The case for defending children and their advocates

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Child in detention drawing

My youngest grandchild is soon to have his second birthday. Orestes had a very rocky start to life: a serious operation on the day he was born meant that his health was an up-and-down business for more than a year, but now he is much stronger, growing like a weed, and generally enjoying life.

The Greeks say that your grandchild is your child twice over. I’ve never been quite sure about this idea, but I know I feel extra-protective towards Orestes, and cannot bear the thought of more medical ordeals or of any harm befalling him. The default position of both parents and grandparents is fear.

Fear is certainly the lot of many parents here in Greece at present, and has been for a long time. At the start of the krisi, many desperate parents left their young children in orphanages and hospitals: they could not afford to feed and clothe them. Last year a child died because her mother did not have the money to buy vital medicine, and a recent report states that a quarter of the children in Athens go to school hungry. 

Children have always suffered and have often been exploited; it is only recently that they have been regarded as being children at all, rather than as mini-people. We have great reformers like Dickens and Lord Shaftesbury to thank for the raising of consciousness that began in the nineteenth century. But the process was slow: at the turn of that century the grandmother of an English friend was sent to work in the local mill.  She was eight, and of course she was not the only one.

It is a sad axiom, though, that there is always someone worse off. Multiply that someone by thousands. An inveterate reader of newspapers, I have just learned about a one-year-old Syrian child who has spent most of her short life in a cellar as some sort of protection against barrel bombs which, one report says, have killed approximately 20,000 people in Syria.

Then there was the piece about David Nott, a British surgeon who has been taking unpaid leave for six weeks of the year for nearly 20 years in order to volunteer in war zones. But he says he has never seen anything worse than the situation in Syria, about which he despairs. Most of the casualties are children who, like the one-year-old, are sheltering with their families as best they can.

On one occasion, seven children were brought to Nott and his team in Aleppo: four were from the same family. And this sort of horrifying incident is a daily occurrence. Try to imagine the terror felt by such children: I, for one, can’t. 

Bombs are not raining on children in Australia, but many are being damaged nonetheless. The Australian Human Rights Commission has very recently handed down its report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, and a sobering document it is, to say the least.

From what I have read, I have learned that Australia is unique in the practice of detaining children, and that such detention affects children badly, putting their mental and emotional health at grave risk. I have also learned that the Minister for Immigration is not compelled to give explanations regarding detention, and that promises of release have been broken.

Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer listed ‘the eternal questions,’ one of which was ‘Why do the innocent suffer?’ One reason they do is because they are powerless, and, as Lord Acton pointed out, power corrupts. I honestly do not know how those responsible for imposing suffering on children can sleep at night, but my guess is that they usually do. 

Catholic poet Francis Thompson, who himself had a short and extremely troubled life, wrote:

Know you what it is to be a child?
…It is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief…

How can a child in any of the world’s trouble spots believe in these all-important things?

Only the fortunate, like Orestes. I only hope he can maintain such belief as he grows. I also hope that some of the detained children can somehow find a similar belief. A forlorn hope, I fear. 


Gillian Bouras

Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Child in detention image: Australian Human Rights Commission 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, children, war, Gillian Triggs, Children in Detention, Syria, Dickens


 

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Excellent article, Gillian. As someone who spent his first 10 years in a privileged position in a city Bombay (now Mumbai) where every abuse of the Victorian Era against children, including forced begging (children being sometimes deliberately maimed to be more effective beggars); child prostitution and child labour existed, I can only think the answer to why these abuses exist is because, over time, people become callous about the situation. Fortunately not everyone does and I think, as in the Victorian Era, there were many worthy and excellent people working to try to change the situation, as there are now. What appals me is the reception given by the current Government to the AHRC's report you mention and the concurrent attempt to demonise its Chair, Professor Gillian Triggs. This is both totally counter-productive and beneath contempt. It degrades us all. I am ashamed.
Edward Fido | 24 February 2015


Thank you Gillian. If only the consciences of the policy makers and perpetrators could be jolted into wakefulness. Have they forgotten what it is to be a child? That what should be a blessed and carefree time of life, once passed in cellars and behind bars, can never come again? How can the slaughter of innocents by warring adults be justified, or for that matter the deprivation of liberty for the duration of a child's most precious time of growing and rejoicing in discovering the world - in the name of religion, or regime change, or border control, or anything else? Hasn't Australia learned its lesson about stolen childhoods? Why do we as a people have to bear the stigma of more stolen and irredeemable childhoods on our conscience? In the name of what, or who? Thank you for this timely reminder. I hope the department of stolen childhoods is listening, but they seem to have been deprived of some essential human qualities themselves, such as compassion and the ability to imagine what it must be like to be one of those children in detention, deprived of liberty for being born in an afflicted place at an inauspicious time.
Jena Woodhouse | 24 February 2015


