I was living in Sydney at the end of 2000 when the razor wire went up at Villawood. Villawood is a form of Australian concentration camp known as a Detention Centre. Villawood has been a staging centre for immigrants to Australia since the 1940s. It could be a museum of buildings since there is a representative building for almost every decade since the 1940s starting with a Quonset Hut. Thousands - even tens of thousands - of men, women and children have been through Villawood en route to a new life in the Land of Oz.
At the end of 2000, just before Christmas when attention is focussed elsewhere, the razor wire went up.
I was not part of a group visiting the asylum seekers in Villawood. But, as time permitted, I would go out there with some regularity to sit and pray. Security was not tight in those days and I could drive in and sit in the middle of the campus under a tree and look around and pray. Then came the day just before Christmas 2000 when I went out to pray and there to my horror was the wire fence and its offensive razor wire in the middle of erection - all the posts were not yet in the ground.
I contacted the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald. This was a time of summer holidays, skeleton staff, short days. Eventually, one journalist returned my call - on his mobile phone from his holiday destination. The silly season was upon us. I told everyone I could. People I met. My church. I invited people to come with me to Villawood and see for themselves. To no avail. Complete and utter disinterest. My reasoning was that no one would be able to claim ignorance. In Germany, there were people who claimed that they had no knowledge of the existence or purpose concentration camps built near there towns and villages. As far as I was able, I was determined to give Sydney no excuse.
Eventually, I convinced one person to come with me - Ian Robinson, then Minister of Chatswood Uniting Church. We drove out on an evening in early March (if my memory serves me correctly), we drove in to the middle of the campus, parked under a tree and prayed. Ian prayed for every thing, person and contingency that could be thought of. About 48 hours later, I was driving home from work when I heard a news item announcing the escape of 40 asylum seekers.
Now, I don't pretend that our prayer had anything to do with that. I think the planned escape of 40 people took planning which preceded our prayer visit. But I do believe that somehow our prayer is intertwined with those people - perhaps for their safety, their future life. Perhaps, one day I'll know.
To-day, four years and ten months after the wire and razor wire went up, Amanda Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration cut the razor wire at Villawood to herald the coming down of the wire at all detention centres.
I cried. I wish it could be "Whoopee!" and much clapping of hands but it isn't. I am too exhausted. Exhausted from years of campaigning, argument, convincement, rallies, letters, the wrongful detention of our friend, Cornelia Rau, and the abusive deportation of Vivian Solon (see the Justice sidebar link). I will probably get some champagne to share with my son and daughter to mark the event - but it is hollow. I would like to say to my brother in Christ at church who talks about 'illegals' "There you are!". But what is the point. It is irrelevant. I somehow think asylum seekers would feel the same. Their struggle and suffering has been too great to allow energy for triumph. I will leave the triumphant voice to Vanstone. Her energy for this cause was not there at the beginning, so she probably has some left.
The fences are coming down. The poor, the stateless, the homeless, the destitute, the persecuted, the sojourners are being liberated. But have the minds of those who imprisoned them and those who tolerated their actions been freed - or are they still imprisoned in bigotry and prejudice? If this is the case, this victory is short term and probably pyrrhic.