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Let the children walk in these shoes

Frank Brennan SJ AO

Sydney Town Hall Rally
10 June 2004

The 162 pairs of shoes remind us why we are here to walk the talk. We are here for the children who cannot be with us, because they are behind the razor wire. These empty shoes force all of us to ask two questions:

  • Why would you want to put children behind razor wire?
  • Why would you want to break up families, separating children from their parents?

Most Australians would agree: You should only detain children or separate them from their parents if there is a very good reason.

What is that reason? Post September 11, there may be good reason for detaining even a child who arrives on our shores without documentation but only for the briefest of times while we determine who they are and while we determine that they are not a health risk or a security risk.

But once we have decided those things, why would we keep asylum seekers in detention? Why would we keep children behind razor wire? Why would we separate children from their parents? We deserve an answer. We demand an answer. Alas there is no answer other than bureaucratic convenience and government's desire for popularity.

Mr Ruddock used to tell us this detention was not punishment or deterrence. So why do we do it? Amanda Vanstone tells us that she does not want these people living in the community, able to father children to Australian citizens. That is no reason keep a child in detention. Amanda Vanstone tells us that people in detention send the right message on their mobile phones to family and friends, "Don't come to Australia". But isn't that deterrence? Hasn't the High Court said you cannot do that? Hasn't Mr Ruddock told us that is not the reason? The government says the detention helps with the processing of refugee claims. But it doesn't. It hinders good decision making. The government's own statistics show this.

If the government cannot give us a good reason for detaining the children, 92% of whom have been proved to be refugees, why don't we release them and all other asylum seekers into the community while their claims are processed? If someone is a flight risk, then why shouldn't government be required to take them before a court before detaining them further?

It is not good enough for government simply to allow the release of the Bakhtyari children while leaving other children behind the razor wire because they are out of sight and out of mind. Just last Thursday I embraced one weeping father in the Baxter detention centre who cried, "We are so tired, just so tired. Why do my children have to spend years here in detention while the Bakhtyari children walk free?" It is not good enough for the government simply to allow Mr Bakhtyari to leave Baxter on visits to see his wife and children in Adelaide while other fathers and husbands are left stranded in Baxter. Of course the Bakhtyari family should walk free and be reunited here in the Australian community. If they are eventually proved not to be refugees they should be forced back home (wherever that may be) only if it is safe and decent to return them. It should be the same for all asylum seeking families.

Detention centres are no place for kids to spend years of their lives. Brief detention on arrival or prior to departure may be justified. But in the meantime, the children should be permitted to walk in their shoes on our land accompanied by their Mums and Dads while their asylum claims are processed decently and quickly. As the bells toll, let's ask ourselves how we have allowed this to happen on our watch. We may be more afraid but we have no grounds to be afraid of these children and their families. And we have no right to take out our fear on them. All they have done is seek asylum, as we would if we were in their shoes. Let them walk free.

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