Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Marion Le AM, refugee and migration lawyer, 19 June 2015

CARISSE FLANAGAN: Hello everybody. Thank you so much for coming today. I was pretty excited to see the sun this morning - I think everybody was - because you have all been able to come and there hasn’t been awful traffic on the roads or awful accidents, as there has been over the last few days. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Carisse and I have been away for 12 months because I had a baby. She is named after two landmark women in my life. Rose was my grandmother on my father’s side, a lovely, small Italian lady, who was still delivering meals on wheels to other people in her 80s; and Nion, my husband’s nanna who was a nurse during World War II. When we had this beautiful girl we thought: what is the best way to celebrate the most important women in our lives? So we named her after them.

I have a few housekeeping things to do before I hand you over to Catrina Vignando, another wonderful Italian woman, who is the head of the development team. She will be introducing Marion. Before we do that, some important information about how we are proceeding with the bookings for Landmark Women and for all of the other events that we run. It shouldn’t change anything for you except now all of our events are going to be bookable through Eventbrite. The links to those events will be on the website and on the e-mails that we send out to you so that you can go straight through to the online booking system. If you happen to ring up because you don’t use online and you book through Bookings, that’s all right too. Just continue to do exactly what you have been doing, and we will put the booking through to the system.

If you have booked well ahead for Landmark Women, you do not need to rebook. We will update all of those bookings into the system. If you need to pay through the system, you will not be charged a fee so there will be no additional fee on Landmark Women. We will be absorbing that cost, which is one of the things some people have an issue with when it’s a small amount of money and you are charged a fee in a booking system. That will not happen with this program. If you have any questions about that, please ask me afterwards or during tea and cake in the lounge. I will hand over to Catrina. Thank you.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Thank you, Carisse. It’s great to have Carisse back after her exciting sojourn with Rose. It’s a great pleasure to be introducing Marion Lê, our speaker this morning for Landmark Women. It’s the first time I have taken on this role so it’s a great pleasure to be here giving a little bit of background before Marion goes into her amazing story of her work and her passions and her background, which I think, is very timely to be listening to today. This week is Refugee Week.

Another aspect of Marion’s invitation to be with us today is that her talk also ties in with a program that the Museum is running at the moment called Defining Moments in Australian History. One of the moments that we have featured is the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Australia in the 1970s. Marion will speak to that and give us her personal views and her personal background around that time and how that has inspired her to do the amazing work that she is done.

Before Marion comes up on the stage, I want to give you a bit of background about Marion and some of the outstanding contributions that she has made to her community and more broadly to Australian cultural life. Marion specialises in refugee and migration law. She has consulted widely on cultural issues both within Australia and South-East Asia and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She has been awarded many honours over the years including the Bicentennial ACT Citizen of the Year, Medal of the Order of Australia in 1990 and Ozcare Paul Cullen award for outstanding contribution to refugees in 1994. In 2003, she received the prestigious Australian Human Rights Award and in 2009 in the Australian honours list Marion was awarded the Medal of Australia.

She’s a multicultural advocate and has been tirelessly working in the area of human rights and looking at the issues of refugees. And now topically with the refugee issues that we all see on television around the Afghan people trying to come to Australia, Marion has been turning her attention to the issues that those peoples face. It’s a great pleasure to introduce Marion to give us both her personal background around what has inspired her to be active in this role and to hear how her advocacy has been making changes. [applause]

MARION LÊ: Thank you very much for that warm welcome and thank you, all of you, for coming along today. Before I start, I would like to acknowledge firstly the traditional owners of this land and their elders past and present. I mean that acknowledgment in all sincerity. It’s an amazing fact that in ancient times an ancient people walked on this very spot and that the descendants of those people still walk amongst us. The landscape has changed greatly since then, but the people are still here. The memories of their ancestors are with us still. We cannot call their names because we do not know them, but still we honour and pay our respects to them and to their descendants living amongst us today. Without our ancestors none of us would be here today, and that I guess is one of the themes of my talk - the importance of our past individually, collectively as citizens and residents of this city and of this land as a nation and internationally as people of the world.

