When you’re a kid you measure anniversaries not as anniversaries. My kids measure major milestones in months.  I remember being a teenager measuring the first flush of love by my “six month anniversary”. Yes, I rely on maths every day to do my job. Don’t be worried.

This last week saw a grim and genuine anniversary. It was the third anniversary of the conflict in Syria and once again children are major victims of the folly of their elders. This conflict often slips from the forefront of Australian media coverage. It’s become a grim but distant reality of a world removed. Anniversaries require commemoration though, right?

Australia is so removed from the reality of hardship that we debate whether a football coach suspended on full pay while somewhere in the middle of a drugs in sport issue is being ‘persecuted’. Our debate on kids’ exploitation reaches depths such as whether monetising a 2 year old’s Instagram account is harmless or perverse. Maybe it’s time to take stock of what is happening beyond our borders and consider debating something of more import than which obnoxious home cooking team sauces their steak better. Human rights are supposed to be something we insist on everywhere, not just in our neighbourhood.

Overwhelmed by Numbers

There’s no shortage of information out there. More than a million kids in Syria are reported to be almost beyond the reach of aid groups or under siege, with 5.5 million kids swept in the conflict. At least 10,000 children are thought to have been killed. 1.2 million kids have become refugees. That number quadrupled in the last year. Will Australians speak up for those kids?

If not those kids, what about those in South Sudan where 3.75 million kids are affected? More than 1 in 10 kids will die before the age of 5 in South Sudan. Maternal mortality is the highest in the world and MSF reports that hospitals are under attack. Will Australians speak up for those kids, I wonder?

Or the Central African Republic where reports continue of children being not only a target, but mutilated (and a warning, even by these standards that link is tough reading). There are up to 6000 child soldiers in the same country. Children being exposed to such atrocities is all the more wrenching because we know that their eyes should be filled with wide-eyed innocence, not horrors we struggle to imagine.

Most of us in developed countries owe our good fortune not just to our intrinsic qualities, but a good deal of providence in how our cards were marked. There is no humanity in denying a need to engage with the bigger issue of protecting the rights of children. My humanity is no way enhanced by neglecting the needs of those in distress. To avoid all efforts is to deny those individuals any safe future.

Kids should just have time for stuff like this. [via Twitter thanks to @GrrlScientist, @PaoloViscardi and @_Crepusculum_]

Kids should just have time for stuff like this. [via Twitter thanks to @GrrlScientist, @PaoloViscardi and @_Crepusculum_]

Encouragingly, in its position in the UN Security Council, Australia is trying to engage with some of these bigger problems. Only recently Mr Gary Quinlan spoke on related issues at the UN Security Council. Perhaps this engagement is the start of broader engagement with the ill effects on children when we expose them to things never meant for them (or anyone really).

Case Studies in Harm

We know all too well the effects on children of being surrounded by the distress of the desperate. Take the case of S.B. [reference below] – over 11 months this 5 year old boy “was exposed to riots, self-harm, suicidal behaviour and violence. He became progressively more withdrawn and anxious, had nightmares, and started bedwetting.” It didn’t stop there.

“He witnessed a significant suicide attempt and became progressively more withdrawn and mute. His condition deteriorated to the point that he refused to eat or drink, and he was admitted to hospital on several occasions for dehydration.”  There’s more description in the paper, but it ends with the following: “Now 12 years of age, S.B. remains under psychiatric care and has on-going features of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and adjustment difficulties.” Even some 7 years later (at the time of the article), this looks like a future blighted. That’s just one story.

Close to Home

The thing about S.B.’s case is that is not a description of the effects of being in Syria, or South Sudan, or any other distant shell of a country. S.B. was a child in detention in Australia described in the 2004 Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission report. While this case is over 10 years ago, there is no reason I can think of to believe such conditions are not faced by child refugees suffering from the acts of adults in detention in Australian authorised facilities now.

This is not over there. It is not a discussion for a history class mired in the ‘culture wars’. It is something to grapple with now. It is too easy to dismiss the need to speak up for children when it seems like such a big problem on some crackpot continent that we assume is condemned to chaos. Maybe Australians will start to really pay attention if we remember that the rights of children are something we are responsible for right here.

This is perhaps part of the message from this video produced by Save the Children. Kids everywhere want and deserve pretty much the same thing. It’s not what they’re suffering in all those spots in Africa. It’s not what we’re offering refugee children either.

Getting Engaged

Figuring out where to start is a struggle, but as stated previously here and here if you have a role in arguing for the health and wellbeing of children, you have to get into it somehow. There is a lot of grey out there as to which organisations are most effective and how best to raise your voice. There are sometimes questions as to whether aid groups are themselves compromised by the way they do business.

If you’re in Australia though you may be in a position to contribute to the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration. Or you may choose to look overseas and support UNICEF or MSF. Or maybe it is as simple as trying to encourage personal contact with refugee stories as described here.

What is all too clear is that it’s not just a story for page 12 of the paper (or the 28th link on the web browser). It’s a story that is happening right here. If adults can’t agree on the need to speak up for kids then would we ever speak up for anything?


The case study included in this post is described in more detail in this paper:

Newman LK, Dudley M and Steel Z. Asylum, Detention and Mental Health in Australia. Refugee Survey Quarterly 2008;27:110-27.

A hat-tip also to @Colvinius who first shared the Save the Children video (at least in my timeline).


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