The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt Australia

On Wednesday, December 15, 2010, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror. Some of the dead were fished out of the rough seas. Others were never found. Estimates suggest that 50 people perished that day.

The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island. Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’.

Yesterday, Tuesday, February 15, 2011, two months to the day, eight of the dead were buried in two separate funerals in Sydney. Twenty-one survivors were flown in from Christmas Island and Perth, where they have been detained for the last two months.

Among those survivors was a nine-year old boy named Seena.

Seena lost both of his parents in the tragedy. Seena’s brother drowned that day as well. His father’s body was fished out of the waters. His mother was never found. Seena spends every day staring and waiting for new boats to arrive, for his mother to arrive. At the funeral, Seena said, “Leave me alone. I just want to go to my father. I just want to see him, I just want to see him.” According to one cousin, he wanted to be “buried with his father”.

Seena is nine years old. He has cousins, aunts and uncles, who live in Sydney. They have begged the State to let the child stay in Sydney, where he has an extended family network, where there are mental health providers ready to attend to him. “We are more than happy to take responsibility for him,” his cousin explains.

They are more than happy to take responsibility.

The State however is not happy to take responsibility for this nine year old child. The State initially planned to ship him back, with the others, back to Christmas Island, back to isolation, back to desolation, back to endless and daily waiting for his mother to arrive. If Seena is returned to Christmas Island, who will take care of him? His aunt, who is also a prisoner there. His aunt, who is in even worse psychological condition than he is.

Tonight, Seena is at Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre, outside of Sydney, … again. Seena spent the day before his father’s funeral in Villawood. When ten relatives came to see him, his spirits lifted. Seena is a nine-year old child. Of course, seeing his relatives cheered him up.

Seena is meant to be flown back to Christmas Island tomorrow, Thursday, morning. Perhaps he has been, perhaps not. The State now says it will consider the family’s request.

What does it take for the nation-State to be happy, more than happy, to take responsibility for the children in its midst?

Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, in part:

“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment….Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”

Australia ratified that ConventIon in December 1990, twenty years almost to the day of Seena losing his family and being sent to Christmas Island. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history. If there is anything like a global consensus, it is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And yet … protecting, securing and sustaining the rights of the child and the rights of children is viewed as a bureaucratic obligation. Which nation-State is more than happy to take responsibility for the child?

Seena is nine years old. Seenah haunts Australia. The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt the world.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa.