I have been visited recently, via email, by a group of children—girls and boys. I don’t know their names, or how old they are, but I guess from their photos the youngest could be seven, the oldest fourteen. They are beautiful children—their parents have made sure they face the photographer neatly dressed, with shining hair and scrubbed faces. Only the smallest boy has managed to muss his hair and there is a certain look of ‘take me as I am’ in his brown eyes. In their arms, the children carry gifts: new books, writing and drawing material and soft, hand-made dolls, animals and balls. They hold the gifts close and two of the older girls manage a smile. The rest look out at the world solemnly. At first I am glad they have the gifts; then I notice the dark shadows under their eyes.
The children are living on Nauru, refugees whose families sought asylum in Australia and instead have been marooned on an arid Pacific island—the world’s smallest and perhaps poorest island nation. Some are now entering their fourth year in living conditions declared unsuitable and unjust by the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and what reads like a who’s who of the legal profession.
That small boy with the unruly hair may have spent almost half his short life a virtual prisoner on Nauru. And despite the fact that the Convention on the Rights of the Child—a Convention of which Australia was an early signatory—declares that refugee children, like all children, must not be discriminated against or deprived of education, he may well be one of the approximately 85 per cent of the asylum-seeker children on Nauru who don’t go to school for fear of bullying or harassment, according to Save the Children.