In the year 2000, the Australian government passed legislation which would affect the lives of 84 Timorese people living in Darwin. Although a small number of these refugees had been given permanent residency, this legislation meant that a large number of their children who had been born in Australia and spouses who had joined their partners and other family members already residing in Australia, would have to go back to Timor. But this is not a story about the legislation, it’s about how my family opened their communities in Arnhemland and the Tiwi Islands to these refugees.
It all started when I was watching the local Darwin news one evening and saw these shameful events unfolding. The NT News ran the story in depth the next day and my disgust with the Howard government grew (not that it would take much mind you). The national papers ran the story as well but it was relegated to the inside pages while in Darwin interest grew as some of these families were known to us. Many of these refugees had arrived in Darwin seeking asylum because the ongoing civil war in Timor Leste had ripped their families and lives apart and like anybody else, they wanted a safe place to live. Anyone who lived in the vicinity of Mararra, as I did, where these refugees were housed in rows of army tents similar to immigration centres now, would have heard the rousing cheers every time an Australian army plane took off from the nearby Darwin airport to take supplies to Australian soldiers who were there for peace-keeping purposes and for civilians who had lost crops and livelihoods and were facing starvation. It was really moving and just served to emphasise the horrors these poor people must have been through.
The story continued to run in the Darwin paper and on the Darwin news for the next few days. I couldn’t sleep thinking about it, and knew that something had to be done. Although I didn’t know any of these people personally, I knew others who did and they along with the Timorese who were facing deportation and the break-up of their families were utterly devastated by the government’s intention. Knowing how my own family had been affected when I was removed from my mother as a three year old child, I just didn’t want to see this disgusting practice happen in our country ever again. Apart from losing their homes these refugees would lose everything they’d worked for in this “lucky” country that is so good at giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
My first phone call was to my Nanna Nellie Cam Foo at Bulman. I wanted to know what she thought about giving these people refuge in our communities and making a stand against this inhumane piece of legislation. Nanna was all for it, as I knew she would be. I then rang my family at Maningrida on the coast of Arnhemland and Nguiu on Bathurst Island. Everyone that I spoke to felt the same way that I did, that we had to welcome these people and give them somewhere safe to stay. My respective families then went about organising bush camp sites so the Timorese people could be together in their family groups and so they could be hidden away from the townships in our communities where authorities would start looking for them. We all knew that this would only stall the government and not stop them but it would buy us and the Timorese people time. And although the Intervention has since proven that the government makes and breaks its own rules and are happy to trample over our land if it suits them, we were not going to issue permits to enter our land to anyone who was at threat of taking the Timorese people against their will.
Through my partner of the time, a Barrister, I found out that Collin McDonald QC was representing the Timorese people in a court case to overturn the legislation and through him we arranged a meeting to tell them of our intentions. But first he explained to me that as courageous and compassionate as our plan was, the government had the powers to march in and take them from our communities but such action on our behalf would certainly make them sit up and take notice and would give him a stronger point to argue from. Namely the first Australians providing asylum to refugees on our own land.
I met a representative of their group and his daughter in Collin’s Chambers. He said they were all so overwhelmed that we indigenous people who had been treated terribly at the hands of the government could find it in our hearts to offer them a place to go. I explained to him that despite the wrongs done to us, we believed in justice and what was being done to him and his countrymen was morally and ethically wrong. We knew what it was like having our land and children stolen so we needed to stick together and support them. Needless to say there were a few tears shed that day, this man and his daughter because of the kindness of my family, and me because I’m a big sook and couldn’t help myself.
The Newspapers and TV and Radio stations were straight onto it and within an hour Paul Toohey from the Age was knocking at my front door. After the media got hold of our story the people of Darwin and the churches and welfare agencies then rallied around. I think they were suitably shamed for not trying to lift a finger to help before we, a bunch of remote area indigenous people stepped up to the plate. In the end everything turned out fine and these 84 people were allowed to stay, although the government did go on to pass legislation that prevented refugees seeking asylum on land that was administered under the Land Rights Act.