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Nearly 80 years of work with children has taught us how vulnerable they are

Nearly 80 years of work with children has taught us how vulnerable they are

By Ian Wishart

Founded after the Spanish Civil War, Plan began by sponsoring 300 children in a model that strengthened families and communities so that children never felt abandoned. 79 years ago, Plan’s founders, who included Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund), recognised that children needed to grow up with security and opportunity, and be able to plan for the future.  A letter from a Plan staff member in 1939 states “we are not just giving food and beds to children living in wretched conditions, but taking them into healthy surroundings, educating them, and giving them a chance to face life with courage and understanding.” Who would want anything else for these children?

From personal experience, I saw the desperate situation of children living in the Goma refugee camp during the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s. The humanitarian crisis was colossal, with over one million people barely surviving in appalling conditions. The hardest part was trying to give hope to children who had no idea how long they would be stranded in the camp, or what kind of lives they would lead once the crisis was over. There was no opportunity, no security and no ability to plan for the future, and this understanding was plainly obvious on the children’s faces. What gave me hope was that I was working as part of a team to give these kids a chance at life, and that our work had the support of tens of thousands of Australians back home who shared our vision.

Our response to the plight of children after the Spanish Civil War and the Rwandan genocide may seem like events belonging to a distant past, but children are still suffering today. Is the way the Australian Federal Government is treating children in offshore detention centres in Nauru and on Christmas Island “giving them a chance to face life with courage and understanding”? No. The real losers in Australia’s harsh stance towards asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat are the children, those who come with their parents on the perilous journey, and those born in detention or elsewhere in Australia.

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre
Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

Children need to be able to plan for their futures, just as our own children may confidently plan to become teachers, doctors or aid workers. Instead, these children are growing up in detention centres, languishing for years in limbo, with no solution to their suffering in sight. These children, mainly from Iran, Burma and Bangladesh (all countries struggling with conflict and other severe development challenges), must feel so abandoned as they continue to be maltreated in this harsh policy setting, a setting we know is damaging their mental health for the long term.

Children need to be cared for and feel safe, yet new laws bind doctors, paediatricians, security guards and aid workers from talking publically about conditions faced by asylum seekers in offshore detention. Offshore detention centres are shrouded in secrecy, with no independent oversight regarding how children are being detained and a lack of clear information about mechanisms in place to protect these children.

Apart from failing to meet obligations under international human rights law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is consciously making the lives of these children miserable in pursuit of its deterrent policy. This month’s High Court decision, that offshore immigration detention centres are “legally and constitutionally valid,” gives the government a green light to continue with this shocking treatment.

For too long during my life I have seen children suffer from the consequences of political failure and inaction. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is spot on when he calls for us all to experience “a moment of clarity,” take the politics out of these children’s situations and see them with a future they can truly face with courage and understanding. For children in detention centres one thing does give me hope: the stories of former sponsored children, in countries such as Zimbabwe, Columbia and Bangladesh, who have finished their educations and built successful careers made possible because they were provided with the opportunity to plan for their futures.



Ian Wishart is the CEO of Plan International Australia and one of Australia’s most experienced development professionals. Since 2001, he has transformed Plan International Australia into a highly respected and influential development agency. Ian has extensive experience in international development, including responding to emergencies and long-term development work. He has completed assignments all over the world including in Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Rwanda, Mozambique, Laos, Cambodia and Somalia. Twitter: @ianatplan

Featured image shows Court 2 at the High Court of Australia. Photo from Wikipedia.

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