Proud of our humanity towards asylum seekers


At this time of writing, April 2011 seems a long time ago.  We had been advised by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen that he was going to develop a temporary detention centre on Defence Department property at the rifle range in Pontville.

The centre to house asylum seekers was to be open for six months. That six months ends at the end of February 2012. The Minister has met his commitment and the centre will close .

There were initial concerns by the community, and rightly so as the announcement did come without any prior consultation with particularly the Brighton Council and the residents of our municipality.  Unfortunately it translated into what was a very ugly public meeting held in the Brighton Memorial Hall at Pontville. The politicisation of that meeting by Liberal Party supporters and indeed by Senator Eric Abetz did nothing but show an ignorance and racial view to the many good Tasmanians and in particular, the residents of Brighton and Pontville who have over many years identified themselves as tolerant and supportive of peoples less fortunate than ourselves.

I look back now and say thankfully we as a community, not just those of us who live here but the broader Tasmanian community overcame that initial period to make the stay of the detainees one in which we can all be proud.

For me this was not about politics, it was not about Labor versus Liberal policies, it was not about mandatory detention, it was about seeing that while the detainees were in detention in our municipality that they were looked after  in the most humanitarian way possible. I truly believe we achieved that.

Of course I have a view on Australia’s policies for refugees and asylum seekers.  Most people do but it is not the domain of local government and we unfortunately have to accept that jurisdiction remains primarily at this time with Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Mr Abbott.

Hopefully they can agree on a better model than currently exists.

As I look back on the past six months I reflect with comfort that we as a Tasmanian community again showed our true colours and supported the detainees far better than is done elsewhere in our country and there are many people to thank for that, but in this column I will only mention two amazing young women for the contribution they have made.

Emily Conolon created the Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support  (TASS) group soon after Minister Bowen made his announcement and hundreds of people joined the TASS group , lent their support and as volunteers spent many hours with the detainees helping to prepare them for life after detention.

Clarissa Adriel is president of the  Occupational Opportunities for Refugees and Asylum Seekers Inc (OOFRAS) . Both Emily and Clarissa have websites that played a very important part in providing information on what was going on at the Pontville Detention Centre. If you are interested please have a look at their sites.

During my visit to Minister Chris Bowen in early February it was suggested we needed to provide him with as much information as possible that would allow him to have a look at the request we were making and that was to keep Pontville open.   To that end, part of that information was to have as many people as possible sign a petition in support of the centre remaining open. In the very short time that we had, Clarissa set up on her website an online petition which in a little over a week, generated more than 600 signatures of support.

As well as humanitarian reasons to keep it open we also recognised that 230 people were directly employed there by SERCO along with DIAC Staff, Interpreters and Mental Health workers all of which were contributing to the economy of Tasmania.

Many small business operators were deriving an income and 95% of the goods and services they were providing were from Tasmanian based organisations.

The monthly salary paid by SERCO to the employees was $1.3 million.

The figures alone were enough for us to continue to lobby the Minister to keep Pontville open.

As we know now that was not enough, politics overrode common sense.  It seems that unfortunately there is not space for politics and common sense to co- exist.

I share a story that has had a lovely ending. It was good to see that on Sundays some of the detainees were allowed to come to church at St Mark’s, Pontville to follow their faith and afterwards stay and enjoy a cup of tea with members of the congregation. On February 9 two of the boys Abdul and John reaffirmed their baptismal vows before Bishop John Harrower in what was a very moving ceremony. Sunday February 19 was their last day at Church here at Pontville.  Both boys had during the week been granted bridging visas which means they now have lawful status to stay in Australia. They have now gone to Victoria where they will receive transitional support as they go through the finalisation process before being recognised with full refugee status.

At that time we hope to see them come back and settle in Tasmania.