Last Monday was International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day and many people, including me, lit a flame to mark a loss. It was also the day nearly 6000 Australian doctors sent a letter to the Australian Prime Minister expressing grave concern about children held in detention by Australia on Nauru.
Doctors are trained in scientific method and evidence-based medicine. Because of this, we trust them with our lives. Doctors are fearless in the face of death. They have to be. And nearly 6000 of them have now told us they have grave concerns for children on our watch.
The spokesperson is Paul Bauert, a paediatrician from Darwin. I can imagine him with children, with my own son. I imagine he’d be gentle, confident, jokey and kind in the way paediatricians often are with their child patients. Dr Bauert says it’s a miracle no children have died on Nauru. His colleague, Sydney GP Sara Townend, could not keep from crying when she spoke at a media conference. These doctors, and their nearly 6000 colleagues, could no longer not act. They must tell the truth.
We can wriggle out from under their claim. We can say the children’s parents took a risk so it’s their own fault. We can say it’s not our responsibility anyway and it was more important to stop the people smugglers, to stop the boats and we saved those children drowning at sea. We can tell ourselves these things. We can harden our hearts. Or we can soften, and let this pain in. Neither option will be easy.
I gave my first baby to strangers when I was nineteen, a daughter I named Ruth. It’s one reason I lit a flame last Monday and it’s also probably why I find myself unable to harden my heart on this issue, even if I wanted to. I also know that If my son faced the danger those children on Nauru faced in their home countries, I wouldn’t think twice before I paid money to get on a rickety boat to a place with a big sky and friendly people. That’s all the parents of those children on Nauru did. Instead they have spent five years in detention.
Since the doctors delivered their letter, twenty-seven children have been evacuated from Nauru for medical reasons and the two major political parties in Australia have come closer to agreeing that the families will be allowed to go to New Zealand, a country that has softened its heart and offered. At time of writing, they have stalled for no good reason but Liberal MP Julia Banks and newly-elected Independent Kerryn Phelps are doing their best.
Yesterday former Home Affairs official Shaun Hanns, who’d resigned because he couldn’t stand what was happening anymore, wrote to all Federal MPs about the reality that Nauru and Manus Island are not what’s stopping the boats. He says the current policy is not only tragic, it is also meaningless. He says he is convinced further deaths are likely.
There have been times in our history when our political leaders have led our frightened country on this issue without popular or even party support. Malcolm Fraser led when he looked at our big sky and let refugees in from Vietnam. Bob Hawke led when in tears he said Chinese students could stay under our sky after Tiananmen Square, without even consulting his Cabinet. Leadership at the moment is the job left to a small group of Members of Parliament, mostly women, who are saying we must act.
Martin Luther King told us the arc of the moral universe is long but it moves towards justice. Surely, we will bring the children from Nauru with their families. Surely we will give them our care. Surely there’s room for them under our big sky.