I was reminded a few minutes ago that there are some of my artefacts here in the collection of the National Museum. I also recall that I was one of the founding members of the Friends of the National Museum. I don’t know how many other people were part of that group that started off advocating and we used to meet down in the sheds around the lake. Some of us were extremely disappointed when the venue was changed to here. Actually, this is a sacred spot to many of us, because my children were all born here. I really thought that the other site was going to be much better, but we have come to know and love the National Museum as it is today and where it is.

But as a sacred site this is where I rose to greet each of my children, three of them, and it is also the place that we remember where Katie Bender died. I remember on that day of the demolition, my children all wanted to come and watch and I thought, ‘I don’t want to watch the hospital where they were born being demolished.’ But my youngest son - he said I wasn’t allowed to talk about them, but still this is off the cuff – said, ‘Look Mum we really need to go. I want to go.’ He was quite small. I was really worried because in New Zealand where I was born we have earthquakes and we understand how the seismological forces stretch. So I said, ‘I don’t think it is very safe to be anywhere near that demolition in case something goes wrong.’ You know our kids always say ‘Mum you’re so negative. You’re always see the worst in things,’ which is not true. I am always just cautious. Anyway I said, ‘I think what we should do is we should go up Black Mountain and watch it from up there.’ That’s exactly what we did. We remember that tragedy. I was really grateful that I wasn’t sitting where the Bender family were sitting.

This is a sacred spot for many reasons. It’s a place of life; it’s a place of death; it’s also a place where the first inhabitants of this land walked. Black Mountain, as I understand it, is called Black Mountain because it’s where the blacks lived. I do acknowledge those people and all that have gone before us here today.

It is 68 years - I find it hard to believe - since my birth in the beautiful little village of Richmond in the province of Nelson in New Zealand when I was born. Here I am standing in the capital city of Australia, Canberra, and very proud to be here. I came to Australia in 1971 and then to Canberra in 1974 and I have lived here ever since. I love this city and I love the people who are here. We were just again discussing how vibrant Canberra has become, even in the last five years since my friend Jacqueline arrived here from Zimbabwe.

Thank you very much for this invitation. I am really honoured to be included in this series. I have listened to some of the other people who have presented before me. I know I am in really auspicious company. I wanted to talk about the themes of my life and my childhood growing up in New Zealand has come to fruition in my life over the years and that the themes that were established in my childhood are what continue to drive me to this day. And some people do describe me as a driven person.

Last week saw the Prime Minister and others focus our attention on the 800th anniversary of the proclamation of the Magna Carta in 1215 when the English barons rebelled and pressured the King, John, into signing the Magna Carta, a list of 63 clauses drawn up to limit John’s power. It was the first time royal authority officially became subject to the law instead of reigning above it. This Magna Carta was arguably the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led the rule of constitutional law today in the English-speaking world and, importantly, our Australian Constitution.

At the same time as celebrating the signing of the Magna Carta 800 years ago and referring in his speech to the fact that we have a copy of that very document displayed here in Parliament House, our Prime Minister contemplated, and contemplates still, the stripping of Australian citizenship from some Australian citizens without recourse to a court and at the whim of one person, the Minister for Immigration, whoever he or she may be at the time that the action is contemplated.

Moreover, the Prime Minister and various other members of his government have over the past few weeks launched an unprecedented attack on a statutory officer appointed to stand independently from government - the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs - because she carried out her job and fearlessly stood by her report into the conditions in Nauru and the detention centres around Australia. The attacks on her have drawn the censure of the United Nations and they have censured our government. The bullying of Gillian Triggs was apparent to all who watched the live broadcast of the Senate estimates committee.

This is also Refugee Week. The UNHCR in a media release yesterday reminded us that:

Today on earth one in every 122 people has been forced to flee their home because of conflict, persecution or violence. Of the world’s refugees, more than half are now children, children whose short lives have been shaped by war, fear and loss.

