Rocking the Boat: Children as Path-clearing Asylum-Seekers

Kate Legge, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 10 July 2011, where the title is more succinct

FRANCES Walton felt almost invincible after helping to mend victims of the earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan in October 2005. For two months she’d plied her nursing skills 18 hours daily without a break in two emergency medical centres where hundreds of the wounded lined up for treatment. What she saw in the tent cities around her was deeply unsettling, but she returned home to Melbourne for Christmas uplifted by the power of helping in a crisis. “I was walking in a larger world… it just gave me a feeling of being able to do anything, in a strange way,” she says. Within weeks, her next humanitarian challenge arrived on Australia’s doorstep in a traditional outrigger canoe. The 25m boat had sailed around West Papua for two months collecting 43 asylum seekers for the four-day journey to Cape York Peninsula. It was a difficult and dangerous voyage, with huge swells disabling the boat’s outboard motors. Along with the adults on board were eight unaccompanied children as young as 11 whose parents had paid for them to make the 425km crossing. After two months on Christmas Island the children were granted refugee status, guaranteeing them permanent protection visas, and they were taken to Melbourne.

Frances, 64, and her husband John, 68, a veterinary surgeon and Rotary Club leader, both sympathised with West Papua’s campaign for independence from Indonesia. When the phone call came asking them to care for a 16-year-old refugee girl, they agreed. They’d each raised three children of their own from previous marriages and were empty-nesters rattling around a comfortable suburban house. Neither of them could have predicted how this decision would transform their lives. One girl opened the door for six more boys to follow. Meal times routinely expanded into dinner for a crowd as the Walton home became a hub for the West Papuan community. Frances eventually gave up her job at the Austin Hospital to manage and mother the brood. The experience has been rewarding and exhilarating, but also troubling.

Five years on, the Waltons have gleaned insider knowledge that has shaken their faith in the wisdom of our refugee policy. They worry that youngsters are being packed off alone in boats to enhance the prospect of family reunion. They are certain that several of the refugees in their care were sent here to learn English, not for survival (the UN defines refugees as people who have been forced to flee their homeland due to persecution). Separation from families, culture and communities has been traumatic for some of the children; one told Frances that coming to Australia has been so terribly hard that if he had known how difficult life would become he would never have left in the first place.

Human rights lawyers who have been involved with refugee cases for more than a decade insist the number of lone children seeking asylum is increasing, although these minors typically account for only 5 per cent of the refugee flow. Immigration will not allow a historical comparison and says the latest available figure of 355 unaccompanied children fluctuates daily as visas are granted.

Who pays for their passage and who puts them on the boats? Are they true refugees fleeing persecution, or are their families simply seeking a better life for their children or an education?

“We really need to look more closely at what’s happening,” Frances urges. She’s been doing just that. Her sense of what’s fair – the very sense that fuels her generosity – has been disturbed by discrepancies, things she’s heard and witnessed while she has fussed over her charges. For months she swallowed her disquiet but at Easter a fresh incident – involving a 12-year-old West Papuan girl left in Australia by her parents – made this silence untenable. She wrote a letter to The Age flagging her unease without revealing the details: “I now believe that boat refugees include savvy, middle-class immigrants, aided by lawyers. Millions of refugees more deserving of resettlement [through having waited in refugee camps] are denied a future by those who risk their children’s lives by sending them as an advance party. We must explore other options.” Her friend Pamela Curr, the high-profile refugee advocate, was appalled and discouraged her from further public comment.

The emotional freight of children turns this fraught and complex territory into a minefield. Walton is aware of the sensitivities. During our interview she pauses, surprised by her late mid-life unravelling. “I don’t want to malign the children or trivialise the situation in West Papua,” she says. “I’m speaking out to tighten up Australian laws. These children were lost at sea for four days with no engine, no fresh water and rough seas. They could easily have died.”

In good conscience
AT the start of the recent SBS series go Back To Where You Came From, 63-year-old Raye Colbey is unswervingly blunt in her attitudes towards asylum seekers. “When the boat crashed coming into Christmas Island I thought, ‘Serve you bastards right’,” she says. “Come the right way and it wouldn’t have happened.” Colbey lives opposite the Inverbrackie detention centre in the Adelaide Hills. She volunteered for the doco, which sought to confront anti-refugee sentiment by exposing six Australians to the perilous journey that asylum seekers face. The experience completely changed Colbey’s views.

