Former Australians of the Year have written an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten and the crossbench, calling for the immediate release of those children and families held in detention centres in Australia and Nauru.
Geoffrey Rush, Simon McKeon, Pat McGorry, and Fiona Stanley are among the eight people who have published and signed the letter, saying that the indefinite detention of children is “at odds” with the nation’s commitment to freedom and dignity.
“One hundred and thirty-five children, including babies who were born in Australia, are currently held indefinitely in harsh and unsafe conditions on Nauru,” the letter states.
“Late last year, we were encouraged that the government took the welcome step of announcing the imminent release of child asylum-seekers, scheduled to occur before Christmas. However, we are now concerned that despite this promise, 333 children remain behind wire.
“These children and their parents came to us in desperation, seeking our help. They came to us seeking safety, knowing of Australia’s reputation as a fair, inclusive and just society and knowing we are a people who are never afraid to lend a hand to those in need.”
The prominent Australians warn that the detention of children is not only “inhumane” and “unnecessary”, but it can also lead to significant health and psychological issues which are likely to be long lasting.
Dr. Fiona Stanley, an epidemiologist and noted for her work in health care and research into child and maternal health issues including cerebral palsy, told Fairfax Media: “As both a child-health researcher and advocate, and as a parent and now grandparent, I am anguished about the children that Australia has detained.”
“Even if I was not an Australian of the Year, and just as a citizen committed to social justice, I feel strongly that our policies are breaching international human rights standards and that there are better ways to respond to refugees seeking asylum here,” she said.
Philanthropist and chairman of AMP and CSIRO, Simon McKeon agrees, stating: “I signed the letter not because I think the issue is straightforward, but more because I know we live in a most wonderful part of the world,” he said.
“Going hand-in-hand with that privilege is an obligation to keep wrestling with the issue of caring for the vulnerable and damaged who have lived in troubled places overseas versus appropriate measures to protect our borders.
“And when children become collateral damage in such a debate, it behoves any decent human being to spend a little time thinking about it.”
Currently, the number of children being held offshore in the Pacific Island of Nauru is at 135, increasing from 116 in December 2013.
According to December’s Immigration Department’s statistics, there are a total of 555 children in immigration facilities in Australia.
Professor Stanley says that she hopes the letter, which is co-ordinated through Unicef, will influence politicians to act. She says that Australia’s international reputation as a nation committed to human rights was being degraded by its holding children and families in detention. She also states that Australia’s immigration detention regime for all asylum seekers should be reconsidered from a more humanitarian perspective.
The letter is signed by eight winners of the Australian of the Year Award: Prof Ian Frazer (2006), Prof Peter Doherty (1997), Ian Kiernan (1994), Prof Gustav Nossal (2000), Simon McKeon (2011), Geoffrey Rush (2012), Prof Fiona Stanley (2003), and Prof Pat McGorry (2010).
If you want to make a change and help our children in detention centres to break free, the Australian YCS are currently running their “Break Free: Free the mind – Free the child” campaign. To support the campaign and pledge for the immediate release of children in detention, please like and follow their Facebook page and join a community of young leaders inspiring change and taking action on social injustices.