After Nauru Files, I Couldn’t Stay Silent: Rev Michael Frost - Hope 103.2

After Nauru Files, I Couldn’t Stay Silent: Rev Michael Frost

When Sydney Baptist minister Rev Dr Michael Frost was asked to join in a five-hour protest in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office, he couldn’t say no.

By Clare BruceWednesday 31 Aug 2016NewsReading Time: 6 minutes

Listen: Reverend Dr Michael Frost describes Monday’s protest in Malcolm Turnbull’s office. Above: Rev Frost is removed from the office by police. All photos: Love Makes a Way, Facebook.

When Sydney Baptist minister and academic Rev Dr Michael Frost was asked to join in a five-hour sit-in protest, kneeling on the floor of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office, he couldn’t say no.

Having read the ‘Nauru Files’ – documents exposing horrifying abuse and self-harm among asylum seekers at Nauru Detention Centre – he decided he could no longer just be an armchair critic of immigration policy.

Rev Frost was one of the seven Christian clergy who gathered, uninvited, at Mr Turnbull’s electorate office in Edgecliff on Monday afternoon to pray and reading out Nauru incident reports—until police arrested or escorted them out. The protest was staged by the justice organisation Love Makes a Way.

What are the Nauru Files?

The Nauru Files are a collection of over 2000 incident reports leaked from inside the off-shore detention centre, published this month in a database by The Guardian.

Dated from May 2013 until last October, they reveal an entrenched culture of despair, self-harm, sexual abuse and depravity among the asylum seekers living in indefinite detention on the remote Pacific island.

More than 1000 of the incidents (over 50%) involve children, even though children only counted for 18% of detainees during the time of the reports.

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There were seven cases of sexual assault on children and a death threat, and 30 cases of self-harm involving children—such as cutting, sewing lips together, swallowing rocks, and suicide attempts such as drinking bleach. And that doesn’t include the threats of self-harm by children that weren’t acted out: 159 cases.

Official staff such as bus drivers and Australian security guards, are implicated as abusers among the reports.

Twitter Protests are Not Enough, Says Michael Frost

Singing hymns at the Love Makes a Way Protest

Above: Singing hymns as a form of protest.

Rev Frost, who is the Vice Principal of Morling Bible College and founder of the Small Boat Big Sea community, described the files as “heartbreaking”; a “litany of stories of children and women being abused and assaulted…given over to utter and complete despair”.

He said he couldn’t read them and then do nothing.

“I thought to myself, there’s no way we can any longer pretend that we don’t know what’s going on in those detention centres and the effect they’re having, in particular on children,” he said.

“There are kids swallowing stones, drinking cleaning fluid, there’s sexual assaults…”

“You can tweet about it and Facebook about it and jump up and down about it, but when [protest organisers] Love Makes a Way said ‘would you like to engage in an action of this kind’, I thought it’s the least I could do.

“I really don’t want, one day, for my kids or my grandkids to be reading about how Australian tax payers and citizens actually funded the creation of these camps on Pacific Islands, where people were just dumped, and given absolutely no hope of a future.

“There are kids swallowing stones, drinking cleaning fluid, there’s sexual assaults; we were reading these incident reports and I thought to myself…‘I just don’t want to be able to say in 15 or 10 or 5 years’ time, ‘I knew about all of that and I didn’t do anything’.”

An Uncomfortable Yet Beautiful Experience

Pastors pray at Love Makes a Way protest

Tense: Pastors share communion at Love Makes a Way protest while police wait to remove them.

Rev Frost said while kneeling on the floor in an electorate office foyer isn’t particularly comfortable, and praying with strangers for five hours is an unusual thing to do, it was a “beautiful” experience at the same time.

“We were obviously bound together in Christ, our common commitment to Jesus, but also in this common cause of wanting to highlight the terrible conditions in Nauru,” he said.

He said the police presence was also a little unnerving yet it was also clear they didn’t want to make arrests.

“They arrived about an hour after we did and we overheard them speaking to Mr Turnbull’s office staff, saying ‘we don’t want to arrest these people, let’s see how long they last’,” he explained. “At 5pm they showed up in force. I think there were nine police officers all together.”

The police were also highly respectful of the Christian practices taking place.

“They laid hands on us and took us out. So to me it sounds like being arrested.”

“They arrived as we were celebrating communion, so they all walked in and it was obvious this was a ritual,” Rev Frost said. “We were breaking bread, we had a common cup, we were all reciting prayers…so they very solemnly and silently stood around us waiting. And then one of us…a Uniting Church minister, she burst into Amazing Grace. So we started singing as well. I think we sang about six or eight verses and again they just waited. They did not want to be arresting nuns and ministers.”

While the police warned they would make arrests, they have since said that they didn’t do so, but Rev Frost said they were physically removed from the office at the end of the day.

“I was the first person, they grabbed my arm and led me out of the foyer, and then the others,” he said. “They laid hands on us and took us out. So to me it sounds like being arrested.”

Other Pastors Say ‘I Wish I Protested Too’

Rev Michael Frost

Above: Rev Michael Frost after the protest on Monday.

Rev Frost said that protesting and being removed by police was not an exercise in grandstanding, but in drawing public attention to a serious issue. He hopes the action has prompted others, particularly Christians, to think about their stance on immigration policy.

“The organisers, Love Makes a Way, say it’s very hard to get clergy to agree to do this kind of action, because there are repercussions from their congregations or church hierarchy, and it’s not a good look for ministers of the gospel to be arrested, and those kinds of things,” he said. “I was a bit nervous about it, to be quite frank.

“But I’ve just had an overwhelming number of positive responses including a bunch of ministers from different denominations who’ve contacted me and said ‘I wish I’d joined you’.

“I think maybe six months ago I wouldn’t have got that response, I would have got a debate about whether it’s right or not right. But there’s just been an overwhelming response of people saying ‘good on you’ or ‘I wish I did it too’.

“I think the tide is turning.”

More Compassion Required in Asylum Seeker Policy

Rev John Barr

Above: Reverend John Barr of the NSW Ecumenical Council, who also joined the protest.

While Rev Frost agrees asylum seeker policy is complex, he believes the suffering outlined in the Nauru Files cannot be ignored.

“I just think, ‘how could you be a gospel person or filled with the Holy Spirit of God and just think ‘yeah, that’s bad but they brought it on themselves’ or ‘they’re queue jumpers’?” he said.

“Immigration policy does require a much more significant and nuanced approach than just saying ‘oh bring them all here, open the doors’, I understand that and respect that. Personally, I think we ought to increase our intake [of refugees]… in a speedier process.

“But I would also say that irrespective of your view on immigration policy, you can’t possibly justify inflicting punishment on children in order to expedite that policy. To me that’s just unconscionable. These children made no choices in the matter.“