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Call to close centre as institutionalisation destroys child-parent ties on Nauru

Call to action: Demonstrators at a rally at the steps of the State Library in Melbourne last Saturday. Crowds supporting refugees have rallied in the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs to pressure federal politicians to bring refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea to Australia. Photo: AAP

WHILE federal parliament debates a policy proposal to allow for asylum seekers on Nauru to resettle in New Zealand, families stuck in the detention centre continue to fracture from a lack of parental attachment.

Psychologist and traumatologist Paul Stevenson, a Brisbane Catholic who spoke with The Catholic Leader in 2016 after he lost his contract working on Nauru for revealing the detention centre’s horrible conditions, said people couldn’t turn a blind eye anymore.

“I saw very serious attachment disorders where parents could not connect with their children because of fear the children might die or they themselves might die, or they might be diseased, or that their children would be taken away from them,” Mr Stevenson said.

“Within the camp, which is surrounded by scrim fences, the children often were allowed to just run feral and parents could have no control.

“If they exercised any discipline they would, of course, be punished for that by the guards and by the authorities within the camp.

“What we found was a chronic lack of attachment between parents and children.”

Mr Stevenson said the children would often seek out surrogate parents like from the Salvation Army when Manus Island had children, or from Save the Children association or other staff. He said this attachment disorder was caused by chronic demoralisation, chronic institutionalisation and chronic lack of control.

Though pressure from advocacy groups on politicians has grown since Mr Stevenson spoke out about the issue, it was difficult for conditions to improve on the island. The hot, arid conditions were worsened by a lack of drinking water and reliance on diesel generators for power, which often failed.

Mr Stevenson referenced Professor David Isaacs’ comments on the topic.

“(Professor Isaacs) said it will probably take a child to die for politicians to stop reacting to politics and start thinking about people,” Mr Stevenson said.

Mr Stevenson also called on compassionate Catholics to look beyond themselves.

“If we’re true followers of Christ and believers in humanity, it’s time we started pressuring our politicians to act more compassionately,” he said. “We can’t turn a blind eye any longer.”

Mercy Sister and long-time Cambodia Jesuit Refugee Service director Sr Denise Coghlan called the situation an “absolutely atrocious crime”.

“It’s a blot on the conscience of Australia,” Sr Coghlan said. “I want – and the Sisters of Mercy want – those children and their families off Nauru, and we’d really like to see the closure of Nauru and Manus.”

Sr Coghlan called the recent mounting pressure a “kairos” moment –  an opportune time for action.

She said it was a moment brought about by the Synod of Youth’s focus on migrants, the United Nations’ new push for migrant reform and a critical mass of migrant awareness in the public eye.

“The time is now,” Sr Coghlan said.

The Adelaide archdiocese supported the calls for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to bring to an end the suffering of children and families seeking asylum.

Adelaide apostolic administrator Bishop Greg O’Kelly said report after report revealed the “alarming deterioration in the mental and physical health of all detainees”.

“At a time when people are greatly concerned about the wellbeing, the care and safe upbringing of children, it seems conflicting that we have permitted innocent children to be confined to a place where ordinary and proper human development is challenged,” he said.

Bishop O’Kelly said the removal of Doctors Without Borders and other medical staff by the Nauruan Government recently had exacerbated an already dire situation.

“We support any move to remove all children and all genuine refugees from Nauru and Manus Island,” he said.

Paul Stevenson

Paul Stevenson: “What we found was a chronic lack of attachment between parents and children.”

Mr Stevenson held hope for Labor’s push for the resettlement deal in New Zealand. If children could resettle with their parents, Mr Stevenson said it would repair the parental bonds broken in detention.

“If parents were allowed to be real people themselves and allowed to take responsibilities and allowed to have some autonomy and control in their lives, they would necessarily become more competent parents,” he said. “They would take their responsibility to guide and teach their children and bond with their children.

“In a place where you’re a prisoner within walls, in a place where you could lose your children at any time, they’re not being allowed to parent. This is what Australia does.”

Former prime minister Tony Abbott voiced his concerns about a moral hazard to 2GB Radio last Monday.

“If we give them what they want, we will get more of them – that’s to say, the boats will start up again,” Mr Abbott said.

Thousands of people rallied in protest in Sydney and Melbourne against the Government’s immigration position on October 27.

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