‘Most of the refugees I spoke to on Manus had been drained of hope. They have a heaviness of spirit about them. Their struggle is existential: they are told that Australian public opinion is against them, detained, ignored, sent the message that they are somehow outside the scope of ordinary human kindness’ Tim Costello
I listened to a recording a few weeks ago, a deeply painful recording of sobbing obtained by activist Ginger Thompson.
It is the sound of Central American children separated from their parents and detained in a US Customs and Border Protection facility in Texas.
As Thompson writes: “It is excruciating listening. Many of the children sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe.”
In recent months the world has watched two very different stories about children.
In one, children fleeing danger in Central America became trapped and exposed to more violence in Mexico due to the ever tighter and more callous United States border control policies.
Medicines Sans Frontières documented this: “The violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador continued to force thousands of people to head north in search of refuge, even as the Trump administration was separating children, tiny little children, from their parents at the border.”
The second story gave us 12 boys and their ‘brave heart’ young coach, trapped for days in darkness. We saw glimpses of them and imagined them waiting underground as the waters rose. Finally we celebrated as an international rescue effort was successfully achieved.
In both these stories the eyes of the world were watching, and because we watched we were moved to action.
Even President Donald Trump eventually capitulated to enormous political pressure and signed an executive order meant to end the separation of families at the US border.
This did not just happen.
Clergy across America, international media, and grandmothers on the streets, politicians and everyday folk demanded this horror stop. And so it did.
More than 2000 kids remain in privately owned foster care businesses and there is still profound trauma for all those who were separated, but the separations have stopped.
They stopped because good people from within and without America said to Trump and his regime ‘Enough’.
Why is the same not being said to Peter Dutton and the Australian government?
Perhaps it is because we cannot see the children on Nauru and because it has been going on for so long that we have given up hope.
Unlike in the recording made by Ginger Thompson, we cannot hear the voices of the children as well as those who grew out of their childhood while still incarcerated on Manus.
And because we cannot hear them (or see them thanks to a complete media blackout) our government can hope that we will forget that they are even there.
The theologian David Lose writes: “The problem with the disciples is not that they were fearful; it was that they were paralysed by their fear and it is not that they didn’t have enough faith, it was that they didn’t have any faith’…any faith that together, with each other, with Jesus and with the holy, hopeful spirit that they could sort out this paralysing moment together….”
Could the same be said for us?
For all of us in Australia who have stood in dumbstruck horror at what is happening to those most vulnerable?
Being done in our name and on our watch?
Moral/social psychologist Dan Crimston writes of the contrast between the outpouring of concern for the Thai boys and the children on the American border and our apparent indifference to the more than 200 children held in detention on Nauru and on the Australian mainland.
He reflects that this might be because “We simply aren’t permitted to view the plight of child refugees, and so we’re much less likely to experience an empathic response if we can’t see them.”
Groups like Grandmothers Against Children in Detention, Love Makes A Way and many others in the Refugee Action Collective continue to fight as they attempt to shine a light on this dark stain on our national soul.
However, it will take more than a passionate minority to end this injustice and to set these children free.
Do we have enough moral imagination that we can continue to fight for justice for our asylum seekers even though we can’t see their faces or hear their cries?
Rev Alex Sangster is the minister at Fairfield Uniting Church in Melbourne.