Like many Australians, I am used to thinking of us as a generous and outward looking nation. But we are in the middle of a great test of our national character. A fight I never expected to have in my own country.

I recently flew to Canberra and on behalf of World Vision launched an advocacy campaign, along with the Refugee Council of Australia, Oxfam and 30 other organisations so far, to get the children currently detained on Nauru resettled. We want to see the children and their families brought here, or resettled in a suitable third country that welcomes them, and where they can build a real future.

KidsOffNauru

A graphic from the campaign. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

"We’ve given our political leaders till Universal Children’s Day on 20th November to do something. And why have we started the clock? Because the children are suffering."

We’ve given our political leaders till Universal Children’s Day on 20th November to do something. And why have we started the clock? Because the children are suffering.

Child rights is what World Vision is all about. As a child-focused organisation, the issue of children in detention anywhere in the world is an ongoing concern for us. Our international efforts focus on ensuring all children’s rights are protected - wherever they are. For example, right now World Vision has a global campaign 'It Takes A World' with the goal of eradicating violence against children in every country where we work. It’s ambitious. But aiming for goals like this is in World Vision’s DNA.

In my travels over the past two years I’ve seen firsthand how vulnerable children can be, especially in the fragile contexts where we work, places like Bangladesh or South Sudan. I have visited refugee camps in places like Uganda and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and met and talked with children and their parents who’ve fled terrible violence and suffered great loss. A lot of our work in these camps consists of very basic child protection. We create safe spaces for children where they can simply play without fear for a few hours each day. 

So it was very shocking for me to come home from visiting Cox’s Bazar earlier this year and soon after to realise that my own country was still actively and systemically denying children’s rights. It was a brave and determined Australian school teacher, Gabby Sutherland, who held up a photograph on [ABC TV show] Q&A taken that day of 124 children still being held on Nauru that alerted me to this. 

For some time now, the Government has been insisting that there are no longer any children in detention. Clearly the Government is relying on semantics because here was a photo of 124 children clearly still trapped on Nauru! I haven’t been to Nauru. Few people have. But I have seen firsthand the plight of children growing up in refugee camps.

Hope is the universal gift that Jesus gave us – how we treat other human beings can give or take away hope. People, let alone children who are our future leaders, should not be left in limbo for prolonged periods. There’s no hope when there’s no end in sight!

There is actually nothing that can justify the imprisonment of innocent children. Anywhere. Anytime.  

Think about this. You remove a family’s liberty. You put them on a phosphate rock the size of Melbourne airport in a community that didn’t ask to have them. You tell them nothing about their future for five years or more. You refer to the family by their boat number so often that they refer to themselves by this too. You prohibit them from working for four years then change your mind and expect them to get a job in a community with only 12,000 people. You provide so little social and medical support that the parents become so depressed they can no longer look after their children – robbing them of their capacity to be their children’s desperately needed role models. In so doing you remove all hope from the family. All the while the children are watching their parents’ distress and that of other adults around them.  

"All they have known from a young age is a world of fences, security guards and uncertainty. They are witnesses to and sometimes a part of protests – they see desperate acts of self-harm, like lip stitching and even people setting themselves on fire. Some of the children choose to control the only thing they can - they refuse to eat, drink, talk and walk."

All they have known from a young age is a world of fences, security guards and uncertainty. They are witnesses to and, sometimes a part of, protests – they see desperate acts of self-harm, like lip stitching and even people setting themselves on fire. Some of the children choose to control the only thing they can - they refuse to eat, drink, talk and walk.  

We have put these children in a psychological cave but there is no team of rescuers coming to save them - unlike the football team in Thailand. It’s time for the Australian Parliament to assemble the rescue team. It’s what we do brilliantly as a nation! We’re calling on our political leaders to do what they do best: Bring these children here to Australia or a third country that welcomes them by Universal Children’s Day.

The Australian Parliament have found outcomes for thousands of refugees so far – and we applaud that but these children have through no fault of their own have drawn the short straw to be in the last cohorts.  

They are unfairly being used as a deterrent. Forty of them have never known another life - they were born in detention. Every day this is not resolved, more damage is being done. Rehabilitation is urgent. If we don’t take action there may be a child who dies.

We call Nauru “a refugee processing centre” - but there is no processing going on or, at best, it’s vastly inadequate. The number of children on Nauru is reducing, but only for the worst possible reasons - a 10-year-old’s repeated attempts to commit suicide, a teenage girl’s refusal to talk, eat, drink, walk and open her eyes, needing a gastric tube to survive (resignation syndrome). A very ill toddler sent first to Port Moresby to sustain our commitment that none of these particular refugees ever come to Australia, which was then overruled in the courts.

We have been embroiled in a toxic debate on refugees since the Tampa crisis in 2001. Our domestic rhetoric has demonized asylum seekers. In recent years the Australian Government has refused to budge on the fate of these refugees. What has become of our moral compass, that we should treat the most vulnerable among us, our children, in this way and consider it acceptable? I keep thinking that someone is going to be apologising for this in 20 years’ time but it will be too late for these kids, we need to get them off, now!  

These children are also being forced to grow up without the very basics that Australian parents consider necessities for their own sons and daughters - like a decent education. Only 15 per cent are believed to be attending school. They are growing up without grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and in some cases siblings. 

But most devastating to their well-being, their innocence has been taken. One of the things I like about my new job, is that I get to make a difference - or at least try to!

So we decided to see if we could do something - more than just an article, something that could be a real game changer for the forgotten children of Nauru. And because this is bigger than us and because we believe that most Australians would agree that children shouldn’t be left to suffer and languish on an island prison, we decided to approach others in the sector, like Oxfam and Save the Children, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Refugee Council of Australia and many more.

"#KidsOffNauru is really a campaign for and by all decent Australians who are heart-broken that we are denying these children their most fundamental rights; their freedom and their future."

So #KidsOffNauru is really a campaign for and by all decent Australians who are heart-broken that we are denying these children their most fundamental rights; their freedom and their future. As a former banker, I am a very practical person - actions speak louder than words. If our principles, like equality, like justice, like freedom, do not have the power or the agency to shape our policies and practices then what do they mean?

Nothing.

We must find a humane solution to this, if our principles mean anything at all. We are a clever and creative country. If we want to, we can do this. Using our freedom and privilege to do good.

Let’s take courage and stand on the strength of God’s principles for restoration and redemption! This is why I am advocating for the children on Nauru.

In this beautiful, messy, tumultuous world that we share with the poorest and the richest, I call on us all to live out the calling of Christ. To accept the restorative power of Jesus’ gift of equality to all, and to do three things:

1. Reflect deeply on your privilege and where you might be inadvertently creating unjust outcomes;

2. Remember that our freedom comes in part from our privilege and needs to be defended – how will you ensure that equitable freedom and grace for all will be protected in your spheres of influence?; and, 

3. To join with me in using our privilege to challenge the powers that be, to ensure the health and well-being of these suffering children (#kidsoffnauru).

www.kidsoffnauru.com

Claire Rogers is the CEO of World Vision Australia. This is an edited version of a speech given at the Tasmanian Prayer Breakfast this week.