In 1952, when I was three, my parents emigrated from England to Australia and we went to a migrant hostel in Bonegilla in Victoria; later we went to other hostels at Bradfield Park and East Hills in Sydney.
My memories are varied of this time but I’ll share with you some of them.
I remember living in a three roomed Nissen hut. We ate our meals in the canteen and showered and went to the toilet in the ablution blocks. Our “house” had no heating or cooking facilities, so my mum got a kerosene heater and sometimes she cooked some potatoes and peas in a three segment saucepan on the top of the heater.
There was a two teacher school on the second hostel and the teachers were Catholic nuns, Mother Angela and Mother Borgia. They were formidable and very strict. There was also a chapel on the hostel and as a six-year-old, I served Mass as an altar boy for the 7am Mass. In 1953, during our stay at Bradfield Park, my brother was born.
We moved to East Hills hostel in about 1955 and I went to a school in Liverpool by school bus and played on the banks of the Georges River. Whilst we were on this hostel, in 1957 my first sister was born.
We moved out of the hostel in late 1957 and spent Christmas in a beachside suburb in Melbourne’s south. Imagine the mind blowing difference for a young eight-year-old whose only memories are of a migrant camp.
I had lived in a camp for nearly six years, with barely any comforts at all. But at least TV came to Australia and my did gave me 6d to go to the theatre and watch the Mickey Mouse show once a week.
I didn’t know that there was another world out there until we went to Victoria. I still have crystal clear memories of the poverty and barrenness of those hostels. A visit to Bonegilla recently brought back horrible memories.
In all of this though, whilst the camps had barbed wire fences round them, the fences were to keep the bad guys out, not us poms, wogs, and other ethnics, in. The gates were open during the day, so people could go to work or school, to go shopping or just go down to the river and play. We were not regarded as criminals, just “ethnics” and ten-pound poms.
Now fast forward to the detention camps on Christmas Island and Nauru. Think about the detention camps in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and NSW. Villawood is not the same as East Hills or Bradfield Park. The detention camps are far worse.
We have treated the asylum seekers and their children like criminals. Whatever, people may think of the adults it is crystal clear to me that the worse victims of all this are the kids.
I believe that the adults must have been so desperate to risk the lives of their wives and kids that they boarded leaky boats and headed for Australia, no matter the role of people smugglers etc. I know many readers will disagree with me on this but I hope they all agree about the kids.
There has been hardly a peep about how many terrorists have been found among the asylum seekers so why can’t they be treated like the migrants similar to my family?
Why can’t the kids go out of the gates to play? Why can’t the kids get a decent education among ordinary Aussie kids? Why can’t their mums and dads go to work and come home again like ordinary families? Why must they be treated like murderers, paedophiles and seriously violent criminals?
How many of you have seen the photos of the kids in the detention camps and have not felt a sorrow for them? How many of you have seen the appalling conditions they live in and haven’t felt some revulsion? How many of you have seen the tent city on Nauru and haven’t thought “I’m glad that’s not me or my kids”?
The current government should back down on all of this and show compassion to the world. The current opposition should back that move. They are as bad as each other and preside in shame.
Both sides of politics are complicit in the theft of the kids’ childhoods, the encouragement for radicalisation in young men and the sense of despair and hopelessness in those incarcerated in those camps and I don’t care where the camps are.
When I tell my story, and I leave a lot out, people say to me ”how come you were in a migrant camp for that long when the usual length of stay was in months not years?” The reasons don’t matter, but I can say that it was not because some heartless bureaucrat decided to sentence my family for an introduction to Australia (the land of our dreams) like the asylum seekers, but economic refugees we were. It was not because of discriminatory government policy.
I was free. Asylum kids are not. Their sad eyes come to me in my sleep.
(Photo: John Hargreaves as a child at a migrant hostel in Sydney.)