This is Australia today
TOM ROUSE SSC
MOST THURSDAY afternoons I make the trip over to Villawood. There I park the car and make my way over to the entrance into Stage 2 of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. It has changed a lot over the four years that I have been going there.
There used to be only one fence around that part of the Centre. The high security Stage 1 section is located about 100 metres further to the back of the Detention complex. But in those days, back in 1997, we used to enter by a gate at the back of the Stage 2 complex. Eventually they built a second wall around the Stage 2 section. The inner fence was topped with barbed wire and between the two sections three-feet high coils of razor wire were placed around the whole perimeter. At that time a small four-wheel drive vehicle, usually with a single guard-driver, continuously moved around the whole perimeter of the Stage 2 section. I haven’t seen one in recent months.
After allowing half-a-dozen people at a time through the outside gate into what became a caged enclosure, the guard would lock that gate and then go to the inner gate which led into what was a small administration block. After passing through a metal detector, we would either sign a book for church personnel or fill out a form. This procedure would constantly change for reasons that were never clear. We have tried for a long time to obtain special IDs for church personnel but this has so far been unsuccessful. Whenever we have to complete the form, we are required to produce our Australian drivers’ licences or other forms of ID. A points system determines how many different IDs go to make up the required points. An Australian driver’s licence meets the full quota.
After recording our name or filling out the form, a tag is clipped on to our wrists. Then, we would enter another small enclosure at the back of the admin. block and wait for the guard to open the gate that led into the visitors’ yard. In those days there was a canteen and DIMA office in the visitors’ yard. We usually celebrated Mass in the canteen. I was never permitted to enter the residential area.
Since the reshaping of Stage 2 and the increase in the size of the Villawood Detention Complex which now includes a Stage 3 section, this visitors’ section at the back has been pulled down and a new entrance built at the front. This is where I now go to enter the complex.
The procedure is still the same, except that the administration centre is a far more elaborate building. After entering the outside yard, we wait for a guard to allow us to enter the check-in area in groups of four. There is no longer a book for church personnel. We all have to fill in the form. It must make for a massive amount of paper work.
After being tagged we pass through the metal detector and then enter a small room with thick metal doors at both ends. A guard enters, closes the inner door and opens the outer door that admits us to a small open-air section. A short path leads down to a gate in the inner wire fence perimeter. A guard inside lets us in to the visitors’ section. This is a smaller area than before. There are no buildings, only one large covered area and an expanse of grass area. Because there are usually visitors in the covered area, we have had to celebrate Mass out in the open grass area. Fortunately, this year (2001) the winter has been very mild.
After celebrating Mass and spending a little time with the people in Stage 2, I leave the way I came. The guard at the admin. block uses scissors to cut free the tag around my wrist and I make my way out to the car park at the front of the Stage 2 section. From there, on every second Thursday, I drive the short distance down to the parking area in front of the high security Stage 1 section. There the two fences that surround the area are made up of closely-knit metal stakes. At both gates in each of the fences I press a button on a microphone device. When asked I explain the purpose of my visit. Perched on top of the fence is a security camera so that the guard can see who is entering. After entering the second fence, I go into the admin. block and there sign another more official form. I tear off the form and place it in a plastic holder that I then clipon to my coat. From the admin. block I cross a small yard to another building. There I press a button. Eventually a guard comes, looks through a peephole and lets us in. Depending on who the guard is and whether or not he knows us, we may be asked to go through another metal detector. Another door leads to a narrow corridor. Down that corridor is another door which admits us into the inside of the high security Stage 1 section of the Villawood Detention Centre.
We used to celebrate Mass over in the recreation room that opened into the residence section of the Stage 1 complex. Then a couple of years ago, we were no longer permitted to go that far and have been celebrating Mass in one of either of the two television rooms that lie just beyond the glassed-in guard room that surveys these recreation areas.
Every alternative Thursday, I go to the stage 3 complex. This was opened at the beginning of this year. It adjoins but is completely separate from the stage 2 section. To get there, I have to leave the stage 2 section and drive the short distance to the entrance to stage 3. The entrance into this complex is along a lengthy corridor of wire caging. Surrounding this section are six wire fences! It holds only male detainees. I do not as yet understand the purpose of this complex, except that it was built to allow for a greater number of people to be detained. The visitors’ room is very small. It is embarrassing and awkward celebrating Mass in the midst of people visiting relatives and friends. While I have difficulty making myself heard, I feel sorry for those whose brief time with their visitors is interrupted by Catholics trying to celebrate their Eucharist.
