Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Christmas blighted by child detention obscenity

  • 14 December 2016


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