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Not Our Problem? Face to Face with Asylum Seekers (part 1)

Monday, 1 July 2013  | Greg Lake

I am a former employee of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. I spent time as the Director of the Nauru detention centre and, before that, as Operations Director on Christmas Island, Centre Manager of the Scherger (Qld) and Curtin (WA) detention centres and in Canberra. I was heavily involved in arranging the transfer of asylum seekers to Manus Island, Nauru and Sri Lanka. I am also a Christian and studied theology at Anglican Youthworks and SMBC. I resigned from the department earlier this year because of my ethical concerns.

In this article, I would like to share some of my experiences working with some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

‘Not our problem’
Abdullah (not his real name) was a young Kurdish boy, about 12 years old.  I remember that day in 2010 when I saw him step off the barge onto the jetty at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island, clinging to his mother’s arm. His mother had brought him and his young sister (about 8 years old) to Australia after his father and uncle didn’t return home from a day at the markets.

No-one could get Abdullah to talk. We were all worried about him and it quickly became obvious that he was suffering one of the worst cases of Post-Traumatic Stress that we’d come across. He wouldn’t engage with the mental health team, the children’s activities coordinators, his school teachers or the other Kurdish kids at the detention centre. He had withdrawn into his own world.

As a former youth worker and from my time on missions in Sierra Leone, I had a bit of experience with kids with trauma. I decided to try and break down the barrier and get to know him and his family. Every few days, I would make an effort to seek him out to say hello, crack some jokes and have a quick chat with his mother to see how she was travelling. 

One day, I was up at the centre and couldn’t find him. I spotted his mother and went up for a chat to make sure everything was ok. While we were talking, I felt a tap on my elbow. I turned around to see Abdullah with the biggest grin on his face. He pointed at me and yelled, “You are Spiderman!” and ran away. Naturally, I chased him and, when I finally caught up, politely corrected him. ‘Actually, I’m Batman’, I said, before telling him that he is so quick he may as well be Spiderman. Apparently, 12-year old boys are the same the world over as this prompted a whole conversation about superheroes.

After that day, Abdullah begun interacting with others much better. Our Mental Health team had a lot more success in helping to treat his PTSD and, when he and his family were moved to Australia into Community Detention, his mother made an effort to thank me and the other staff for helping her son.

I never did find out what happened to Abdullah. I have no idea if he and his family ended up being found to be refugees and allowed to settle in Australia.  But my short and rewarding interaction with Abdullah will forever stand out as the very definition of how proper and humane treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers can transform lives.


*          *          *          *          * 

Toward the end of 2012, I found myself in the worst job I’ve ever had. I’d held people in detention on Christmas Island, been responsible for a detention centre (in Queensland) when an asylum seeker took his own life, faced riots, lip-sewing, voluntary starvation, self-harm and the boat crash, but nothing was more confronting than my job in October 2012.

In August 2012, the Government announced that it would accept all 22 recommendation of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, chaired by retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston.  The recommendations centred on the idea that the Australian Government should encourage migration via regular channels and discourage it by irregular channels. The idea was to open up opportunities (that didn’t otherwise exist) for asylum seekers in Indonesia and Malaysia and to set up deterrent strategies to discourage people from getting on boats.

It sounded good in principle, but I found myself working on the ‘deterrent’ half of the equation.

As it was in the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, offshore processing was the central strain of the deterrence strategy. Within weeks of the Expert Panel announcement, the Department of Immigration had re-opened the Nauru regional processing centre and we were working to set up a similar one on Manus Island in PNG.  

In practice, we knew that not everyone who arrived by boat would be able to be transferred to Manus Island and Nauru. To start with, the centres on Manus Island and Nauru could only accommodate a few hundred people. Furthermore, the lack of accommodation for interpreters, medical and welfare staff meant we could only send people from certain language groups and who didn’t require intensive medical treatment. 

My job was to find a way to select people for transfer to Manus Island and Nauru so as to send a strong message of deterrence.

