This year International Migrants Day (18 December) has called for children to be released from detention. It is appropriate that an event held in the shadow of Christmas should advocate for children. For they lie at the heart of Christmas.
The Christmas story relates the birth of a baby insignificant enough to be born in a paddock. It evokes the tenderness, wonder and hope that touches us in the birth of a child. It is a story of gift and of love.
The celebration of Christmas is often focused on recreating for little children the sense of wonder and gift, sometimes done awkwardly through the arrival of Santa.
And more movingly in refugee camps where children are wide-eyed in a bamboo church turned universe of stars and angels, made from blue plastic, blue bottle tops and silver foil from packets of chips; or in barrios where parents go hungry to provide treats for their children.
The insistence in the Gospel stories on the obligation to respect and nurture children is not exclusive to Christians. It is echoed in the attention to children and concern for their growth into responsible adults shared by other religions and cultures. Neglect and wanton cruelty to children and neglect are commonly seen as inexcusable.
This Christmas the children in public view are those held in detention on Nauru and in immigration detention centres, and those involved in carjacking, armed robbery and affray. The focus on child crime has been contemporaneous with, and perhaps influenced by, drive by shootings and other public violence by adult criminals.
When set against the invitation of Christmas to look children compassionately in the eye, the practice of detaining innocent children cannot but seem repugnant. It is the mark of an indecent society.
In detention children lose their natural trust and confidence, their growth stunted by anxious introspection. Their lives are blighted by their parents' humiliation and mental illness. When they are so punished in order to send messages, their detention can only be described as obscene.
"The response to children who commit crimes must be thought through. The enemy of reason is passion, often inflamed by the media, which sees the offending children as monsters who must be locked up."
The anxiety about youth crime that has gripped Victoria is more complex. That is because all the people affected by the crime must be seen as human beings, not as criminals or victims. The elderly people shaken by a bashing and carjacking matter, as do their children and friends whose secure world has been made precarious. The 15 year old children, affected by ice, who bashed them and stole their car matter, too. And all those in a society, which relies on the trust that people will be safe and that the rule of law will be effective, also matter.
Because of this complexity the response to children who commit crimes must be thought through. The enemy of reason is passion, often inflamed by the media, which sees the offending children as monsters who must be locked up and treated harshly in prison with no help to enter society again after their release.
A reasoned response requires us to study the extent of the criminal activity, the background of the child offenders which may have contributed to their actions, to discourage and apprehend the perpetrators, and to deal with them in a way that will contribute to the safety of society and help them integrate with society and make a contribution to it.
In the current situation many of the crimes have been committed by relatively few young people, some of whom are of African origin. It can be presumed that the perpetrators come from relatively few disadvantaged geographical regions. This should make effective policing easier, and also to identify the steps to be taken to deal with the social factors that contribute to their offending.
What is not helpful is to treat children as responsible adults, regard imprisonment as anything but a last resort, impose fixed sentences and limit parole, and exaggerate the extent of the criminal behaviour, or to regard the behaviour as exclusively or predominantly a police matter to be solved by expanding the number of police available. This approach will simply harden children's attitudes, make them less likely to connect with society and eventually fill adult jails.
A reasoned approach will mean looking at the places where they grow, the disadvantage which has afflicted many of these children, establishing long-term programs to work with parents who are disadvantaged and helping children to make connections with society through education, social activities and access to community health services. It means working intensively with the young people who need to be placed in care in order to protect society to help them integrate in society.
Children are our future and the face of our society. A decent society will never give up on them nor regard them as dispensable.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
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14 December 2016
All the children and adults on both Australia's off-shore 'hell-holes' should be brought to Australia asap and settled here. All Australian States and Territories should review their 'correctional' centres too and make sure that both children and adults are treated humanely, with every effort made to equip them so that they are not likely to offend again. The true worth of any society can be measured by how well it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and how welcoming it is to those fleeing persecution. We need to heal our national psyche, badly damaged by the actions of politicians from both sides of politics. This won't happen while voters support political parties that keep trying to wedge one another on the grossly over-played 'border protection' issue. The end doesn't justify the means. There is no moral justification for keeping desperate asylum seekers, including children, indefinitely is a 'concentration camp' in order to win favour with a section of the populace who are either uninformed on what is really happening in their name or are so hard-hearted that they don't care. I can't see how any decent Australian could be proud to be an Australian at this time in our history.
14 December 2016
The Australian polity lost their reason back in 1992 when they started the practice of locking up refugees fleeing Cambodia's evil regime and we have become worse as each year goes by.
15 December 2016
The rights of all children are important. While much time is (rightly) devoted to migrant and asylum seeker children, there are many other children trapped in abusive 'homes' because of Family Law decisions awarding custody and/or unsupervised visits to parents (often fathers sad to say) who are known to have abused their children. What protection do these kids have? Who speaks out for them? www.justiceforchildrenaustralia.org
15 December 2016
There can be little doubt, Fr Andrew, that both children in detention and children running rampant on crime sprees, drug fuelled or not, represent perhaps the greatest sadness of our godless age. There is little doubt that environment contributes massively to their plight and that environment is provided in the main by the children's parents. Children in detention are confined with their parents who had obviously taken what they believe to be actions in the children's best interests. For those untrammelled by the despair of detention, however, it is the parents who must be taken to task for their failures. Your writings, Father, take origin in belief and faith in the Christ Child whose birth we "celebrate" at Christmas.. Child criminal activity is spawned by lack of same which places them in a very different category from children in detention who often find themselves detained with their parents because of belief and faith. We need two very different approaches to deal with the problems. Putting Christ back into Christmas wouldn't be a bad place to start in this erstwhile Christian society. When we decided to replace the divine with the human we also replaced virtue with the profane. God's blessing to you on his birthday.
16 December 2016
On the 20th four families with babies will be forced back to life in the mouldy tents on Nauru. Could you please support this petition? https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/don-t-force-refugee-families-back-into-tents-on-nauru
16 December 2016
Thank you, Andrew, for expressing so clearly and strongly what is thought and felt by very many of us. The puzzle for me is how our political leaders can turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight of these children and their families while at the same time professing to be Christian
23 December 2016
Jesus would, I think, if he had understood English, have approved of this article.