Our government has relented to bring the children off Nauru after five long years. But while the politicians congratulate themselves on their newfound compassion, we should pause for reflection.
Firstly, this has only occurred because public opinion has finally swung in favour of the children, accelerated by more than 30 human rights organisations’ influential #KidsOffNauru campaign, which set 20 November as a deadline to get all the children and their families off Nauru. Secondly, the government is bringing the children off slowly, without transparency, and some critically ill children need immediate transfer. Thirdly, we now have hundreds of forgotten adults in Nauru and Manus.
Most of the children and their families on Nauru were granted refugee status by the Nauru government for five years. Children attended the local schools. Some loved to learn, although many were bullied. Then their friends started to go to the United States. The families left behind had their visa applications denied or were kept in the dark, even as their friends left. Their parents lost hope and so did the children. Scores of children are suffering from “resignation syndrome”. Children, mostly aged seven to 15, some even younger, have stopped eating, stopped drinking, stopped washing, taken to their beds, are wetting and even soiling the bed, and have turned their faces to the wall. They have lost the will to live.
We know about the sick children left on Nauru only through refugee advocacy groups, lawyers working pro bono, and tireless nurse Alanna Maycock. Alanna organises Australian paediatricians to talk to families on Nauru by video link. We warn the interpreters beforehand, but they weep bitter tears anyway. We hear desperate parents and see tiny, frail children who have scarcely eaten or drunk in weeks, in grave danger of dying. The lawyers often have to go to court to get the children off Nauru. When the families arrive, we begin the slow haul of trying to heal their shattered mental health. No child has died yet, but some have come perilously close. This scenario is still being repeated, even after we were told the children would all come to Australia.
I am a children’s doctor. Doctors are often told to stick to health matters and let others deal with politics. But I also studied ethics. Ethics is how we ought to behave. When bad political ethics lead to bad health, I feel morally obligated to say something about the politics. I know of no moral code which deems it ethical to deprive one group of people of their liberty and punish them brutally merely to deter others from seeking refuge. Both sides of politics have lost their moral compass.
The parable of the Good Samaritan was meant to indicate who was a good neighbour. In the modern Australian version of the parable we do not cross the road to avoid the stranger crying for help, nor do we tend to his wounds. Instead we berate the man for taking a dangerous road: “How could you be so foolish? You might have been killed, like others before you.” To deter other travellers we drag him off to a remote island, lock him up and throw away the key. And he is still there five years later. And his wife and children, too. We Australians like to think of ourselves as compassionate neighbours in a multicultural society; good samaritans. But our politicians have convinced us to let them behave like bad samaritans on our behalf.
By demonising people who exercised their legal right to seek asylum, then attacking their mental health, our politicians have dragged the rest of us down to the moral depths. They should be ashamed of themselves for playing politics with people’s lives. The Australian people have finally said enough is enough for the desperate children on Nauru. But please, don’t forget the hundreds of adults remaining on Nauru and men stuck on Manus. It’s not too late for us to treat people with respect and compassion: to become good samaritans.