One of the fellows I came to know back in 1997 spent five Christmases in Villawood. On one occasion he said to me he believed that he was destined to spend the rest of his days there. He was recently deported back to his homeland and I fear for his mental health more than anything else.
Quite a number have been in there for around two years and the rest for a number of months.
The Catholic population has grown quite considerably since the expansion program. In the past we would sometimes have as few as ten attend the celebration. Now we get at least fifty or more in Stage 2. In the past the overall population of Villawood used to be around two hundred and fifty. Now it is over five hundred. There is also a Stage 3.
Since April 1997, Australia’s detention centres have been run under government contract by a private company called Australasian Correctional Management or, to use its acronym, ACM. ACM is a ‘wholly owned subsidiary of the United States-based Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, which is itself majority-owned by the parent company, Wackenhut.’1 Further information about this company is available in Peter Mares’ book Borderline – Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
Four years ago, I went to visit a member of our Fiji-Sydney Catholic Community. There I met Sr Helen Barnes who is in charge of our Catholic chaplaincy to Villawood. She said that the chaplaincy was looking for a priest who was willing to come regularly to Villawood. The previous priest-chaplain had been reassigned to a distant parish that made it difficult for him to keep up his ministry to the detainees. I instinctively agreed to take up the responsibility. Perhaps I was compelled by a basic sense of compassion for people who are seeking a secure and better life in Australia. Or perhaps it was out of a sense of solidarity with people whose plight reminded me that I had once been forced to leave a country—Fiji—that had been my home for twelve years.
Since that time I have experienced the joy of those who have won release and the right of residency in Australia after waiting, often times over many months, for a positive decision by the Refugee Review Tribunal or the Minister for Immigration. I have also experienced the pain of turning up at the Centre only to discover that a friend whose case I believed was sincere had been deported back to the country from which he or she had fled. On a number of occasions I have written letters in support of detainees’ applications to the Minister. I always received a polite letter from the Minister’s office to say that the Minister had taken into account my letter and that the particular person would eventually be informed of the Minister’s decision.
Without fail, however, there is always something special about the eucharistic celebrations in Villawood. More than anything I am touched by the singing. I can easily recall my brothers from the Republic of the Congo, led by Serge, as they inspired the men gathered in Stage 1 to sing a simple tune from the Congo usually at the end of the Mass. We would gather in a circle and Serge would open with his memorable bass voice. The other men would respond in harmony and then all the detainees present would join in the singing and dancing to the tune of a song that expressed the deepest aspirations that lay at the heart of the peoples of Africa and unleashed the yearnings of those who came from the many other parts of the world. Serge, and most of the other detainees from the Congo were eventually deported. I trust that they eventually found safe haven in some other part of the world and are still singing the songs that even the barbed wire and razor wire could not silence. We banished these men and their songs to hopefully another more compassionate part of the world. But the haunting memory of those wonderful people, their powerful songs and freely swaying dances remind me of a treasure we flung back into the sea.
As a Scripture scholar and one trained in the area of social analysis I have reflected upon the Scriptures over the past couple of years in the light of the detention policies of this country. What I have become aware of is that for anyone whose faith is founded upon the Judaeo-Christian biblical traditions, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers should touch us to the very core of our being because our Sacred Scriptures are texts largely written by refugees. The stories of Abram and Sarai, our parents in faith, tell of people who ventured into the unknown, into a land that was not their own. As the Lord said, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your ancestor’s house to the land that I will show you’ (Gen 12:1). Can they ever claim it as their own? As a result of the experience of famine and war, Abram and Sarai have to continually move on. Abram even uses his own wife as a passport for entry into the land of Egypt, much to the eventual embarrassment of his host (Gen 12:10f). In his journeying, Abram assumes a new name and a new identity (Gen 17). But it was upon the death of his wife that we read of how a burial place became the mark of Abraham’s residency (Gen 23), but still only as a resident alien.
From my study of the tribal society of ancient Israel, I have come across the protocols for hosts and strangers.2 The host was normally the father of a household in his own village. The practice was to offer an invitation to the stranger and then to repeat it. After the invitation is accepted the host would wash the stranger’s feet to signify that he is a guest. The host was then obliged to provide food and protection and could not openly question the stranger. The stranger would remain for an agreed-upon time, which may be extended. He could not ask for or covet his host’s possessions and he would bless the host’s household upon departing.
It was through constantly remembering their past, that the ancient Israelites were ever conscious of their obligations towards foreigners—‘for you were once aliens in a foreign land.’ The law regarding resident aliens or ger is contained in Deut 24:17-18: ‘You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.’ Resident aliens were protected by the people. They had right of free movement. However they had no right of granting hospitality to other visiting strangers.
