Myths and truths of Australian bigotry

Larry Schwartz

Eureka Street January 22, 2012



The man from the pay TV company was adamant: he wasn’t selling anything. But too often I’ve opened my front door to strangers and found myself tempted by some sales pitch. So I’d answered the bell warily, spoke through the screen door and tried to keep the encounter brief.

‘I’m sorry but we’re not interested.’

But he knew better. ‘It’s because of the colour of my skin,’ he said as he turned to leave.

It was to be a parting shot. But I called him back, stepping out onto the veranda. Surely he could not assume that everyone not interested in hearing what he had to say was a bigot.

I had no idea, he replied, how often he was called a ‘brown bastard’ by people he approached.

Later, I wondered if I was not all the more defensive because I grew up in segregated, apartheid-era South Africa. In Australia, where I’ve spent well over half my life, it seems at times that as long as you have a fairish complexion, you can be lulled into assuming tolerance and goodwill.

Last 26 January I sat with a small crowd near Belgrave, east of Melbourne. I had come there to hear filmmaker and musician, Richard Frankland, and his band, the Charcoal Club. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years and I thought I’d stop by.

Elsewhere this was Australia Day, the national flag unfurled in celebration. But here in Belgrave’s Borthwick Park it was Survival Day. A whispy-haired toddler in striped shirt waddled in front of the stage holding a small Aboriginal flag. A sign tied to tree trunks declared ‘The country needs a treaty’.

Frankland, a big man in broad-brimmed hat, leaned over a tiny mandolin. He’d been to Canberra in February 2008 to film the impact of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. Rudd’s apology, Frankland once told me, was ‘an incredibly wonderful step forwards’. ‘I felt more Australian,’ he said. ‘I felt more a part of the nation; that I was seen as a contributor.’

I like to think we can rise to the challenge of increasing diversity. I didn’t want to believe the assertions of that pay TV man at my front door. Then I read about objections to the presence of Australians of Indian background on the TV serial Neighbours.

I thought the man might be exaggerating. Then I read about increasing complaints to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission by those alleging they had been excluded from pubs and clubs because of their race. The commission reported a 55 per cent increase in ‘total race complaints across all sectors’ in a year.

‘I naïvely believed this kind of inexcusable discrimination did not happen in our multicultural society,’ a woman wrote to The Age in late November after an incident at a Toorak nightclub. She’d been with fellow medical students of Sri Lankan and Indian background who were turned away, ostensibly because the venue was full, while others in the group were admitted.

The Monash University-Scanlon Foundation annual Mapping Social Cohesion survey recently found that the number of people reporting discrimination due to skin colour, ethnic origin or religion had increased from 9 per cent to 14 per cent in four years.

Are we becoming less tolerant, as we become more diverse? Pino Migliorino, chair of the Federal Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA), said at a conference in Adelaide a few months ago that racism was now often more subtle and had shifted to the targeting of religion rather than race.

It’s almost 40 years since Whitlam Government Immigration Minister Al Grassby confirmed that the White Australia Policy was dead. ‘Give me a shovel,’ he declared in 1973, ‘and I’ll bury it.’

Attitudes were not so easily buried. ‘We have amassed more than our share of xenophobia on these shores and seem willing to accord equality only to those who promise not to be different,’ Lorna Lippmann, a Monash researcher on Aboriginal Affairs, wrote in a book released the year Grassby called for that shovel (Words or Blows: Racial Attitudes in Australia, Penguin Books 1973).

La Trobe University academic Gwenda Tavan, recalling Grassby’s assurance in her book, The Long Slow Death of White Australia (Scribe Publications 2005), concluded that he may have been essentially correct, but underestimated White Australia’s power to haunt future generations. ‘In Australia’s case,’ she wrote, ‘race remains the proverbial skeleton in the closet.’

‘We’d fundamentally debunk the White Australia Policy and white Australia mentality if we get this up,’ Patrick Dodson said recently as co-chair of the Federal Government-appointed panel that has recommended changes to the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and languages, prohibit racial discrimination and remove the last traces of racism.

The encounter at my front door ended amicably. Next time I’ll be sure to open the screen door at least and take time to welcome a stranger even if only to say, no thanks.

Larry Schwartz is a Melbourne writer, PhD student at Swinburne University and author of an apartheid-era memoir, The Wild Almond Line


The Sunday Age

Sunday 13th of November 2005

The Aussie mates who aren’t alert or alarmed


ANGELA was listening to the radio one morning when she heard a talkback host discussing the Howard Government’s 2002 “Be Alert Not Alarmed” fridge magnet campaign.

So the bayside woman rang the station and asked the host to explain. “I thought, hang on. How alert and how aware are we meant to be? You can tell us to do all this stuff but what are we meant to look for?” she says.

When Angela told the radio host she had seen a Muslim woman in a wheelchair in a shopping centre that was rarely frequented by Muslims and wondered if she might have a concealed bomb, he “went off his nut” at her.

“He says, ‘excuse me are you saying people in wheelchairs should not go shopping because you’re going to think they’re Muslim and they’re going to blow you up?’ ”

Callers rang in to berate her. “But that’s not what I was getting at,” says Angela. “I was trying to ask him how alert we’re meant to be.”

The station contacted the then president of the Victorian Islamic Council, Yasser Soliman, for comment. They sent him a tape so he could hear the exchange and he agreed to go on air the following day.

“I didn’t think she was a redneck,” he says. “I thought she was concerned. There was obviously confusion in the community and she was just trying to clarify things.”

A call came later to Mr Soliman’s office in West Melbourne. Angela, who is in her late 30s and of Irish Catholic background, was on the line. She was ringing to thank him “for backing up how I felt”.

Mr Soliman invited her to the mosque in Jeffcott Street, West Melbourne. She asked if she could bring her friend. Neither had been to a mosque.

She told her husband she was going. “You know what he said? ‘Please don’t come home with a tea towel on your head’,” she laughs. He has been very supportive, she adds.

Angela met a group of Muslim women attending a meeting and chatted about issues including the September 11 attacks. “We got to know a little about each other,” says Angela, who declines to give her surname because she fears harassment.

“Look, I don’t know the full Muslim religion and they probably don’t know the full Catholic religion. But I got off my bum, which a lot of Australians don’t. I wanted to find out because . . . (people say) they’re bad people. They’re not. The ones I’ve met are definitely not.”

Angela has visited Mr Soliman’s family with her 10-year-old daughter and son, seven, and has been back several times. She says his wife, Manar, is “great fun”. Angela’s husband gets on well with Mr Soliman. The children play happily with his seven-year-old son and twins, a boy and a girl, who are five.

Angela later discovered that the only Muslims at her children’s school were asylum seekers. They needed a lift home. So she volunteered.

Mr Soliman told the story of their friendship at a forum at the State Library last week on misuse of the term “un-Australian”, co-hosted by The Age and the OzProspect advisory panel.

“It’s about perceptions; she (might) have seen Muslims as un-Australian,” Mr Soliman says. “And all of a sudden, when she met with us and other Muslims, she saw no difference. We’re just as human and as Australian as anybody else.”

Angela fears the terror arrests will further harden attitudes in the community.

“I think Australians are un-Australian, as in we’re not opening up our hearts to the Muslim people,” she says. “Do what I did. Get off (your) butt and go and meet these people.”


The Sunday Age

Section: News

Page: 1

Publication date: 27-01-2002


The epic voyage that started it all …


Five young men who had arrived in Darwin on a fishing boat one hot April day in 1976 were claiming to be refugees.  But Immigration officers had their doubts.


This was before the term boatpeople was part of the Australian vocabulary, before desert detention centres and before asylum seekers dominated public debate.


The officials found it hard to believe the account of the lone English-speaking crew member.  Could these men, aged 16 to 25, possibly have travelled 3500 kilometres in a 20-metre fishing boat with a page torn from a school atlas to guide them?


“Are you sure you’re from Vietnam?” they asked.


This was to be a historic encounter – the boat people had arrived.


Their arrival heralded the start of first of three waves of boat people that would continue through the years, culminating in such events as the Tampa incident late last year, the policy to prevent boats carrying asylum seekers from entering the Australian migration zone and unrest at Woomera detention centre.


More than a decade ago, two crew members, including the man who had skippered the boat, died in a head-on car collision in Brisbane.


The Sunday Age tracked down Lam Tac Tam and Nguyen Van Chen, both 17 at the time, in Darwin.  Ngo Son Binh, 16 then, now works in a Sydney supermarket.


NEWS 7: Their story



Newspaper: The Sunday Age

Section: News

Page: 7

Publication date: 27-01-2002

Byline: Larry Schwartz

Five men in a boat: the flight of the first wave




Lam Tac Tam can sleep soundly in his solid-brick home.  His family is safely in Australia.  At 42, he has a modest travel business, both teenage daughters are fluent in a language he can’t quite master, with the elder one studying accountancy on a scholarship.


At a glance, his would seem to be the new Australian’s dream come true.  Except that he’s not just another migrant – and there is a more unsettling dream that comes to reclaim him, again and again.


“I still dream of running away from the country,” says Mr Lam, one of three surviving members of the first boat to bring Vietnamese refugees to Australia.  “I still feel scared.”


In his dreams he is thrust back to a time of terror in the months after the fall of Saigon, which led to a desperate, 3500-kilometre voyage across the ocean in a 20-metre fishing boat.  For much of their journey, the five men, aged 16 to 25, who on a hot April day in 1976 were the first boat people to step ashore in Australia, had only a page torn from a school atlas to guide them.


“You have to remember, in 1976 there was no interpreter or translator in Darwin,” says Mr Lam, speaking slowly to measure each word in a language he cannot read or write after nearly three decades here.  “I had to use my hands, my body, to tell people what I wanted.”


He was 17.  Now a business consultant and travel agent, he has revisited his birthplace several times in the past decade.  He is saddened by an old photograph of the five outside the Immigration Department offices in Darwin on their first day in Australia.


He is buoyed by enduring camaraderie with friends Nguyen Van Chen, also 17 at the time, who farms fruit and vegetables outside Darwin, and Ngo Son Binh, 16 then, who first got a job in a bakery and now works in a Sydney supermarket.


But he grieves to see reminders of the elder two men, both 25 at the time the photograph was taken.


Mr Lam’s brother, Lam Binh, had learned English in Vietnam and studied navigation from naval books to skipper the vessel.  It was he, too, who reportedly delivered a rehearsed speech for Australian authorities as they prepared to inspect the boat Kien Viang from which they had ventured in the hope of asylum: “Welcome on my boat.  My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.”

Lam Binh was employed at a Brisbane butter factory when he died in a head-on collision in Brisbane one Saturday morning in early 1980.  He was on his way to market in an old Morris sedan with Giap Bao, then working in an electrical factory, also killed in the crash.


“It’s very sad,” says Lam Tac Tam.  “We had come a long way to survive, to come to Australia, and then to have an accident …”


The first of three boats to arrive from Vietnam in 1976 heralded three waves of boat people in recent decades: 1976-81, from Cambodia, China and Vietnam, 1989-98 mostly from the Middle East, and from 1998, Afghanistan.


Mr Lam, whose struggles with English made an ordeal of a routine visit to a GP, taught himself a new language while labouring on building sites during the reconstruction of Darwin, devastated by Cyclone Tracy in December, 1974.


“I learned ‘cement’, ‘sand’, other building materials, ‘tomorrow’, ‘today’, ‘lunch’, ‘dinner’,” he says.  “We learned slowly.”


Third-eldest child of a wealthy manufacturer, he had thought he might some day run the family’s ice factory, and was little prepared for the heavy labour in Australia.  “I’d never done the hard job before in my life.  I couldn’t carry a 50-kilogram bag of cement.  I had to learn day by day to do the job.”


Language has proved a hurdle that has made him all the more appreciative of the academic achievements of daughters he says have benefited from tolerance in a rich mix of backgrounds in ethnically diverse Darwin.


Thirteen-year-old Jashica, in year eight, and Sofia, 18, in her second year of studies in accountancy and law, have told their father they hope to get a boat to replicate the journey he and his companions had undertaken with little more than rice, dried and canned fish, and a container of fresh water.


Some day, says Mr Lam, he will retrace the journey through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to Rach Gia, the port city to which he once vowed to return.  “We got on the boat in the late afternoon, about five o’clock.  As we left, I was looking back at the harbour, my country, my home town.  I said, one day I’ll be coming back.  I swear I’ll be coming back.”


All seemed changed when he first revisited Keing Giang, in 1993.  “When I came to the town it was completely different to what I had thought before,” he says.  “I thought my country was beautiful.  But after 17 years, everything was completely different.  Too many cars, noisy traffic.  I come back for a holiday, not to live.  It’s different now.”


On that visit he stood outside each of the four homes the family once owned in the then Saigon, now used by the government to house retired public servants.  Then he left.


Home is with his wife, Sylvia, who works as a cook for a Catholic priest, and the two girls.


“When we were young we’d think we’d go back to our country, to our own culture,” he says.  “But you have to remember I stayed in Vietnam for 17 years, and I’ve lived in Australia coming up this April, for 26 years.  So I’ve been here longer.  So now Australia is my home country.”


He laughs gently, adding: “Vietnam is my second country now.”  Sylvia had come from East Timor in 1978.  She has no relatives there now.


Mr Lam’s family had migrated to Vietnam from the south-east Chinese port of Canton in the early 1950s.  After fleeing Vietnam, his parents, two brothers and two sisters spent a year in Bangkok, another two in a refugee camp in the Thai province of Udon, and six in Canada, before he was able to sponsor their migration to Australia.  A younger sister and brother are in Darwin, and others run a restaurant on the Gold Coast.


“I always tell Sofia and Jashica, Australia is your country,” says Mr Lam, who was the lone Vietnamese migrant at a ceremony at which he was granted citizenship in 1979.  “You were born in Australia.  So Australia is your home.”


The first five boat people were quickly granted temporary visas and and spent their first months in a one-room unit provided by the St Vincent de Paul Society.  Some moved on to Brisbane.  Mr Lam remained in Darwin to watch over the boat, sold months later for $10,000, split five ways.


Australia had not been the intended destination at first.  They had hoped they might somehow make it to a US army base on the north Pacific island of Guam.


While others slept in the cabin, one would steer from the cabin, another keep watch from the stern.  They endured violent storms on the Timor Sea to reach Darwin at the very end of the cyclone season on April 26, 1976.


The dash had been planned in secrecy.  Mr Lam, who knew nothing of navigation, was drawn into lengthy preparations.  “I’d never been fishing before,” he says.  “So I had to learn how to get used to it.  Not to get seasick.  How to make friends with other people in the fishing boats.”


Etched in memory as it is, Mr Lam can recall decades later that the boat named Kien Giang, after the southern Vietnamese province of origin, was registered in Vietnam as KG 4435.  “Because it sticks in my mind,” he explains.  “This was the big change of my life.”

Again and again, the dream reaches into the depths of sleep and takes him back to a time before flight.  Months have passed since he ran outdoors to watch the tanks roll in at the fall of Saigon.


That day he had seen the terror of soldiers and officials discarding South Vietnamese uniforms to run almost naked through city streets.  Friends have been taken away for “re-education”.


In the dream they are ready to ferry the boat through the busy port.  In his dream it occurs to him that patrol boats fire on fugitive vessels.  “It’s too risky,” he says, as if once again steeling himself to go.


They set sail at dusk in late January, 1976, taking no luggage.  They had not even dared buy an atlas for fear of spies.  The brothers had arranged to meet the rest of the family at a secret rendezvous on the Mekong Delta.


Because they were seasick and unfit to risk a hazardous voyage, the brothers left their parents, two brothers and two sisters in Bangkok.


The five men sailed from port to port, moved along by authorities, who were prepared to provide fuel and food, but not refuge.  On an east Malaysian island, the skipper of an Australian ship counselled them to continue towards Darwin.


The atlas neglected to feature most of the islands they would pass.


Sixteen days out from Timor, the Kien Giang sailed past Bathurst Island.  That night, on April 26, they dropped anchor off the suburb of Night Cliff.


They woke to find the tide had retreated, and they had to wait several hours until they could go on.  Finally, they were able to berth alongside Stokes Hill wharf, where fishermen on a trawler gave them a 10-cent coin and directed them to a phone booth.  “So my brother made a phone call to the police station.  He said, we are Vietnamese refugees.  The policeman said `ah, that’s not my job, that’s Immigration.  You wait there.  Don’t move.”


The Sunday Age

Section: Agenda

Page: 2

Publication date: 23-07-2000

Byline: Larry Schwartz


The haunting ballad of Ruby Hunter




RUBY Hunter’s voice is husky but amiable.  She’s remembering paper and string she touched the day officials came to take her from her family.


“When they come to the house they had these brown parcels with the string and it was tied in a bow,” Hunter recalls.


“When they put things in front of me, if I didn’t know what it was, I’d take me time.  They thought I was scared of it.  But I was just appreciating feeling the string.  I was appreciating feeling paper.  And when my hand went like this, hey, that paper makes noise.”


You wonder why she might mention the parcels, whatever they might have contained.  Then it dawns on you: she could touch these things.  At least they were real.


At eight years old, she was not sure of the officials who had come with a promise to her family that she would be back that day after an outing to the circus.  She wondered if they were not phantoms come back to this world from the next.


“When I was taken away,” the singer-songwriter says, “all I saw in front of me was white people.  Or they wouldn’t be people.  They’d be ghosts.  White ghosts.  Because we had no name for you fellas.  I’m a person who’s not speaking English right at the age of eight.  To me, you’re ghosts.  You’re not people.  Shut them out.  That’s how you was with me.”


Sounds of traffic on a busy road outside.  Record company staff pass by the office where we meet.  A telephone rings.


I sit across the way from her and wonder at this disclosure.  Whites as ghosts.  It’s a notion some might associate with an Aboriginal experience of the first white men to step ashore at Botany Bay.  But Hunter is in her 40s.  She is not talking about a bygone era.  “I only learned that you’re people because you taught me,” she says.


Hunter was born in the mid-1950s of the Ngarrindjeri clan.  Home was the bush around a billabong in the South Australian riverland.  “My billabong,” says the musician, who has relocated from Melbourne after several years here and lives in suburban Adelaide with singer-songwriter husband, Archie Roach, and their children.  “I’ve got trees and hills.  There’s no other houses around there.”


She is determined to go back and settle where she once lived and is bemused by obstacles to her return.  “Course I can live there,” she says.  “The only thing that’s stopping from actually going back to my land is the government.  And the red tape, all right?  For me to get back to my land, I have to buy it.  Why should I buy something that was never anyone else’s?”  She laughs.


“Ain’t no time for me to ever complain,” she sings on her new album.  She describes Feeling Good as “a personal attack on my own heart to make me feel good when other people are making my heart saddened …”


Such is her apparent cheer, you wonder what right you might have to grumble with pettier problems.


“We cannot always carry on feelings of hopelessness,” she says.  “There’s got to be hope in everybody’s life.”


These are not simple platitudes.  By her own account, it’s been a rough year for her family.


She and Roach found themselves in the Victorian County Court late last year when their second son, Eban, and three other young men pleaded guilty to bashing a policeman in the early hours of January 27, 1999.


The four young men were each sentenced to six months, with the sentences to be served within the community under the terms of an intensive corrections order.  Hunter says Eban is a mental health worker with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.


She says Eban has moved on since the incident and defied negative typecasting.  “He’s only seen as a bad boy because he’s black.”  She is convinced the case attracted attention primarily because Eban is the son of high-profile parents.


“Now if it had have been another Aboriginal child, another family, there wouldn’t have been anything said about it.”

Only when I ask about perceptions of innocence or guilt, does she balk at the questioning and asks what, after all, this has to do with the new album, her second since the ARIA award-winning debut, Thoughts Within, in 1994.


HUNTER has had more than her share of adversity.  Who among us who has not been there, can fathom the hurt of removal?  As she says: “You cannot explain something that never ever happened to you before.”

She concedes that she did not really know what a circus was, but she did not doubt the promise that she would be brought back with her family after an outing.  “I thought it was a real thing,” she says.  “It was a real promise.”


At eight, she knew no words to communicate her fear in the language spoken by the people who took her to the institution where she was placed before being sent on to live with foster parents.


“They prayed for us not to stray/ while they preyed upon our mother’s land/ while we were locked away …” she sings on the new album.


Hunter has sought to inform through her music.  “I’m letting the people know,” she says of one song, “that when the time of taking of children was in force, the reasons beyond taking the children was to take the land.”


In a strange environment, longing for her kin, she resorted to touch to reassure her this was not a place of phantoms.  “I was feeling the tables, feeling the things around me.  If they locked me in the room, it was feeling and understanding.”


She believes her captors were determined to block out her past and force a break with her heritage.  “When they took me away, they put me into solitary,” Hunter says.


“They didn’t know that at the time, I already had my information.  So they locked me away and they thought, `She’ll get no information’.  But I had my information with me.  So when I come out, I still had my language and everything.  My uncles, my sisters …


“So even though they took me away physically, they didn’t take away the stories that were implanted into my mind.”


She had to learn much that we take for granted.  “I had to learn to use a knife and fork,” she says.  “First time I put clothing on, I put the petticoat through the leg and some other article round somewhere else.  And then they had to come around and take all the articles off me and dress me up.


“So I had to actually be taught how to sit on a chair, use a toilet.  At the age of eight, I had to learn all the baby stuff.


“At the age of eight, they treat you like a baby.  And then other people think you’ve got a problem.  That’s why I had to learn very quickly because I didn’t want to have a problem.”


She remembers too the day she was finally considered to be ready for a foster home.  An official took her to a suburban house.  “We got out the car and stood at the front fence and she said, `You see this place here?’  I said, `Yes’.


“She said, `Little girl, this little house is going to be yours.  The people in the house …  You can call them mum, dad, auntie, uncle whatever.’


“When I saw the people, they were white.  They were ghosts again.  And I was thinking, `I’ve never had a ghost as a mum or dad.”‘


She laughs.  “Ghost gum trees, ghost gum people.”


For all that, Hunter remains fond of her foster parents.  “Actually, mum went around to visit Archie the other day.  I haven’t seen her for years.  She went and had a cup of tea with Arch.  My foster mum.  She’s English.”


She met Roach, who is of the Gunditjmara, from western Victoria, and was also taken from his family, at a Salvation Army drop-in centre in Adelaide.  “When I was 16,” she says.  “He was about 17 but he looked 21.  That’s how massive he was.”


She first heard him sing while waiting for a bus.  They were sitting around listening to one of her cousins play when he turned to Roach and said: `Hey, you play guitar there, brother?’


“And Archie sat and started strumming.  I’m thinking, `Hey, I didn’t even know he could do that.”‘


It was Roach who inspired her to play guitar.  “I asked Archie.  I said, `What you doing?’  I said, `Gee, you men seem to do everything.  Give us a go!”‘


She laughs again.  “What I used to do with Archie is I used to say, `Play this for me now.  I’m going to sing this.’  And he turned around and said, `Listen, if you’re going to sing songs start playing yourself.’  So he put his foot down.


“He said, `I’m not going to be your guitarist all your life.  Do your own thing.


“If you want to sing, you know don’t fool around.”‘


One of her first songs, Down City Streets, was recorded by Roach on his debut album, Charcoal Lane.


Roach has remained home in Adelaide to look after their 11-year-old, Terence.  The eldest of their five children, Amos, a musician and dancer, will travel overseas soon with the South Australian Police Band.  “One takes my son overseas,” she laughs at the contrast with Eban’s troubles, “one keeps them here.”


She takes obvious pride in her husband and marvels at the way he conducted himself as interviewer and narrator of a recent documentary, Little Kings, in which he travelled around Australia, talking to Aborigines of the “stolen generation”.


“I thought it was beautiful the way he put it across and it made me cry when I saw him put his arm around people.  I thought, `Yeah, that’s real sincerity.”‘


Hunter and Roach have toured the world and played on the same bill as international stars.  Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, for instance, each sing with a quiet strength that reminds her of Roach.


She laughs recalling the day Paul Simon visited their home in Melbourne a few years ago.  She had tried to serve him meat sandwiches.  She’d heard him say he was a vegetarian but thought he might eat them anyway.


She has a larrikin’s twinkle in the eye.  “Archie Roach, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading and Paul Simon,” she says.  “They all call me The Forward Woman.  That’s beautiful.”

Hunter says her next project is likely to be a movie: she has been approached to act in a film.


She lives in outer suburbia but looks beyond.  “I know that the story has been told about children being taken away,” she says.  “There’s children that can still go home.  And that’s all we ask.  Let us go home.  We can still work together.  But let us have our own space.”

She’s weary of life “in a cramped up little house” at the edge of a city.  She longs for the hills, trees and billabongs of her people.  “I’m not a wardrobe woman, I’m a bush woman.”


The Sunday Age

Section: News

Page: 13

Publication date: 15-06-2003

Byline: Larry Schwartz

A scar is borne




Woomera’s detention centre is in mothballs, but the pain of its existence will leave a mark on the inmates and the nation.  Larry Schwartz reports.


HE might have held eight or more small stones in his clenched fist.


But seven is “traditional”, Mohammad al-Janabi says.  “It means you don’t want to come back to this place.”  When the gates of Woomera detention centre opened on an August afternoon to release a busload of Melbourne-bound detainees, Mohammad hurled the stones he had picked up moments before leaving the place where he was known only by the number DON2821.


Mohammad, 39, was among 4100 asylum seekers detained at the camp in the three years to its closure last month.  The detainees spent a total of 805,000 days in the remote South Australian camp that is emblematic of a system of mandatory detention in the only Western country to detain indefinitely until cases are resolved.”


I coined a phrase that I’ve used a number of times,” says solicitor Jeremy Moore, who was among the first to gain access to a “forbidden” enclosure that at one stage housed as many people as there are residents in the nearby town.  “The name and the sound and the vision of Woomera have now been burned into our national psyche.  It will take a long time for the scars to heal.”  Cut adrift from relatives left behind in troubled countries, detainees in the centre’s first year also remained isolated from a country preparing itself for the glitz and excitement of the 2000 Sydney Olympics .


Although almost nine in 10 held at Woomera were eventually able to prove their refugee status and were granted temporary protection visas, they spent an average of 182 days – nearly six months – in captivity.


Usama, a friend of Mohammad, remembers a night flight from Darwin that took so many hours he could not believe on arrival at Woomera that he was still in Australia.  Only the sight of the national flag the next morning suggested this might be so.


Usama, who is among more than 9500 people to arrive in Australia without visas since July 1999, said what first struck him about Woomera was not so much what confronted him as what did not.”


When we looked out from behind the fence, we saw nothing.  Just the dirt and a few dead trees.  We were wishing we would see something – a helicopter, a car, a kangaroo, anything.  We just wanted to see something different.  But we saw nothing.”  Woomera was once associated with the Blue Streak and other British rockets launched in the ’50s and ’60s.  The name has had a very different connotation since the December 1999 opening of an “immigration, reception and processing centre” featuring 21 brick accommodation blocks to initially hold 400 people.


Mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat – then mostly Cambodians – had been introduced in 1991 by a Labor government.  The Woomera centre was developed in response to a significant increase in unauthorised boat arrivals of Afghans, Iraqis and others, and the resulting strain on the capacity at the Port Hedland and Curtin centres.


Woomera remained open for more than three years.  Announcing in March the removal of the last detainee to Baxter, near Port Augusta, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said that Woomera was to be “decommissioned for mothballing”.


With a crackdown on people-smuggling and no unlawful arrivals since December 2001, numbers in detention had “fallen to the level where the Woomera facility is no longer needed”, he said.


Baxter would offer “a higher degree of amenity”, Mr Ruddock said.  “I’m not saying Woomera was not appropriate.  Obviously we aim to treat people as humanely as we can.”  ALP immigration spokeswoman Julia Gillard, citing incidents of self-harm, hunger strikes and detainees jumping on razor wire, described Woomera as “the public face of the worst of our detention system”.


Figures compiled by Jeremy Moore and his lawyer colleagues, who set up a base in the town of Woomera in November 2001, show the longest period of detention was 1106 days – more than three years.


In December 2000, Mr Moore’s wife, Jane, and solicitor brother-in-law, Paul Boylan, were the first in the lawyers group to gain access to Woomera.  Mr Moore followed weeks later.


Mohammad had come in darkness to the camp outside a town 490 kilometres north-west of Adelaide.  Six months later, he left on an uncertain journey in the harsh afternoon light.


Usama said that, as he left, he recalled the many times he had watched others leave, wishing he was with them.


Mohammad had been so overjoyed on learning he would be released on August 14, he had kissed a female guard.  “It was an unbelievable feeling,” he says.  “Like you are dead and somebody gives you life.”  Months on, it occurred to him that the constraints of his temporary visa mean he has come “from a small jail to a bigger jail; that’s all”.


.H Now the closest of friends, he and Usama were among 39 men and 12 women who recently took part in a study of temporary protection visa holders by RMIT University’s Centre for Applied Social Research.  The results of the study will be released on Tuesday.


Research fellow Dr Greg Marston notes that, coincidentally, at least a third of the study’s participants had been detained at Woomera, and they tended to be among the most forthcoming about their experiences.


Mr Moore would frequently commute to Woomera in the family station wagon from his offices in country Strathalbyn and Adelaide.


He says he suspects the centre held up to 1850 at its busiest and cost the Government $170 million to construct and maintain.


Mr Moore says the centre’s closure on May 17 was an attempt by the Government “to take away the argument about Woomera.


But, of course, the guts of it is that ¤ the damage has already been done to the national psyche ¤” Baghdad-born Mohammad, who was on a boat that ferried 284 people from Java to Christmas Island, arrived in Woomera in February 2000.  He arrived in the month in which John Howard, facing dwindling support, told Liberal backbenchers to hold their nerve on the GST.


Usama, 30, from a Middle Eastern country he would rather not identify, entered the razor wire enclosure in a month in which the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh toured Australia.


When he reached the centre, about 3am, Usama was still expecting a temporary stay, possibly in high-rise accommodation.


The first night, 11 men had shared a caravan.  He had a top bunk.  He saw the ocean when he closed his eyes.  The next morning, he woke to find himself in an enclosure called Indian.  From behind wire, strangers confided they had been there for months.”


We realised we had to live in that desert.


One month, one year.  No one knows.”  Days passed, each much like the day before.  These were times of tedium, punctuated by meals, at two long tables in the dining area, eaten only with spoons.


Breakfast was “bloody cornflakes every day”, Usama says.  “We’d never eaten them before.”  More idle hours until lunch from noon to 2pm.  Rice, spaghetti, potatoes, occasionally chicken.  Dinner – 5pm to 7pm – was often fish and chips.


By June 2000, Woomera housed an estimated 1600 people.  No visas had been issued.  There was no radio, no mail, no visitors.  The detainees had held peaceful demonstrations.  Now they broke a fence and walked into town.


Two groups had left on the night of June 8.  Mohammad and Usama, not yet acquainted, were in a third, chanting that they wanted freedom, that left about 9am the following day.


Mohammad wore jeans, a light jumper and thongs, not realising they would be spending two cold nights outdoors.  No one thought to bring food.


In the town of Woomera, “a woman came out of her house just to look at us ¤ Some people were waving their hats at us”.  Usama says children gave the escapees bananas or bread.


The detainees had asked to see the Immigration Minister.  “We thought he didn’t   know what was going on.”  They returned to the centre nervously, expecting punishment.  Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) officials burst into rooms throughout the night demanding to know the escapees’ identity numbers.  Mohammad and Usama left Woomera that August in a month of rioting and fires.


Jeremy Moore said of his first visit to Woomera later that year: “It was just so huge and hot.  You get out in that Woomera country and you are into lots of red sand and nothing much there in the way of trees and birdlife and animals ¤” Detainees walked with their heads lowered.  Women would complain about a lack of underwear, sanitary products and toiletries.  Harsh treatment by some ACM guards was apparently tolerated by the company.


When efforts at control failed, “they would just send in what they called the ‘assert team’ – six people all dressed in their Ninja Turtle suits, with batons and shields.”


I’ll never forget – one day this bloke was up on the top of a roof and he was screaming and yelling.  He’d cut his arm and they were laughing at him.  We were in the next area and I asked one of the interpreters what he was going on about.  He wanted to come and see me ¤” There was little apparent regard for detainees’ mental health.  Mr Moore said: “There was at least one serious incident each day.  People would attempt to hang themselves.”  None succeeded, he says, partly because there were bright lights “everywhere” and “good people” among ACM staff.


