Ten Years Since Tampa
It’s ten years today since the occupants of the Tampa were denied entry into Australia.
The following is an excerpt from my book of stories about the Australian Journey of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon.
It tells the story of the WYD Cross’ journey to the Woomera Detention Centre. I’m re-posting it today because I don’t think we should forget about the Tampa, or about Woomera and Baxter and places like them as the debate about refugees continues. We are capable of so much more…
The [World Youth Day Cross and Icon] arrived in Woomera on the evening of October 10, 2007. Our team of seven had swelled to fifty for the ‘Great Crossing’ pilgrimage. This special stage of the year-long Journey of the Cross and Icon involved traversing the country from Darwin to Port Augusta over six days with a contingent of young people from all over the country.
Those organising our pilgrimage walk at Woomera…chose the cemetery to speak about the former detention centre, to which we were to process with the Cross and Icon next. Bishop Hurley began and, when he could no longer continue, Fr Jim Monaghan, who had been stationed there when the detention centre first began housing asylum seekers, shared about his experience and the experience of the parishioners.
Fr Jim asked us to look around and ask ourselves why an Australian Government would put people, other human beings, here, in the desert. He spoke laconically of people with mental illness, of people with sewn-up mouths, of suicide attempts by guard and guarded alike, and of children standing at the barbed wire, looking out into the surrounding desert. He spoke without rancour or bitterness, but with a quiet passion, stating that what had happened there was wrong. ‘It dehumanised everyone who came into contact with it’, he said. ‘The refugees, the Australian guards, everyone.’ It was his clear appraisal that all the people in this situation were human beings made in the image and likeness of God, who, therefore, possessed a dignity that this situation simply stripped from them.
Fr Jim then went on to describe briefly what the parishioners of Woomera did to restore and nurture the dignity of those behind the fences. They visited people who had no-one to visit them. When they weren’t allowed to visit, they wrote letters and gave clothes. Bishop Hurley told the story of a woman who had written to a Muslim woman who had been incarcerated in Woomera. When they were finally able to meet, they instinctively knew who the other was. ‘They were both mothers, and so they could recognise each other’, he said. Both the bishop and Fr Jim made it clear that they did not try to distinguish between those who were subsequently found to be genuine refugees and those who weren’t. It was their conviction that even those who were illegal immigrants still possessed a dignity that demanded a more humane treatment of them. They did also point out however that, officially, eighty per cent of all those imprisoned in Woomera were judged to be genuine refugees.
As I listened, I cast my mind back to the time which these men were describing. I had been living in Canberra, where conversations about asylum seekers swirled around with questions of policy and how to protect borders. The conversations I recalled were such a contrast with the direct response of the people of Woomera and the Diocese of Port Pirie. Their response was not born of ideology, politics, or fear. It came from the Gospel. It came from listening to Jesus’ words: ‘I was naked and you gave me clothing … in prison and you visited me’ (Matt 25:36). In a modern state, conversations in Canberra about border control and illegal immigration may well be necessary. However, in a country such as Australia, it is also not too much to hope that such conversations will be tempered with justice and compassion.
Australia is capable of better. In 1977, one of the many boats from Vietnam that made it onto Australian shores was captained by twenty-three-year-old Hieu Van Le. He wrote that: My first sight of Australia was through the dawn light and an early morning mist across Darwin Harbour … We chugged clumsily into the harbour, and saw coming towards us a small boat with its outboard motor showing all the speed and agility that our boat lacked. There were a couple of blokes in it, just dressed in singlets and shorts, fishing rods sticking out in the air. This was nothing special for them, they were having a normal day – out to do a bit of fishing. As they came past they waved and called out ‘G’day mate … Welcome to Australia!’ and then just sped on past to get on with the fishing they had set out to do.
Hieu Van Le went on to describe what he learnt from that first experience of Australians: ‘I learnt … that deep down “G’day mate” meant something about a society that fundamentally believed in helping, in shared responsibility, that if we are not actually all in the same boat, we are all in the same harbour’. Hieu Van Le is now Lieutenant Governor of South Australia. The empty detention centres at Woomera, Baxter and Port Hedland all stand as mute witnesses to a period when newcomers to our country did not receive the G’day that Hieu and his companions did. At the same time, I think we can be proud of our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Port Pirie who demonstrated, with others around the country, that Australians still believe in a G’day that denotes a genuine welcome and real care, especially for those most deeply in need.
The Woomera detention centre closed some time before we arrived there and so we were there now to pray. Our prayer included an act of memory: to remember and acknowledge what had happened there in our very recent history. The WYD Cross stood before the detention centre as a sign of the depths of inhumanity that we are capable of, and it tells of an innocent man imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The Cross stood as a sign of solidarity with all those who had suffered and been demeaned in this chapter in our history – asylum seeker, prison guard, and nation.
Our prayer concluded with the planting of a tree outside the detention centre.
As a hole was made in the hard red soil, it seemed very much like an act of hope
to be planting in such a barren landscape. The parishioners assured us that they would water the tree. Fr Tom Rosica’s words echoed in my mind as he recalled the WYD Cross’s journey to Ground Zero in 2002: the visit of the Cross and Icon to Woomera and the planting of this tree were also acts of defiance, because they were acts of hope. The Cross is the Tree of Life because it proclaims that in the darkest moments of the human story, acts of love, peace and compassion can also grow…