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Nauru children: Why did we wait so long?

  • 03 November 2018


The government's assurance that it will move most of the remaining refugee children from Nauru by the end of the year is welcome. It came after doctors, nurses, judges, Wentworth voters and Coalition backbenchers had responded publicly to the evidence of acute mental health issues among children on the island.

The policy of preventing the children of people seeking asylum from coming to Australia is increasingly seen by ordinary Australians as cruel. It is no longer an electoral asset but a potential liability.

The decision is particularly welcome as Christmas approaches. Australian Christmas focuses on children. Children count down the days till it comes, and families try to make it a magic time when children feel loved and can return love through gifts. It is an appropriate time to free refugee children from hopelessness.

Christmas, and particularly the first Christmas, also raises broader questions about Australian refugee policy. It makes us ask why adults are left to languish on Manus Island, Nauru and in Australian detention centres. They, too, were children once. It also makes us ask why the government had so strongly resisted transferring to Australia children so clearly at risk.

To distant observers the hesitation and delay are hard to understand. They ask how it is possible to look on idle and unmoved at children in despair when you are in a position to address the causes of their despair. Their question can be heard as a reproach, but it is better understood as asked out of curiosity. What is it that enables us to pass by damaged children, untroubled?

The answer may lie in the quality of our moral imagination. What do we see in our mind's eye as we consider the children on Nauru? It is possible to see them abstractly as members of a class — asylum seekers, illegal immigrants or security threats — and not as unique persons, each with their own dignity and inner life.

If we see them in this way, we shall more easily approve of treating them instrumentally. We set them in a chess game in which as pawns they may be sacrificed in order to save the queen. The suffering to which we have condemned children on Nauru is then seen as unfortunate but also as necessary to deter other people from coming to Australia and so to preserve the integrity of our immigration policy. We might even pride ourselves that we have had the