What becomes painfully evident as we read through the accounts of the period of monarchy and the division between northern and southern kingdoms is that empire-building tends to induce collective amnesia. As we read in 1 Kgs 9:20-21, ‘All the people who were left [of the surrounding tribes] ... these Solomon conscripted for slave labour, and so they are to this day. But of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves; they were his soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, and the commanders of his chariotry and cavalry.’ Foreigners became slave labour for the grand projects of monarchical Israel. Abuse of wisdom often results from the loss of memory. The Israelite people had forgotten that they themselves were once slaves in a foreign land.
And so the Israelite people once more were taken into exile, the Babylonian exile. Interestingly enough, Jeremiah in one passage advises his people to seek the welfare of the city to which they had been banished. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ (Jer 29:7)
The homecoming, following the exile, witnessed a struggle between the visionaries and the reconstructionists. On the one hand, we have the glorious vision of Mt Zion in Third Isaiah which speaks of the Lord gathering ‘all nations and tongues’ so that they may witness the glory of the Lord upon the ‘holy mountain Jerusalem’ (Is 66:18-23). On the other hand, there were the policies of separation implemented by Nehemiah: ‘Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners…’ (Neh 9:2). This was to usher in a period that witnessed the constant struggle between those forces of xenophobic tribalism and the call to be an instrument of universal salvation and lasting peace.
We now come to the Gospel accounts of Jesus the Christ, the one whom we acknowledge as Lord and Saviour. The Matthean infancy narrative account depicts Jesus’ family as exiles who flee to Egypt. During his ministry, Jesus speaks of himself as homeless in his own land—‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt 8:20).
Following his death and resurrection, the Jesus movement was spread by Christian missionaries who moved among the emigrants and new settlers of the Jewish Diaspora. These settlers included mercenaries, slaves, refugees and the destitute.
A central celebration each year among the members of this new movement was that of the Christian Passover. During this celebration, Christians re-enacted the praxis of Jesus by washing each other’s feet before the meal. This was, as we recall, the first act of welcoming a stranger. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, ‘I do not call you servants any longer…’ (Jn 15:15f). Nor does he call us simply guests in the timeless practice of hospitality towards the stranger. But rather he calls us friends.
To conclude this biblical reflection, I recall a passage from a non-canonical text, the Epistle to Diognetus, that says, ‘[Christians] reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens; they take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home and every home a foreign land. They find themselves in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh.’3
For a homily, during the celebration of the weekly Eucharist at Villawood, I try to touch on a central theme or aspect of the readings. I do not speak for very long because I am aware that many of these detainees have only limited knowledge of English. Instead, I would often ask a simple question in relation to that theme, like, for instance, ‘Do you have mountains in your country?’ As I go around the group, those from Ghana or Nigeria or the Congo say, ‘Yes, we have big mountains in our countries.’ Likewise, those from Eastern Europe and the Middle East speak of the mountains of their countries. As those from central Asia tell of mountains in Pakistan, India, Burma and other places, the young fellow from Nepal says, ‘No, we don’t have any mountains in Nepal.’ This elicits much laughter from all. As we move through East Asia, across to Latin America and down to the Pacific, we eventually come to a gentleman from Tonga who boldly says, ‘We have huge mountains in Tonga – all of six feet high!’ Even more laughter erupts from the congregation as we enjoy a moment of sheer fun and easy solidarity. Distant mountains and memories of far-flung homelands help to relieve the tension, frustration, boredom and anger among those resigned to walking and walking and walking, each day and every day, around the wired confines of the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
Then, towards the end of Mass, I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to ask the Australians present whether there are mountains here in this land. ‘Why, of course, there are the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney!’ And all I can say to end the celebration is, ‘I hope one day we all gather together on the Blue Mountains and look out towards the horizons of this beautiful land.’
1 Peter Mares, Borderline— Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Sydney, Australia: A UNSW Press book, 2001), pp. 69-70.
2 Victor H Matthews and Don C Benjamin, The Social World of Ancient Israel – 1250-587 BCE (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 83.
3 Epistle to Diognetus V. 5,8. This is cited in Bruce W Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans, 1994), p. 12.
Tom Rouse is a Columban Missionary priest. He has worked in Fiji and currently lectures in biblical studies and works in formation. He is on the chaplaincy team for Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
This mandatory detention is itself a matter for concern: alone among the nations, Australia excludes any discretion being exercised as to whether, in particular cases, detention may be inappropriate or should be abbreviated.
—‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers’, Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 26th March 2002.