The staggering statistics detailed in the UNHCR’s global trends report shows the numbers of people fleeing their country, their home, has accelerated to the highest levels we have ever recorded. In the past five years no fewer than 15 conflicts, some new, some old, have brought unspeakable tragedy and misery to millions across the world. The UNHCR has responded from Syria to the Central African Republic, Iraq to South Sudan. The UNHCR is present in all the world’s conflict hot shots, working around the clock to extend protection and life-saving aid to millions of people. But they cannot do that without the help of the signatory countries, and Australia is one of those signatory countries.

Unfortunately at the moment we are falling far short of what we should be doing in our commitment to the peoples of the world. The conflicts may change, grow and return but the consequences for the children and families caught in their chaos remains the same. This week, for those of you who watched it, on the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night and I think repeated again yesterday, a young man called Mohammad Ali Baqiri stood to ask a question. He asked why as a child he was detained on Nauru for three years of his life without his parents. Now studying law, this young Australian citizen has been active at rallies around Australia for the past two years speaking out against detention and especially the detention of children.

I saw him speak myself last year in Adelaide and I watched this young man stand on the steps of Parliament House there speaking to the crowd and I thought, ‘I wonder if he remembers me,’ because I was the person that signed the documents for him on Nauru to make the application with his older brother and his family of children to come to Australia. Something John Howard said will never happen: ‘We will not have people like these coming to Australia. We will decide who comes here and the method by which they come.’

Mohammad Ali Baqiri is here today. I watched him on my television screen and I went into my drop box on my telephone - amazing what you can do today with technology, limited though I am with it all so I don’t even have a powerpoint - and there he was as a little boy in the photograph that I pinned onto his application form to come to Australia.

I remembered that another young man with the same family name, but as far as I know they are not related, Mahmoud Baqiri, who is one of the people that is reported in a book on refugees written here in Canberra. Mahmoud Baqiri recalled one of my visits to Nauru and he said, ‘We knew that Marion Lê was different when she came to Nauru. She was different to everybody else. First, because she wore a head scarf and, secondly, because she spoke to us children. She was the only adult who spoke to us as children.’ You know that is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me, that I spoke to them and they were children and they remembered. We often don’t speak to the children, and our record on the way we treat children in this society is abysmal.

In Canberra, too, we have huge numbers of children who are being taken from their families and placed into care, whether it’s foster care or kinship care. I have been the President of the Grandparent and Kinship Care Association here in the ACT. The highest number of children who are in care in Canberra are in fact Aboriginal children. We need to wake up to ourselves about the way that we treat children, whether they are in or out of detention.

So to go back to the fact of watching Mohammed Ali Baqiri stand and speak in Parliament House, the Q&A program was actually in Parliament House, I felt so proud of him, because the potential that we unleash in children when they are small goes with them all their lives. If we harm a child, then we harm them for all their lives. I’d like to think that I’m here today because I have become a voice for the voiceless, bringing to public attention those who have no voice, who cannot for many reasons speak for themselves and that I am therefore speaking for them.

Inevitably, this commitment has led me into the world of refugees, of abandoned children, of homeless women and to a lesser extent of the drug addicted and the mentally ill. It requires emotional and mental resilience to work in the shadow worlds of pain, loss, humiliation and degradation that these people have been forced, usually by circumstances beyond their control, to inhabit. Their pain has become my pain.

Yet it is the strength and resilience of each of these remarkable, unique human beings which has been my inspiration. I forever ask myself whether I could endure the pain and loss that they have endured and still have the courage to wake to face each day. The inestimable value of a human soul struggling to survive is beyond my capacity to describe, just as on the other side it is impossible for me to describe the depths of depravity and degradation to which a human being can sink in order to destroy another. Evil has a human face, and the veneer of civilisation lies only thinly on all of us.

Being an advocate is never easy. There is sometimes a perception that all that is needed is to be a good talker with an emotional response to a person’s express need. So what has brought me to this place to this day? In the story of my childhood you will find the beginnings of my continuing passions of today: the passions which include a love of children which led me to become firstly a teacher; the passions which include an understanding and love for those people who chose to leave their homes for whatever reason to migrate to a new world; the passions which have led me to stand against violence in the homes; and the passions which have led me always to try to speak out when I see something is badly wrong in our society.

