Over 1100 children are being held in detention facilities across Manus Island, Nauru and here in Australia. Their average age is 10 years old. All the expert commentary I’ve seen says that they will be left with long-lasting physical and emotional damage.
When I first heard these figures – and realised what is being done in the name of the Australian community to which I belong – I immediately thought of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s powerful Australian classic Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. The familiar cries of the family as their three girls are taken away and sent to a residential school for Aboriginal children are a chilling reminder of some of the darker years of Australia’s short history.
“Worrah, Worrah! He take ‘em away, my grannies [grand-daughters], wailed the old lady, as she bent down with great difficulty and picked up a billy can and brought it down heavily on her head. She and the rest of the women began to wail louder, their hearts burdened with sadness of the girls’ departure and the uncertainty of ever seeing them again. The girls were also weeping. The wailing grew louder as the vehicle taking them away headed towards the gate. Each girl felt the pain of being torn from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ arms.” (Rabbit Proof Fence, p 48)
Having escaped from the government institution the three little girls did find their way home – tracked by Native Police and search planes. Such was their desire to reunite with those they loved, and to be in safety again.
Tales of children torn from families like this the one have shaped the face of modern indigenous history in this country. A history that I am sure we would not like to repeat.
When we stop treating children the way we all know they should be treated, cherishing and protecting them, and begin treating them as enemies and criminals we are lost. And this is how we are now treating unaccompanied minors and children seeking asylum.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Australian government is immoral. I’m saying that somehow we’ve slid into a situation where we are treating very vulnerable children in a way that we will be ashamed of in the cold light of history. Already, many Australians are simply horrified in the way that the Australian dream of prosperity with fairness is vanishing in front of our eyes with the planeloads of small, vulnerable children being sent away from safety.
“This is one of the great moral challenges of our time”, says the Moderator of the UCA Synod of NSW and the ACT, Rev Dr Brian Brown.
And so he is calling members to gather this Saturday, 23 November, 2pm at First Fleet Park, Circular Quay (Sydney). There they will engage in a public action which will include unveiling their End Child Detention Quilt – made up of over 200 patches.
“Each patch represents a Uniting Church congregation, or one of our UnitingCare services, calling for an end to child detention. This is a strong representation of the thousands of Australians calling for change”, the Moderator said, “I am very proud to see so many patches returned from across NSW and the ACT.”
I’m glad to be part of a church that speaks out the way the Synod of NSW and the ACT is. They’re not being disruptive or violent or threatening the peace of the community.
They’re just saying what we’re all thinking: This is wrong. Very wrong. There has to be another way. End child detention now.