help, as it has often done since World War II.
The churches cannot be silent, given how powerfully the theme of caring for the alien, orphan and widow is expressed right through the Bible. Ancient Israel was explicitly enjoined to show compassion and care for the stranger, remembering that the Israelites too had been strangers in Egypt (the Old Testament book of Leviticus chapter 19, verse 34, and many other places).
The same principle is at work in the biblical instruction to farmers gathering the harvest: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy chapter 24, verse 19).
Jesus taught, “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” A similar thought is found in the New Testament book of James, which says, “suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed’, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” Scores, even hundreds, of other verses could be cited.
Earlier public debate about the need to free children from detention shows that Australians can come to a new consensus about this vital issue, even though widespread disagreements remain about other aspects of refugee policy. If it happened before, it can happen again.
Easter is a good time to look again at what is happening to children in detention centres, and to consider the crippling cost to their well-being now and in the future.
It is a time when Christians particularly reflect on the sufferings of Jesus. We must look at the deeper principles of compassion, love and human solidarity Jesus taught and exemplified, the principles that have been a beacon through the centuries and a goal to which his followers aspire, however imperfectly they manage it.
Without hope, human life becomes unendurable. For Christians, hope is based on the resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate on Sunday. It is our guarantee that cruelty, violence and despair do not have the final word. Nor can they be allowed to be the final word for the 30,000 refugees now in Australia or offshore detention facilities.
My prayer is that we might revive the important humanitarian consensus that children should not be in detention. I also pray that even those who believe that sovereign borders is the most important concern in the refugee debate might yet agree that the policy should nevertheless be a compassionate one that allows those fleeing persecution a measure of hope.
Philip Freier is Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne.