On Saturday the 27th August 2016 I was standing outside the Sydney Town Hall at a rally in support of closing the internment camps on Manus and Nauru and bringing the asylum seekers and refugees to Australia.
I listened intently as speaker after speaker denounced the various Australian government policies enforced upon asylum seekers this century. Several speakers made the point that it was fifteen years since John Howard despatched SAS troops to prevent the Norwegian commercial vessel The Tampa unloading at Christmas Island, the 438 asylum seekers its crew had rescued. This was the closest landmass with sufficient medical facilities. As such the decision of the captain to offload them at Christmas Island was in line with best international practice and the law of the sea.
Other speakers reflected upon the fallacious claims of Howard government ministers that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard from another vessel. Still others spoke about Howard’s 2001 election speech in which he proclaimed, “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
The brutal regimes that are a constant feature of these camps were outlined including the rape and other sexual assaults on women and children that are regular occurrences.
Some speakers spoke about the ongoing suicide attempts, deaths and the killings of asylum seekers. They spoke about the desperation of many who are slowly being driven mad by deliberate government policies designed to force, even those found to be genuine refugees, to return to the countries from which they fled.
The full horror of the policy that Australian government spokespersons call “The Pacific Solution” was laid bare.
It was not the first time I had heard these facts. For the last 20 years or so I have campaigned against various versions of both Labor and Liberal government treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat seeking our protection.
As I stood there listening I became aware of tears running down my cheeks. I had an overwhelming sense of, what my Aboriginal friends would call, a shame job. I was embarrassed by what my country had become. I despaired for what was being done in our name and about how far we, as a nation, had sunk into a quagmire of desperation and fear.
I was distressed by the impotence of decent Australian people to convince our governments to behave decently, honourably or even attempt to live up to the international obligations Australia has, in the past, freely agreed to and ratified.
The tears kept rolling down my cheeks. A man standing next to me at the rally, who probably had been born overseas, gently gripped my bicep in an act of solidarity. I did not speak to him. I was afraid of how emotional I was. Later as he walked away with his wife I noticed his white cap had a little kangaroo embroidered at the back. I wished I’d said thank you to him for his act of sympathy, understanding and solidarity.
I hope that one day we will manage to build a country that befits such acts of humanity.
Copyright © 2023 John Tomlinson