“Protecting the Lonely Children” is the title of the Final Report of the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force released in July. The report contains recommendations to the Australian Government and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with respect to unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia.
The Chair of the Task Force is the Very Rev. Peter Catt, Dean of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. In the opening words of the report, Dr Catt states “Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable in our society and throughout the world; they have been forced, separated or orphaned from their families through reasons of violence, fear and persecution.”
Dr Catt goes on to say that many Australians would not be aware of their predicament because as they have no-one to advocate for their needs, their stories are rarely heard. The report paints a sad picture of the plight of these children. In the worst case some children have been forced back to the homelands from where they have fled persecution, before they had the chance to tell their story and have their claim for asylum justly processed.
Some of these children have been sent to detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island where they live in limbo – an existence that threatens “great and lifelong harm to their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing”. These children have been given only temporary respite and safety. Yet they are not accepted here and returning them home could possible mean torture and death.
Dr Catt quotes the Australian Catholic Bishops who stated recently that current asylum seeker policy “…has about it a cruelty that does no honour to our nation”. The Australian Anglican Primate, Dr Phillip Aspinall said “Putting children behind razor wire is never a loving response to people in need. That breaks people’s hearts… There has got to be a better way for us to deal with these issues”.
The recommendations contained in the report seek to show that “better way”. The Task force has synthesized the issues into six problem areas and suggests solutions for each of these. Dr Catt is quick to agree that the Taskforce is not the first to express these concerns and to make such recommendations. The Task Force have joined a long line of academic institutions, Australian medical colleges, law societies, child welfare groups and others who have called repeatedly for such changes – sadly with little or no response from our Federal Government.
The first problem identified in the report in the untenable position of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection who is both the legal guardian for unaccompanied children and also their judge and jailor. The report calls for the immediate replacement of the Minister as legal guardian and the appointment of an independent guardian who is not beholden to the Minister or his Department.
The second problem identified is that the Australian Government has failed to provide institutional child protection and welfare which has caused individual and generational damage. The Taskforce demands that the Government stop treating unaccompanied children like unwanted cargo and instead uphold the children’s best interests.
The full report makes compelling reading and needs to be read widely. Sadly so far our Government have given little indication that they are taking the report and its recommendations seriously. I will leave the last word to Rev. Prof Andrew Dutney, the President of the Uniting Church in Australia who, when reflecting on our treatment of these children stated:
“Somehow it has come to suit us to treat this particular group of vulnerable ‘others’ as we would never want to be treated ourselves. That’s what the opinion polls seem to say. And that is deeply disturbing. Measured against the Golden Rule, it points to a neglected, enfeebled, imperilled Australian soul”.