Suffer the little children

2_PennyBy Penny Mulvey

I sat in County Court 3 level 3 for several days in August listening to victims and leaders and officials of the Catholic Church give evidence before three of the five commissioners appointed by the Federal Government to investigate institutional child sexual abuse.

The hearing in Melbourne, the first in Victoria, is the 16th such hearing to which the Commissioners have given their total attention. Between them, the five commissioners have also heard more than 2000 individual stories of abuse, and Commission staff have received more than 15,000 phone calls.

Why is this happening? Because religious, community and government institutions, entrusted with the care of innocent and powerless children have, over the past 60 plus years, abused that trust. The Royal Commission is forensically exposing these horrors and looking for legislative, educative and administrative measures which will protect children into the future.

Why is our nation not similarly appalled by the treatment of equally innocent and powerless children who have sought refuge on our shores, only to be incarcerated in offshore detention centres?

Speaking at the Australian Human Rights Commission’s enquiry into children in detention in Canberra last month, a member of the Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention acknowledged that children lose their childhood when they enter detention.

Professor Nicholas Proctor said delays in processing asylum claims were taking a toll and were “directly related to mental deterioration and distress”.

A small book, consisting of a series of essays by asylum seeker advocates titled The Drownings’ Argument, seeks to help people understand that the government’s logic for placing all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore detention as a deterrent to people smugglers, is fallacious.

One of the authors, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce’s Misha Coleman, writes “A budget reflects a community’s core values, its attitude to its poorest citizens and whether it is truly interested in justice…Spending large amounts of money to punish, and thus degrade the human rights and dignity of people protected by international law is particularly revelatory and destructive.”

Attendees at the Justice and International Mission unit’s recent convention were told repeatedly that politicians are not hearing from their constituents on this matter. A politician’s job is to represent their electorate. If the electorate is writing to them to express horror about our treatment of asylum seeker children – then they can advocate. But with few letters, there is not much for them to say.

If we do not act to stop this gross violation of the human rights of children we might find ourselves being called to account before another Royal Commission or maybe even to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. As we express outrage and horror about the treatment of children in other parts of the world, we also need to look at our own backyard. Write that letter now.

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