I got arrested recently.
Normally that’s not something to broadcast, but actually I was trying to get arrested precisely so I could broadcast it.
I got arrested as an act of civil disobedience.
You see, my country has adopted an immigration policy that’s designed to discourage refugees arriving here by boat from Indonesia. This involves using the navy to intercept leaky fishing boats full of asylum seekers and towing them back into Indonesian waters.
It also includes making an example of those poor souls who do manage to slip through our maritime cordon and wash up on our coastline. Those desperate people are imprisoned in detention centres on remote islands belonging to other countries and abandoned without any hope.
No future, no plans, no sense of destiny.
It’s my government’s way of saying to refugees, “Let that be a lesson to you!”
Except this lesson or warning is also being meted out to children, and it’s the kids who suffer the most from their incarceration.
Recently, over 2000 incident reports filed by the staff of these detention centres were leaked by an anonymous whistleblower. They are a catalogue of assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and other effects stemming from the inherently toxic living conditions there.
I’ve read these reports. They describe children not only being assaulted and sexually abused, but cutting their skin, drinking cleaning fluid, swallowing stones and more.
In order to discourage future refugees coming to our shores my government – in my name – is placing children in the unconscionable position of subsisting without hope!
But you can’t live without hope. It’s just impossible.
And so, along with a nun and a group of Protestant ministers, I walked into the Sydney office of the Prime Minister of Australia, sat on the floor, and began to pray for these poor, wretched souls. When we refused to move on after five hours, despite repeated requests for us to leave, the police were called and we were arrested for “unlawful entry on inclosed lands” (that’s not a typo, that’s how the law was framed in 1901).
We did it to draw attention to the issue.
We did it to wake our churches up and ask them whether they are happy for innocent children to be crushed in the gears of our nation’s immigration policy.
We did it because in 10 or 15 years, when our government apologises for this draconian policy (as I’m sure they will one day), and our kids or grandkids ask us what we did about it, we want to be able to say we tried to stop it. It wasn’t much. But we tried.
As I was being led away from the Prime Minister’s office by a fresh-faced young police officer, he asked me quietly, “Have you really been praying there for five hours?”
I guess at his age he couldn’t imagine doing anything continuously for five whole hours, let alone praying.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s that important to me.”
Later, as I reflected on it, I thought it might have been unclear to him whether I was saying freeing children from detention is that important to me, or prayer is that important to me. I kinda hope he thought I was saying both.