Is it any wonder that a nation that is comfortable with 75,000 abortions annually is politically split between two parties both of which have scant regard for the welfare of refugee children/
grebo | 25 February 2015


Grebo, while I certainly take your well made point about indifference to the crime of abortion in Australia – even and especially perhaps amongst the self-described “human rights activists” – there is simply no just comparison between what goes on in an abortion and the Abbott government’s treatment of children applying for asylum in Australia. As you are well aware, aborted babies aren’t: fed, clothed, housed, given education, medical facilities, counselling and so on. Quite the opposite. But children in detention are given all the above (as they should be, of course) – as the Commission report acknowledges. What’s more, while the number of children in detention has dropped dramatically: by nine tenths in the short period the Abbott government has been in power, the rate of abortions has not tapered over the years and in fact abortions may now be carried out on full term babies now in Victoria. Finally, the Abbott government’s policies mean that no children have died attempting to come to Australia by boat, as they did only a couple of years back under the “bleeding heart” policies of Rudd and Gillard and the Greens (“Tragedies happen” shrugged Sarah Hanson-Young). From a pro-life (Catholic/natural law) point of view, that’s surely another plus. The reality is that if children in detention were released into the community, their parents in the centres would be too. As a consequence, as recent history attests, the boat attempts would almost certainly immediately escalate, with the attendant deaths of both adults and children – unattended children often forced to be on board so their parents back home could eventually gain entry into Australia (a standard ploy). If you have a concrete solution to the dilemma that doesn't involve the distinct possibility of children dying, you’re welcome to put it forward. It’ll be a first for Eureka Street.
HH | 25 February 2015


HH, Thank you for your considered reply. Several of my friends make the same point to me often and I guess the whole discussion highlights the complexity of this problem.
grebo | 25 February 2015


Thank you Gillian for your Lord Acton piece on the damage to children and particularly in our country, Australia. There are always other abuses such as the mentioned abortion. But include the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the abuse of Power (See Fr Frank Brennan's article on 24/2 and Royal Commission reports)) and for those who watched Q and A on Monday, the effect on Children of Domestic Violence. Where do we stop?
Brian F Kennedy ("Brian Boru") | 25 February 2015


Of course all children should have the right to a childhood without fear, and with access to food and clean water and shelter; and the thought of children in detention is abhorrent; but there is something in what HH is saying, and the children are at least safe, and with their parents; personally I would like to see Australia allow refugees to work in the community while awaiting the results of their application for residence; after all, our intake of asylum seekers is very small compared with that of other countries. On the other hand, we do not want to encourage more people smugglers and leaky boats and loss of life. I don't know what the answer is, but surely we could try harder to find one.
Coral Petkovich | 25 February 2015


Bravo to little Orestes and those who love him so! May his health remain with him. Oh, yes, the fear and despair of the asylum-seeker children AND their parents/seniors - none of whom should be in these prisons built at the behest of politicians of both flavours and funded from our taxpayer dollars - even worse ! There seems to be some disinformation spread in responses here from Hebdo and HH! Re abortion -most of the current LNP front bench are either self-declared Catholic - and therefore opposed officially to abortion - or else other Christian - all of whom seem to have no idea of the Good Samaritan principle of caring for the strangers in our midst. And on the other hand - we don't know the truth of boats turned back - orange coffins floated off into the Indian Ocean or otherwise returned to countries such as Sri Lanka where many have been imprisoned and tortured - probably killed - too! The govt/complicit op. need to hang their collective heads in shame. Thanks Gillian for bringing our attention to the personal - to make these terrors suffered by asylum-seekers more real!
Jim KABLE | 27 February 2015


Bravo, Gillian for drawing attention to the horrors for children and their families in war ravaged Syria. While we in Australia acknowledge, through royal commissions, the psychological and physical abuse on children by religious and state institutions this same abuse is sanctioned by our government in keeping children and their parents in on going detention. [In the UK, children can only be kept in detention centres for 72 hours.] The Human Rights Report draws attention to refugee children's suffering in detention centres in BOTH Labour and Liberal periods of government. How would these politicians feel about their own children or grandchildren being held in these camps? The Australian government should take the initiative with other neighbouring countries to work out a humane way for this world-wide problem of people fleeing their homelands.
Jani | 01 March 2015


It is cruel and inhumane to imprison these children and adults. They have no future to look forward to, and the longer they are incarcerated the more their mental and physical health will decline. Then what will happen to these people who could be productive citizens of Australia.
redpepper | 04 March 2015


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