Two related events in the past 48 hours have done more to lower my opinion of prominent politicians and galvanise my support for public policy reform than anything else in 2011.
The first was the federal opposition’s response to a decision by the immigration department to fly grieving asylum seekers to funerals in Sydney yesterday for eight of those killed when the asylum seeker vessel SIEV 221 crashed on rocks and broke apart off Christmas Island in December last year.
The government flew 22 family members at public expense by charter jet from Christmas Island to attend the services. I understand that 21 were returned to the island in the early hours of this morning, and one was flown to Perth.
Commenting on the decision to pay for the flights, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said it seemed “a bit unusual that the Government is flying people to funerals”; shadow immigration spokesman Scott Morrison claimed it was unreasonable for Australian taxpayers to foot the travel bill and the funerals should have been held on Christmas Island; and Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce told ABC radio that the price of compassion was “not limitless.”
The comments were as disgraceful as the political opportunism that prompted them. Admittedly, the following day, Mr Abbott acknowledged that “perhaps we went a little bit too far,” and Mr Morrison made an apology of sorts, saying the timing of his comments was “insensitive” and “inappropriate.” But he remained unrepentant about the comments themselves.
What Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison should have done was issue an unqualified apology for their ill-timed and offensive remarks, and affirm that the need for compassion in time of grief and loss outweighed the gains to be made from political point scoring.
There is, of course, more to the story than merely the cost of compassion. There is the irrational fear of Muslim fundamentalists taking over the leafy streets and privileged lifestyle of citizens in electorates such as Mr Morrison’s in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, as Annabel Crabb wonderfully pointed out on The Drum today.
The second event relates to one of the passengers on that charter flight from Christmas Island to Sydney, a nine-year-old Iranian boy named Seena orphaned when his parents drowned on the boat that sank at Christmas Island last December. Seena was one of 42 survivors. His father was buried in Sydney yesterday. His mother’s body has never been recovered.
There were hopes that Seena, an only child, would be placed with relatives in immigration detention in Sydney, or in the community. This seems warranted due to his age, his status as an orphan, and the fact that he has not responded favourably to life in detention since being plucked from the churning surf two months ago.
But immigration officials instead returned him to Christmas Island last night, despite an offer from relatives in Sydney to care for him and warnings from mental health experts that going back will intensify the psychological harm already done.
The boy told relatives yesterday that he feared returning to the scene of the tragedy that claimed both his parents. Locals say they fear he will resume a daily ritual of staring blankly and waiting at the gate for new boat arrivals, in the hope that his mother will be among them.
According to newspaper reports, child psychiatrist Louise Newman, who heads the government’s detention health advisory group, has described the decision to return the boy to Christmas Island as ‘‘bizarre, unnecessary and very damaging’’.
”It beggars belief that a nine-year-old orphan would be … sent back to remote incarceration,” said David Manne, executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre. Sydney barrister Stephen Blanks claims that the return of Seena to the offshore detention facility constitutes a breach of Australia’s obligations under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.
Asked about the status of the child, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told ABC radio today that his department had “a few more checks to make” and that Seena would be placed in community care soon. The Gillard government promised in October 2010 that it would move to release children and families from detention, and refugee advocates say the policy should already have been applied to those who lost loved ones in the December 2010 tragedy.
I suppose the immigration department has an obligation to follow its protocols, and the government must stand by its detention policy. But the minister has the power to overrule both, and this is where you and I can help.
Take a minute to sign the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre petition asking the Minister for Immigration (who is Seena’s legal guardian) to act in his best interests and release him immediately from detention into the care of his family. The target is 10,000 signatures, and currently there are just over 2000.
“How could anyone support the return of a young child to detention who has lost almost everything that he knows and loves? How is this happening?” wrote Sophie Chisholm, the 1119th signatory to petition earlier today.
How indeed. Detention is no place for a child. Please sign the petition.
And as you do, remember the plight of the other 329 children in immigration detention on Christmas Island, and the 715 children in detention on the mainland, out of a total of 6775 people in immigration detention as at 21 January 2011.
What is happening in Australian immigration detention centres every day is unjust and must end. I can only hope that the human face of nine-year-old Seena will prompt more Australians to reflect on their values and their culpable passivity to human rights abuse, and resolve to do whatever it takes to reverse the draconian policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.