Tensions further increased after the September 11 terror attacks.  The Tampa crisis occurred in August 2001.  The Howard  Government retained power with a victory some attributed to a tough stance on border protection.


When protesters broke through a fence, ACM staff responded with water cannon, tear gas and batons.


An Iraqi couple, Rahem and a pregnant Zeinab, both 24, were among more than 340 people on a boat that had reached Christmas Island a month earlier.  “I was afraid of giving birth inside the camp,” says Zeinab, whose son was born a month after their release the following April.


She feared the unborn child would be harmed by tear gas.  Rahem tried to alert authorities.  “I asked, ‘Please, please, we have pregnant women,” he says.


In January 2002, Afghans and others began what turned out to be a 16-day hunger strike.  Some sewed their lips together.


Twenty-eight year-old Afghan Hasan Varasi was spokesman for the 200 detainees who had been aboard a boat that reached Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea the previous August.  He says he had intervened when others suggested drastic action.  “The people wanted to just break out and set fire to the buildings and completely destroy all the facilities,” he says.  “But I told them there is another way to get results.”  The strike ended on January 30, 2002 after talks with a government-appointed immigration detention and advisory group”.


Rahem took part in the March 2000 hunger strike by Iraqis in which mock graves were dug and high levels of selfharm and suicide attempts reported.  “I felt happy,” Rahem says.  “I felt, ‘I am human and I can do something by myself’.”


Someone controls you all the time.  But with the hunger strike, I control myself.”  Samir, 34, had practised medicine in Baghdad.  “A lot of people slashed themselves because they were desperate,” he says.


Suicide attempts were punished with lengthy stints in darkened rooms, he says.


Melbourne psychologist Lyn Bender is still outraged at what she saw during her six-week stint at Woomera from early March 2002.


Elsewhere in Australia, the Federal Government was officially welcoming the six millionth post-World War II migrant – a Filipina information technologist.  In Woomera, Ms Bender saw a traumatised five-year-old girl put back in the compound “pretty well unsupervised” despite her protests.  “Things were being done that were so outrageous ¤ It was like being in some outback town where there was no law other than the local vigilantes.”  A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into children in detention reported in February 2002 that, in a two-week period, it had found five incidents of children sewing together their lips, three of slashing, two of ingesting shampoo, one attempted hanging and 13 threats of self-harm.


Woomera was “enveloped in a self-reinforcing miasma of despair and desperation”, it said.


Jeremy Moore made a last visit on May 3 to close the group’s “legal outpost”.


Five kilometres west of town, an auction featuring 405 items, from fire-damaged showers to sewing machines, was being arranged.


Usama returns to Woomera in nightmares.


Samir says every detainee fears they might be sent back.  Some, like Mohammad, have cast their seven stones.



Number of individual detainees held at Woomera 1999-2003: more than 4100.


Male detainees: 3233

Female detainees: 963

Number eventually granted temporary protection visas: 3662

Number repatriated: 146

Number still held in other detention centres: 312

Average stay: 182 days (almost six months)

Maximum stay: 1106 days (more than thee years)

Total number of detainee days spent at Woomera: 804,917

Source: Woomera Lawyers Group



December, 1999: Camp opened with initial population 300-400 detainees.


April 2000: Woomera population reaches about 1300.  Detainees hold demonstrations to call for better living conditions and faster visa processing.


June 2000: More than 500 detainees stage a mass exodus from Woomera.  First detainees released on temporary protection visas.


August, 2000: Guards use water cannon and tear gas to subdue rioting detainees.  Immigration Department promises to speed up visa processing.


November, 2000: Hunger strike by 32 detainees to demand their release.


January, 2001: Woomera opened to media for first time.


March, 2001: Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report into immigration detention centres likend conditions in some facilities to prison.


June 2001: Water cannon used to subdue about 150 rioting detainees.


September, 2001: Protest outside Woomera sparks rioting by detainees.


November, 2001: Detainees set fire to buildings, causing estimated $140,000 damage.


December, 2001: Fire destroys a laundry and toilet block when about 100 detainees protest.


January 2002: More than 50 detainees sew their lips together and go on hunger strike over slow processing of visa.


February 2002: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission says Australia had breached the international rights of children by holding them in a “culture of despair” at Woomera.


March 2002: Up to 200 detainees go back on hunger strike.  On March 29 about 30 detainees escape.


April 2002: South Australian social workers report some asylum seeker children suffered suicidal thoughts, depression and disturbed behaviour.


June, 2002: More than 100 detainees rejected as refugees go on hunger strike.


November 2002: Federal Government announces Woomera will close in 2003.


December 2002-January 2003: Fires lit by protesting detainees cause about $2.5 million damage.


April 17, 2003: The last group of detainees leaves Woomera.