What galvanises people to open their minds, hearts or wallets to a cause? It can be a photograph, an experience or a sudden unforgettable glimpse of suffering or injustice. A person may turn full circle in an instant or mull over pros and cons for months in a testy dialogue with themselves. Julian Burnside QC has told how the image of a young girl hanging herself with bedsheets in the now defunct Woomera detention centre stirred him to become a refugee advocate far beyond his initial brief in a 2001 asylum-seeker case. “Whenever I got tired I just brought to mind the image of that 11-year-old child hanging herself in a lonely cell,” he revealed in Margot O’Neill’s book Blind Conscience.

Frances and John Walton have long supported Australia’s humanitarian refugee program. When the West Papuans on the outrigger canoe sought asylum in Australia the couple responded promptly. Both were acquainted with West Papua’s struggle against Indonesian rule: John had visited the region on Rotary business, while Frances had worked as a nurse in Papua New Guinea in the ’70s. Her father had been stationed in West Papua during the war.

Television news footage of the boat’s arrival at Cape York on January 18, 2006, shows a banner pleading: “Save West Papua people soul from genocide, intimidation and terrorist from military government of Indonesian. Also we West Papuan need freedom, peace love and justice in our home land.” All 43 people on board were sent to Christmas Island, and granted permanent protection visas. An SBS TV crew filmed them celebrating the news with music and songs and dancing. Indonesia was furious.

John Walton replays the footage on a computer screen in his study and the couple point out the faces of the children who have since become part of their family. “Look how young he is there,” marvels Frances as proudly as any parent enjoying a home video of yesteryear. The little boy with dark skin, tight black curls and a gleaming smile is now in Year 10 at a private school and due home any minute.

When one of the two boys still in their care tells the camera he was intimidated and tortured, Frances voices her suspicion that he’d been “coached” in what to say. Not that she doubts Indonesia’s iron fist. She tells me how tapeworm-infested pigs were gifted to West Papuans in the 1970s as “a genocide tool” by the Indonesian military. Pork is a staple of the West Papuan diet, and the parasite eggs cause cysts in human hosts. One of the Waltons’ refugees has 150 cysts in his brain. Through their network they found an Australian neurologist to monitor him pro bono.

“The cause for them to come is entirely justified and I support it entirely,” Frances says. “My concern is the children who came here and were obviously put forward by their parents. I don’t think there was any sort of reality back there as to where they were sending them. One boy told me this has been an incredibly difficult thing to go through. I question whether we’re really doing the right thing by these children.”

Ronny Kareni, a West Papuan leader in Australia, says the parents who sent children on the boat in 2006 are activists in the resistance movement. “They were afraid for their families. It was a tough decision.” He disputes suggestions that some children were sent here for education and to improve their English skills. Nick Chesterfield, a journalist close to the West Papuan community, believes there was a desire within the resistance movement to blood a younger generation who can speak out about conditions back home. “There are some kids who’ve adjusted badly but overall it was a question of survival,” he concedes.

From her close involvement with the children and their families Frances believes the harm from separation outweighs the risks they might have faced at home together. “They would have been brought up with their siblings and communities,” she says. “One of our boys has missed meeting the two little brothers born since he left. These kids were jettisoned into a completely different world and I question whether it is always the right thing to give children asylum. It doesn’t mean I think that they should all be sent back but I think there are other reasons they were sent here.”

Mary Crock, professor of law at Sydney University, investigated 85 cases of unaccompanied minors for her 2006 report Seeking Asylum Alone. She acknowledges the Waltons’ concerns. “If children are not really refugees it may well not be in their best interests,” she says. In her experience, parents who seek asylum for children as a “migration option” are relatively rare. “Most of the Afghans I studied would be dead now if they had not been sent away. Indeed, some of those returned from Nauru were killed. Parents have been doing this to save their kids from time immemorial.” She remains focused on the welfare of all children resettling alone, whether they are here as last resort or not. “It can create enormous anger issues when children do not understand why parents have sent them. These are very complex issues. They may think, ‘Why didn’t they trust me to stand and fight with them’.”