To get it done, we developed a set of ‘criteria for transfer’. On Nauru, for example, we could only accommodate adult men. So the criteria I’d put together for each charter flight from Christmas Island to Nauru would look something like this: ‘A group of 35 males who are over 18 years old from X nationalities, not in a family group, who arrived between X date and Y date and who receive medical clearance from a doctor as fit to travel’. I would give that list to the Department of Immigration staff on Christmas Island, who would then make sure that they found 35 people who met those criteria.  The result was that, by manipulating the criteria for each flight, we could transfer the  sorts of people that our intelligence was suggesting were being targeted by people smugglers. In other words, we’d try to encourage those people who were using a people smuggler to re-think their decision to get on a boat. 

It wasn’t a lot of fun being in a job like that. I was never comfortable with the idea of a Government department treating people based on general characteristics, rather than specific information. But things only got worse when it came to arranging the first transfer to Manus Island.

As Nauru had only been able to accommodate adult men, when it came to setting up Manus Island, the priority was families. Between the August announcement of the Expert Panel, there had been a spike in the number of women and children arriving by boat. As soon as the temporary centre was in place and we had agreement from the PNG and Manus Island provincial governments, the Government wanted to send a group of women and children to Manus Island to try and slow the rate of arrivals. 

As with Nauru, there were limitations on who we could transfer to Manus Island. A big limitation was that the inoculations for Malaria and Japanese Encephalitis—both common on Manus Island—couldn’t  be given to children under 7 years old. That meant that, if we were going to send families, we had to make sure they didn’t have younger children.  

It was made very clear to me (by the Immigration Minister’s office) that, despite this limitation, the priority was to send families who had children who were as young as possible: in other words, as close to 7 years old as possible.

I remember putting the criteria together for that first flight that ended up going to Manus Island on 20 November 2012 with seven families (19 people) on board.  I remember looking at the list of names that came back from Christmas Island for approval by the Minister’s office. I remember seeing a family that had one boy and one girl between the ages of 7 and 12.

I couldn’t help but think of Abdullah and his mother and sister. I couldn’t help but think that, without any other information other than the fact that they met the criteria, some of the most vulnerable people in the world were being sent away. I couldn’t help but think that this policy of deterrence was just another way for Australia to say ‘not our problem’.

*          *          *          *          *

During my time with Immigration, particularly while working with asylum seekers, there were two passages of scripture that I continually grappled with - James 1:27 and Mark 10:13-16. Most Australian Christians know them well (if you don’t, look them up) - they’re about caring for widows and orphans and responding to Jesus as children do. 

During my time at Immigration, I found my professional obligations coming into conflict with those passages. We know from scripture that those who are able should work to provide for themselves and others, to be meaningfully occupied/productive and to open up opportunities for the gospel, bringing glory to God in the quality and integrity of their work. But we also know that some occupations and professions are ‘no-go zones’ for Christians (such as prostitution, criminal activity etc). The question I faced was whether my job was in that no-go zone.

While I was managing Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, I read Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Towards the end of the book, he encourages his readers to ask themselves, “Is this what I want to be doing when Jesus returns?” He encourages us to think about whether our life is reflecting the heart of God - compassionate, loving, merciful, just and obedient. I realised, when I read that chapter, that my very profession was all about holding vulnerable people in detention and that everything I was doing was at odds with God’s clear and explicit instruction on how to treat widows and children.

Leaving was a big call. I was earning good money, had a stable career and was advancing through the ranks at a rapid pace.  Since leaving, things have been tough - financially, socially and emotionally. But at no time have I questioned whether it was the right thing to do. If the least I can do with the experiences God has given me is encourage other believers to re-think the issue of ‘boat people’ and, in doing so, help them to come at it from the perspective that all people are made in the image of God and are valuable to him, then the whole thing has been worth it.


Greg Lake now lives down the NSW South Coast, writes a blog (www.theimmigrationblog.com) and attends St Martin’s Anglican Church.


Michael Nelson
July 2, 2013, 1:56AM
Another disturbing impact of the xenophobic policies of both major parties on refugees/asylum seekers/illegals is the rise of hate-based responses. Our nephew, Renan, from Brazil, who is staying with us while he studies English at Burleigh Heads Language School on the Gold Coast, was riding his bike to school when some red-neck yobbo fired two 5 cm nails at him from a nail gun. Renan looks middle-eastern, as do many Brasilians (remember the one who was mistaken for a terrorist in London and shot dead by the police?) and there is no doubt that the attack was directed at him because of his appearance, particularly as he favours the ‘designer stubble’ look, so beloved of today’s with-it young men. One nail penetrated both walls of his back tyre and brought him to a sudden halt and the other lodged in his back pack. The first must have just missed his legs and the second would have penetrated his spine were it not for the back pack, so there is no doubt that serious injury was the intent. The police are onto it but Renan didn’t notice anything other than the sudden deflation of his back tyre, so the nails may have been fired from a nearby house or even a moving vehicle fitted up with a compressor. We only hope that the police will find the Hansonite who did this before he actually succeeds in killing or seriously maiming someone.

