In the season when nativity play audiences in schools across Christendom are charmed by subversive innkeepers veering off-script to tell Joseph and Mary there is room at the inn after all, a recently elected Australian MP hoped Australia might do the same. On Dec 3rd Kerryn Phelps introduced a private members ‘Migration Amendment’ bill for discussion, aimed at bringing the children and sick adults detained on Nauru to Australia. Dozens of children have been detained there, some for years. Some were born there. 52 remained in late October, with around 1200 adults. There are now almost certainly fewer, the government won’t say, but there should be none.
Australia intercepts all who attempt “illegal maritime arrival’ (although it is not illegal to seek asylum), insisting they will never be allowed on Australian soil, marooning most on Nauru, an 8km2 barren island with near-total unemployment and its own mental health crisis. The UN says “bureaucrats and politicians” are ignoring doctors and putting lives at risk, and changing the policy is a matter of “basic human treatment and decency.” Human Rights groups around the world, have condemned Australia’s behaviour. Now Médecins Sans Frontières have published a report on the state the detained children are in, painting a terrifying picture of their mental health, and suggesting their condition is typical of that of torture victims.
MSF started providing healthcare on Nauru in November 2017, but on 5 October the Nauruan government inexplicably gave them 24 hours to shut down. Their report on those 11 months asks Nauru to fund decent psychiatric care for its own population, and goes on to describe widespread suicidal thoughts and attempts and serious self-harm resistant to treatment in the detained adults and children. They describe children with resignation syndrome, an incredibly rare, life-threatening psychiatric condition caused by loss of hope, leaving sufferers semi-comatose, unable to eat or drink, effectively catatonic with despair. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre say that at least 30 detained children have the condition. Louise Newman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, describes suicidal behaviour in detained children as young as eight. Dr Barri Phatarfod from Doctors 4 Refugees says it’s no surprise, as they witness suicide attempts almost daily, and experience physical and sexual abuse: children as young as three show sexualised behaviour. All this is despite most detainees having refugee status, making them Australia’s responsibility under international law, and despite polls suggesting that most Australians want the children brought ashore.
Sadly, despite the Senate supporting for Dr Phelps’ Bill the government, working to please its right-wing support base, shut down the House of Representatives early for Christmas to prevent a vote, with PM Scott Morrison vowing opposition saying, “I’ll fight them using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me.” Parliament won’t reopen till February, so the desperate children remain stuck, unless Mr Morrison finds himself in one of those Nativity plays where a child with a view of how things ought to be sees the dreadful error in what he’s been told to do, and changes history.