Crock applauds Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s efforts to move 531 of the 956 children in detention into community arrangements, but wants the government to appoint a designated officer who can deal exclusively with the youngest asylum seekers whose plight is an ongoing problem. Bowen is under fire for including unaccompanied children in the government’s “Malaysian solution” (the transfer to Malaysia of 800 asylum seekers picked up by Australian border protection, in exchange for 4000 officially recognised refugees). If this group was granted an exemption, he warned, “people smugglers would exploit that and say to people, ‘Look, if you put your child on a boat, they get to Australia and then they can sponsor you in’.”

Lawyers helping refugee minors make “split family” visa applications say the Government has been adopting a “go slow” approach since last September as a deterrent. Once a refugee turns 18 the test for family reunion rests on higher proof of persecution. A case will come before the High Court in September to test the government’s delaying tactics.

Model pupils
FOOTSTEPS patter across the Waltons’ porch. The front door bangs. Moments later a boy in a white shirt and school tie pokes his head into the study to ask Frances whether his blazer is back from having his soccer colours emblazoned on the pocket, a proud private school tradition. He’s done well in four extra-curricular activities and wonders why he can’t have all the badges sewn on. The second West Papuan boy remaining in their care arrives shortly afterwards with news of a decent mark for his latest test.

The Waltons have steered four of their seven refugee children through the same private school. For bona fide refugees the Commonwealth contributes the cost of a state education and the school covers the rest. Books, uniforms and incidentals are paid for by the Waltons, who are full of praise for the private school’s support of Australia’s newest citizens. Of the two older boys educated here, one has gone on to TAFE, while the other is studying dance. Both threw themselves into cadets and sport and were cherished members of the school community.

Four of the West Papuan boys who arrived on the boat have spent a quarter of their young lives being cared for by John and Frances, who regard them as kin. Members of the West Papuan community in Melbourne often gathered around the Waltons’ table on weekends. “All of the other children saw this as a Papuan home,” notes John. “It would be nothing to have 14 or 16 for dinner. Frances always had to have food in the freezer and a couple of kilograms of sweet potato on hand. It became a way of life, very demanding, but fun. I’d have to say the rewards have easily outweighed any negatives.”

Parenting teenagers is difficult enough but add separation from country, culture and biological kin and the problems multiply. The first West Papuan refugee who came to stay ran away several times before getting pregnant to a boyfriend from the same village who was studying in Melbourne. “They’ve now got two kids. We continue in a grandparent role and see them from time to time,” Frances explains.

The unease they articulate about how the children came to be here does not come from theory or ideology or politics, but from things they have wrestled with as guardians. Explaining the duties of care for refugee children, John says: “They need to feel loved and safe. They need to feel ‘normal’ and find life predictable. They need rules and boundaries, expectations and discipline like all children. They must be encouraged and helped at school and English skills are critical.”

Their newest refugee boy was absorbed into the Walton clan after his initial foster arrangement fell through. When he was enrolled in a public school until a place became available at the private school, the boy’s father, who remains in West Papua, complained angrily. He wanted his son to have a private education.

The father’s demands rattled the Waltons. But it was an altercation at Easter that prompted Frances to take a stand. Over the holiday weekend the parents of two West Papuan refugee boys flew to Melbourne to deposit their 12-year-old daughter in the care of the teenage brothers before flying home. (One of the boys was in the Waltons’ care but now lives elsewhere.) “We had heard from the boys this was being planned but couldn’t believe it,” Frances recalls. Unaccompanied minors who become refugees can apply for family reunion of parents and siblings before they turn 18. The Immigration Department says this is not granted automatically but the West Papuan children who have passed through the Waltons’ house have secured the right for parents and siblings to follow. “The whole idea behind this is that families come to support the kids and create a home here,” Frances says.

With help from interpreters, the Waltons tried to dissuade the parents of the girl from leaving her here. “Even the interpreters argued with them and said ‘this is very, very risky’. But they wouldn’t change their minds. They brought her here to go to school.” When the parents returned home Frances contacted Victoria’s Department of Human Services. “They kept reminding me this was a very, very rare situation and said that 90 per cent of family reunions went very much according to plan. My question is, why are we enabling a family to do this? I don’t think family reunion should be granted if that is the intention of the family, and if it is, I think the visa should be temporarily removed,” she says.

