“The Island of Despair”


“When a child expresses that want to kill themselves in that environment, we believe them.”  (Gabby Sutherland, Former Specialist teacher on Nauru Island)

If it came to my attention that there were children in my local community who were self-harming, being locked-up, being denied access to clean drinking water and sanitation, would I speak up? Would it not be unethical and iniquitous of me to remain silent?

I don’t know all that is happening in Nauru and Manus Island. We hear conflicting reports, but it is difficult to ignore two recent published reports, one by the United Nations and the other by Amnesty International. It is also difficult to ignore the stories that were shared last night on Four Corners by former teaching staff on Nauru, and by children themselves, whose words had to be recorded in secret.

In today’s The Age, I read,

“Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director of research who travelled to Nauru, said the report provided direct evidence of Australia’s responsibility for day-to-day decision-making, and that Australia should be held accountable for breaching the Convention Against Torture – with a remote possibility that individual government officials could be prosecuted under international law.

“It’s the intentional nature of it,” she told Fairfax Media. “The Australian government is not even hiding the fact that the key purpose of this policy is deterrence. When you set up a system that inflicts deliberate harm as a deterrence, it’s really hard to find another name for it other than torture.”

Dr Neistat, a 15-year veteran of crisis work in Syria, Yemen and Chechnya, said the Nauruan regime was particularly galling because people’s suffering was “absolutely unnecessary” and shrouded in “shocking” secrecy. “I was not prepared for what I saw, and definitely not prepared for what I heard,” she said.

Torture is a loaded word and one not to be used lightly,  sadly the growing mountain of evidence suggests there is warrant for its usage in the case of our nation’s policies towards asylum seekers.

Off shore detention was introduced by the Howard Government in 2001, and has been continued by Labor and Coalition Governments since. According to the report released yesterday by Amnesty International, there are currently there are 1,159 asylum-seekers and refugees on Nauru: 410 people reside in the Refugee Processing Centre; 749 refugees live outside of the centre. Among this number are many children who have been in detention for over 3 years.

I’m not going to pretend that I have a detailed knowledge of what is transpiring in these detention centres, and I’m not going to naively suggest I have the answers. But one thing is clear to me, we have principles given by God as to how we ought to consider the refugee, and we would do well to use these as as a starting point for framing reasonable and humanitarian policies.

I realise most Australians are quick to ditch the Bible, especially the Old Testament for in it they perceive a God who is vindictive and harsh. Yes, there are hard words spoken in the Old Testament, and also in the New Testament. The fact is, some of the most difficult words ever spoken came from the lips of Jesus Christ. Instead of shunning these words, perhaps we Aussies ought to listen to them because clearly our hearts are calloused toward many of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In the Old Testament we read,

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing”. (Deuteronomy 10:18)

In the New Testament we read,

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

If God is concerned for the world’s refugees and we are not, what does that say about us?

As Australia’s off-shore policies were developed, were there genuine concerns about people smugglers and the safety of refugees fleeing onboard unseaworthy boats? Yes.

Is there also an inherent selfishness among Australians, not wanting to share our plenty with those who have lost their homeland? Yes.

Is there a stain of racism that makes Australians apathetic towards refugees? Yes.

The first issue cannot be ignored and finding a fair solution is not without complication. But it seems to me as though there is an core problem with the way Australians look at the world. We live and work and care when we find net value for ourselves, but the notion of loving our neighbour as ourselves is being lost, and polluted by rampant individualism and self service. Maybe you may think I’m sounding just a little cynical, but is not the evidence before us?

Perhaps it is pride that’s preventing our Government from changing its policies toward asylum seekers. I don’t know the answer to that, although it seems plausible, and alternative explanations are far less laudable. Political pride is ugly, but we can no more blame our Parliamentary representatives than ourselves, for they are a reflection of Australia, and of the values and ambitions we cherish.

We did not create the conditions that led to so many people seeking refuge in our country, but we can be part of the answer and give these human beings hope and a safe place to live. Are we not the most prosperous and liveable nations on earth? Do we not have more to share than most other countries can even imagine? Are we not able to sacrifice a little for thousands who have lost so much?

Reports of poor conditions, deteriorating mental health among children, and abuses by detention officers are not new, but today we will be damning our consciences if we close eyes and hearts to these latest reports.

Would we ever intentionally put our own children in an unsafe environment, or permit the Government to do so? And should we be made aware that this is so, would we not get them out of there straight away? Is this not common sense, let alone the caring thing to do?