Why we should be thinking of refugee children this International Migrants Day

By Andrew Hamilton SJ

18 December 2016


This year international migrant’s day, held on December 18, has called for children to be released from detention. It is appropriate that an event held in the shadow of Christmas should advocate for children. For they lie at the heart of Christmas.

The Christmas story relates the birth of a baby insignificant enough to be born in a paddock. It evokes the tenderness, wonder and hope that touches us in the birth of a child.  It is a story of gift and of love. The celebration of Christmas is often focused on recreating for little children the sense of wonder and gift, sometimes done awkwardly through the arrival of Santa Claus. And more movingly in refugee camps where children are wide-eyed in a bamboo church become a universe of stars and angels made from blue plastic, blue bottle tops and silver foil from packets of chips, or in barrios where parents go hungry to provide unexpected treats for their children.

The insistence in the Gospel stories on the obligation to respect and nurture children is not exclusive to Christians. It is echoed in the attention to children and concern for their growth into responsible adults shared by other religions and cultures. Neglect and wanton cruelty to children and neglect are commonly seen as inexcusable.

This Christmas time the children in public view are those held in detention on Nauru and in immigration detention centres, and those involved in carjacking, armed robbery and affray. The focus on child crime has been contemporaneous with, and perhaps influenced by, drive by shootings and other public violence by adult criminals.

When set against the invitation of Christmas to look children compassionately in the eye, the practice of detaining innocent children cannot but seem repugnant. It is the mark of an indecent society. In detention children lose their natural trust and confidence, their growth stunted by anxious introspection. Their lives are blighted by their parents’ humiliation and mental illness. When they are so punished in order to send messages, their detention can only be described as obscene.

The anxiety about youth crime that has gripped Victoria is more complex. That is because all the people affected by the crime and must be seen as human beings, not as criminals or victims. The elderly people shaken by a bashing and carjacking matter, as do their children and friends whose secure world has been made precarious. The fifteen year old children, affected by ice, who bashed them and stole their car matter, too.  And all those in a society, which relies on the trust that people will be safe and that the rule of law will be effective, also matter.

Because of this complexity the response to children who commit crimes must be thought through.  The enemy of reason is passion, often inflamed by the media, which sees the offending children as monsters who must be locked up and treated harshly in prison with no help to enter society again after their release.

A reasoned response requires us to study the extent of the criminal activity, the background of the child offenders which may have contributed to their actions, to discourage and apprehend the perpetrators, and to deal with them in a way that will contribute to the safety of society and help them integrate with society and make a contribution to it.

In the current situation many of the crimes have been committed by relatively few young people, some of whom are of African origin. It can be presumed that the perpetrators come from relatively few disadvantaged geographical regions. This should make effective policing easier, and also to identify the steps to be taken to deal with the social factors that contribute to their offending.

What is not helpful is to treat children as responsible adults, regard imprisonment as anything but a last resort, impose fixed sentences and limit parole, and exaggerate the extent of the criminal behaviour, or to regard the behaviour as exclusively or predominantly a police matter to be solved by expanding the number of police available.  This approach will simply harden children’s attitudes, make them less likely to connect with society and eventually fill adult jails.

A reasoned approach will mean looking at the places where they grow, the disadvantage which has afflicted many of these children, establishing long-term programs to work with parents who are disadvantaged and helping children to make connections with society through education, social activities and access to community health services.  It means working intensively with the young people who need to be placed in care in order to protect society to help them integrate in society.

Children are our future and the face of our society.  A decent society will never give up on them nor regard them as dispensable.


This piece was produced as part of the Talk Migrants Rights campaign. Read more here.