“Personally, I think a girl should be with her family, not left in another country, without English, and with brothers who have barely seen her over five years. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that that’s a better place for her to be, unless her life was absolutely at risk. The boys are not prepared to stand up to their parents but they’re caught in a bind. It’s difficult enough for kids to be doing Year 12 and one in the final year of TAFE without suddenly having responsibility for a 12-year-old.” (The girl is now staying with family friends in Melbourne.)

Watching the West Papuan refugees apply successfully for family reunion has heightened her alarm that this will only encourage parents to expose children to enormous risks at sea and the trauma of resettlement. When do prospects for a better life, a better education, a better future, tip the scale against growing up with your family in a trouble spot? Always? Sometimes?

Soon after the first West Papuan boat landed its cargo successfully in Australia, a second one attempted to leave on the same journey but it was attacked by the Indonesian military and those who tried to swim to safety were killed. The tragedy confirms the level of danger.

But watching the parents of West Papuan refugees fly in and out, protected by family reunion, the Waltons increasingly struggle with the index of need. “Are they that desperate?” John asks. “I don’t know that that’s true. Although there have been some pretty awful things happening there, I think there’s a degree of manipulation of Australian rules and regulations… Are we giving places to middle-class moneyed people or should we open the door to more deserving people in refugee camps who have been waiting for years?

“We’ve done what we’ve done because we’re fond of kids; we’re doing it for humanitarian reasons. The kids are here, they need education, need to be fed properly, all those things. We’ve no argument with them, but I’m questioning the motives of some of the parents and then extrapolating it to others out there who want to get to one of the best countries in the world.”

John knows the pull factors. His family migrated from the UK in 1979. This is an argument refugee advocate Pamela Curr hammers. “Everybody’s come here at some time,” she says. “My ancestors were wealthy, educated Catholics who fled England in 1822.” As spokeswoman for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, it’s her job to quell opposition. She has known Frances Walton since 1971, when they shared a locker room as trainee nurses in midwifery at the Royal Women’s Hospital.

After Walton’s letter appeared in the paper Curr rang, warning her to stay out of the debate or she would lose friends and respect. Curr told me: “As I said to Frances, ‘You have to be careful. What you’ve seen through a narrow lens can’t necessarily be translated globally.’?”

Curr insists that the West Papuans’ relatively smooth entry to Australia was assisted by their arrival at a time when asylum-seeker boats were on the wane. “They were not treated as harshly. We seem to be generous when there’s one boat a year.” She says the Department of Immigration is now telling refugee minors from Afghanistan that applications for family reunion will not be processed before they turn 18. “Everything is premised on deterrence. The government is giving them the subtle message, ‘If you come to Australia don’t think your family is going to follow.'” Curr wanted Walton to keep quiet.

Walton belonged to Free Speech Victoria before it merged with Liberty Victoria. Holding your tongue for fear of offence is not what earns the Voltaire award at the group’s annual dinner. At one of these events Frances approached a refugee advocate to discuss her alarm over population growth in Pakistan, where in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake she’d witnessed something that disturbs her still. She’d helped a woman give birth to her 17th child by a husband with several other wives. But there was no more room in the tent. So the mother married off a 15 year-old daughter to accommodate the infant. A week later, Frances saw the new bride. “It was the sight of a girl who had been raped. I’ve been haunted by the look of this girl, her bloodshot eyes, ever since.” When Frances raised her sense of helplessness with the refugee advocate, he put his hands over his ears.

Frances Walton can’t silence her thoughts. “I’m thinking through these issues on a deeper level. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Sometimes the truth can be uncomfortable and we should avoid being a slave to political correctness. We face a global population explosion. More people will want space to live and safety. How can that be achieved? What kind of world will our grandchildren inherit?” She never expected to find herself in this philosophical quandary. But her actions speak loudest. On that score she’s as safe as the children in her care.


1 Comment

Filed under asylum-seekers, australian media, life stories, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

One response to “Rocking the Boat: Children as Path-clearing Asylum-Seekers

  1. sl130

    Australians seem to be very sad about the fate of asylum seekers but what about the abroginies deprived who have been of their rights..

Leave a Reply