Bringing Australian children here from Syrian refugee camps is just the startOct 20, 2022
Our government is doing the right thing. But bringing Australian children in Syria to Australia without an individualised long-term plan of support for each child will achieve little. The complexity of the task to help these children must not be underestimated. It will be a long process and a long-term investment, but it will be worth it.
It was welcome news to learn that our government is implementing plans to repatriate about 60 Australian women and children who are being held in detention camps in north-east Syria. Following the announcement, a group of Australian aid and human rights agencies issued a joint statement welcoming the initiative saying it was a chance for ‘Australian children and their mothers to return home to their families and begin their recovery.’ A welcome initiative indeed, but those agencies, along with others will need to remain involved as for many the recovery may be a long process.
Almost 40 of this group are children. Most are younger than six. Some were born in the camps. This is the only life those children have known. Most of them live in crowded tents in the Roj camp, about 30 km from the Iraq border. With another winter approaching, they will again be exposed to freezing rain. Food and fresh water supplies are reported to be intermittently disrupted. Health services are minimal, there is lack of schooling and poor hygiene. Many children are malnourished. In addition, the camps are volatile and can be dangerous. Some of these children have been exposed to violence and have seen things that children should not have to see.
These children have missed out on many of the basic needs of childhood, basic needs which set up the foundation for healthy emotional and physical development throughout life. Most of this foundation occurs in the first 5 years of a child’s life.
Babies are born primed to learn. Their brains make connections more quickly in their first 5 years than at any other time in their lives. Opportunities to interact with those who love them, to play, to explore, to hear language are the ways they learn. They learn by seeing relationships between other people, by how family members behave towards each other, by finding out how adults react when they smile or laugh or cry. They learn about whether their world is safe and secure, whether they are loved and how to love in return.
Many of these children have missed out on these basic needs for good emotional development in addition to missing out on good nutrition and adequate medical care. Although children who miss out on these basics have the odds stacked against them, it is not a lost cause. Intervention and a supportive caring environment can help many. It’s just easier if those basic needs are met in the early years when the foundations for good mental health are laid down.
Bringing them to Australia is a necessary and good start. It is the right thing to do. Born to Australian mothers, they are Australian citizens and have the right enter Australia. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we also have an obligation to protect them from harm.
However, just bringing them here is not enough. Some will have enough resilience to function well. These are the ones we read about in inspiring stories of children who have done well despite the odds being stacked against them. They are the exceptions. Many who have been exposed to war experiences, violence and deprivation are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have depressive symptoms, often manifesting as withdrawal.
What will they need? For a start some of their mothers could face arrest on entry to Australia. Under Australian law they could be prosecuted for being associated with terrorist acts or for having entered an area forbidden by our government. Although children should not be held accountable for the activities of their parents, having their only parent arrested and prosecuted adds a further burden to those the children already carry.
They will need education in schools that are culturally accepting and where they are given extra specialist education to catch up. They will need opportunities to develop stable and lasting friendships with other children.
They will need housing, access to good health care and good nutrition.
They will need to live in a supportive community where they are accepted and not stigmatised or be items of curiosity. They will need supportive extended families, particularly as they have no father here and for some, their mothers may be subject to custodial orders.
Many are likely to need specialist counselling as they settle into their new and very different lives. They may need ongoing mental health care and early detection of mental health problems.
Above all, they will need to feel that they are safe and secure.
Our government is doing the right thing. But bringing them to Australia without an individualised long-term plan of support for each child will achieve little. The complexity of the task to help these children must not be underestimated. It will be a long process and a long-term investment, but it will be worth it.