I decided to write the book Desert Sorrow: asylum seekers at Woomera, after eight months as a teacher at Woomera detention centre, employed by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). Once you meet these desperate people, especially children, it personalises everything. I couldn’t believe this kind of mental torture was possible in Australia. I decided if there was anything I could do to redress their unwelcome status as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’, I would.
I had signed a secrecy statement, but other former employees of ACM had started to speak out and I wasn’t about to be an exception in the face of such injustice and inhumanity. And if I was the only one to write from the inside then it was better than none.
As far as possible, I tried to provide an objective account and not to cloud the reader’s perceptions with angry statements. But I was angry and very upset as well as being left with a deep sense of sadness.
The book opened many doors “ talks to high school students in Adelaide, community groups such as Probus and Rotary and to church organisations. There were radio interviews, invitations to speak at conferences, and articles appeared in local and national newspapers. The response was encouraging, and from about June 2002 new groups called Circle of Friends began to form to support refugees still in detention as well as helping them settle into the Adelaide community. This was a great move on the part of ordinary Australians in defiance of the hardline approach of the federal government.
By August 2004 there were 41 Circle of Friends groups, some now interstate. Each group has about 50 members. Many other community groups, professional organisations and individuals also helped out in various ways “ writing letters and visiting refugees held in detention, advocating on their behalf and helping them on release.
Of course many Australians are still unaware of the truth or if they are aware, don’t wish to respond. And many are misled. A leader who masks all his manipulations with ‘our rights’ and ‘our freedom’ dupes many. A new kind of morality where the end justifies the means is silently endorsed. And politicians who are gagged for the sake of party interests, and who refuse to get involved in contentious issues, lack integrity and courage.
Change should come from our politicians, but if it does not then change must come from ordinary Australians putting themselves on the line.
It’s important for both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to speak out. We must do so as a testament to a tragic phase in Australian history. We must speak out so people can be better informed of the reasons why refugees flee their countries, and to raise awareness about refugee issues. We must speak out because “ apart from a few notable exceptions – our politicians remain silent.
The abolition of apartheid or slavery was not won without a long struggle. It’s a similar situation with mandatory detention in Australia. Ultimately, I hope and believe our government must move to abolish the law requiring indefinite detention for those seeking refugee status.
That would be a step in the right direction.
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