That means there are children of school age who have known no other life but the precarious and uncertain fate of being marooned on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.
It’s also five years since I joined Save the Children Australia as CEO. This role brought alive to me the devastating human consequences of Australia’s tough approach to border protection.
As an organisation which strives to uphold the rights of children around the world, it is distressing to see such a violation of children’s rights on our doorstep.
The world has rightly been outraged at the treatment of migrant children in the United States. The images of distraught children separated from their parents and locked in cages has brought home the reality of government policies.
Through the relentless advocacy of organisations like Save the Children and a great many others, we have made some progress. Through the US resettlement deal, some children and their families have found a future in America. Yet too many children on Nauru remain at risk and without hope today.
In my first year as CEO, Save the Children was approached by the Australian Government to provide services to children who were being sent to Nauru.
It was a tough decision.
We saw the Government’s policy as inconsistent with its international obligations and a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that any arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used as ‘a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time’.
On the other hand, these children were among the most vulnerable in the world and an as an organisation, we put the needs of children first and foremost in our decision-making.
For two years, over 300 dedicated staff worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children and their families on Nauru. While there is no doubt that refugee children there were better off because of Save the Children’s presence, at times it felt like we were pushing against an unturnable tide of human suffering.
Children were harmed irreparably by detention. Children were separated from their parents. Children self-harmed as a desperate cry for help.
But arguably the worst consequence for children is the lack of certainty, hopelessness and fear, which is directly linked to their lack of a permanent protection pathway.
I remember on one of my visits to Nauru being introduced to the top male and female student at the Nauru High School – both refugees. I congratulated them for their hard work and encouraged them to continue to study hard.
One of them asked me: why?
Why should he study hard when there was so little chance of being able to go on to higher education?
It was a fair question.
Let me be clear: there are no easy solutions to this wicked ethical problem that pits safety of human lives at sea with our duty to treat other humans who seek our help in a humane way. Globally, the sheer number of people fleeing conflict and persecution is challenging policymakers to offer protection and dignity to a dramatically increased number of people.
But, unfortunately, no matter how successful the policy may be at deterring travel to Australia by boat, it has not been successful at reducing the number of people requiring protection around the world. That number has, in fact, increased to over 68 million.
Missy Higgins is another Australian who has vocalised her support for asylum seekers. Post continues.
And we cannot blind ourselves to the real human consequences of Australia’s policies either.
Right now, there are 124 children who are being harmed as the result of an incomplete policy which, after five long years, has failed to identify permanent solutions for those sent offshore for ‘processing’.
I believe that most Australians are good people. But I don’t understand why more people don’t get upset about this fact.
Unfortunately, we’re once again witnessing this issue being used as a political attack point in the most polarising way. But this is a debate our community needs to have in an informed and respectful way to find a solution where people are treated humanely and deterred from boarding dangerous vessels to cross perilous seas.
For a start, Australia should be working hard with other countries in our region to develop a regional framework to help deal with the enormous numbers of people on the move. Instead, we’ve drastically reduced our foreign aid to record low levels.
I believe Australians have the capacity to navigate this complex issue and find a solution which reflects our values. Because if we give up on debating the merit and cost of these policy settings, we may as well give up on our own humanity.
And we would certainly be giving up on those 124 children who have spent five long years on Nauru.
Paul Ronalds is Save the Children Australia’s CEO.