It is a tragedy that Pauline’s legacy has been to stoke the fires of racism, fuelling an extraordinary antagonism to refugees that has captured both of the major political parties in an immoral and destructive set of policies and practices, supported (or perhaps more accurately, driven) by the media. The extreme elements, those who bash blackfellows and fire nail-guns at passing cyclists, are in their element as their bigotry is legitimised by the political race to the ethical bottom. Poor Renan just cannot understand it, as he comes from a society where racism is history and socially unacceptable, despite a form of economic separation where blacks are seriously over-represented in lower paid work. Oh yes, and where there are some places like Salvador where whites are fair game after 9.00pm (and some blacks as well). But no trace of racial violence in his upbringing and experience of two years of living in Rio!

It makes me very ashamed of my own country and now, I am bloody angry at the perpetrators – and I am not talking about the nail-gun brigade. There is no doubt that the political debate on asylum seekers, riven with mis-representations, fear-mongering for political advantage, avoidance of international obligations and devoid of common humanity, is shaping a response to refugees that goes far beyond a total rejection of illegal migrants and is now legitimating violence against the strangers and orphans who press their claims on us - an even more violent form of White Australia that will destroy our national future as it spreads like a cancer in the society.
Shirley Timmins
July 2, 2013, 7:25AM
Well God bless you, heaps Greg Lake..!

But the question is.. what can we do ?
How can we change policies?
What can we ask our Government to do?
Win Kent
July 2, 2013, 7:56AM
I am ashamed of any action against people who need our help. We need to be compassionate toward people who need our help.
Tom Mayne
July 2, 2013, 11:23AM
Can you send Greg Lake's article to Senator Carr? If you can't, can I? Would I need Greg's permission?

Our polies should be informed.
Ross Tatam
July 2, 2013, 11:41AM
There seem to be 3 positions: (1) have an 'open' immigration policy (ie. allow all who come here to stay with the only admin. being for health, criminal background checks, etc.,); (2) no immigration and withdrawal from being a signatory to the relevant UN convention); (3) some 'middle ground'. The idealist in me tends to favour (1) but I know that the practical constraints would be enormous. I have no sympathy for option (2) nor does it have any real political support. So, we are left with some form of option (3). The humanitarians among us are filled with anguish at the thought of innocent people risking their lives at sea or being detained for lengthy periods under any conditions. However, with each compromise to the control of the number of refugees/asylum seekers who are accepted the further we move to option (1) by default 'on the run' rather than by a well thought out public policy decision. The difficulty is to balance the need for compassion and control in dealing with what is, in the context of world refugee crisis, an insoluble problem.

I sympathise with your obvious gut-wrenching decision Greg. However, you seem to have been able to manifest the love of Christ even in a limited way and under adverse conditions. I'm not sure that the world offers much in the way of alternatives. Remember Jesus' attitude to tax collectors was not that they should quit their jobs but that they not take more than they should.
July 2, 2013, 7:36PM
Greg, thank you so much for this article. You are brave to walk away though the cost has been high.
May God be near to you in this time and all that you've given up be nothing compared to knowing Him.
Ross Tatam
July 6, 2013, 5:16PM
Some points about Michael Nelson's response.

Terms such as "hate-based", "xenophobic" and "Hansonite" are emotional and stifle debate by instantly labelling, by definition, anyone who does not accept all refugees with any one or all of these negative tags.

No evidence beyond the victims appearance is offered for the conclusion that the attack was racially motivated.

No evidence is advanced for a link between the attack (even if racially based) and the refugee policy.

I am sorry that Michael should feel so ashamed of this country which has people who devote hours of their time and hundreds of their own dollars to 'direct action' in assisting refugees languishing for years in camps overseas with few resources or opportunities to leave. I suggest that the extent of their need provides a greater moral imperative for assistance than purely the reason for their suffering.

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