On the day I was born in Hillcrest Hospital, Richmond, Nelson, New Zealand to Noble and Grace Roderick, I was the first of four children. We were raised in a small two-bedroom house where we always had good food and plenty of activities. Music, drama and sport played a large part in our lives, although we were materially quite poor. My father’s grandfather - and I have a photograph here - is the old man in the photograph here and alongside him is his wife Catherine Wheeler, as she was born. She was the daughter of migrants from England who had migrated very early to New Zealand.

In the same photograph there is their daughter, my Great-Aunt Dolly, with the little baby who is the only one in that photograph still alive today. Her daughter is actually a woman called Joan Beagle. If you google her, you will find that she’s working for the UN as the head of the women’s outreach into Africa program and she works as head of the AIDS development organisations throughout the international community. She is the direct descendant, as I am - same level as I call it - of my great-grandfather who I will tell you more about in a minute.

The other person in that photograph is my father’s youngest brother, my Uncle Laurie, who is a recognised, I guess, war hero who’s commemorated in the village in Italy where he died as a member of the Italian partisan movement during World War II. He’s well known for the work that he did. He was fluent in several languages and he died at about the age of 33 in 1946, one year before I was born. Only Joan the baby is still alive. She is a sprightly 90-something year old living in Auckland with an amazing memory and can still remember all of these people. I brought that photo just to have a little bit of something for you to look at.

Anyway my father’s grandfather lived to almost 100 years of age, as you can see from the photograph, and he was one of the earliest Portuguese settlers in New Zealand. As it happened he came to New Zealand by boat. Legend has it that he and the other Portuguese with him almost beat the French to raising the flag in the tiny harbour of Akaroa near Christchurch in New Zealand.

My great grandfather’s relative apparently established the first hotel in Akaroa but my great-grandfather, Emmanuel Rodrigues, moved to the North Island where he raised his large brood of children, including my grandfather George Emmanuel Roderick. He became well known in the district for his football playing skills, short in stature but fast on his feet, he played with the Maori teams and was nicknamed ‘the wicker’ by the Maoris because of his ability to move in and out between the larger players and run off with the ball to the touchline dodging around like a little wicker bird.

My Dad didn’t say too much about his grandfather and I wonder if the old man ever spoke English. To my Dad he was only an old man who waved his stick at the grandchildren as they played around him and he remembered in old age that all the old man did was cry. I think he probably ended up with Alzheimer’s, because we have discovered researching the family tree that many of our family have succumbed to Alzheimer’s. My cousins and I think that probably our old great-grandfather had Alzheimer’s in old age. Certainly my father didn’t have any memory of him except being a very old man, waving his stick and crying all the time. My father never wanted to grow old. He said it was a terrible thing. So he conveniently I guess deliberately - not committed suicide but just didn’t ask for any help when he had a stroke at the age of 80 and died.

Anyway Wicker, who was their son, married my grandmother Elsie Williams. She was a tall, proud woman who I remember very well. She was of Irish, Welsh, Scottish heritage and she’s so different to my short, irresponsible grandfather that it’s a constant source of amazement to me that they met, and certainly it’s amazing that they got married. The marriage produced six children, five boys and a girl Enid, but two years after the birth of the little girl my grandmother left the home and the children. My grandfather was a shearer but also a gambler. He would gamble his money before he reached home on payday until the oldest boy, sent by the mother, could persuade him to hand it over before he made it to the local pub.

Unable to cope with the stress any more, my grandmother went to Wellington to find her own way, to find a job and to set up a home for the children. When she returned some weeks later, all the children had been taken into care. Only the oldest boy who was about 14 remained and knew all his life that she went back for the children. The rest grew up hating her, never united and never understanding. When I was 16, I went looking for all the family members and the children of my grandmother’s second marriage. There was little or no understanding of her pain, because the pain of those children was all too great.

My Dad died at the age of 80 in 1990. Shortly before he died he called me from New Zealand on the telephone and began to weep heart-wrenching sobs. He was crying over the pain experienced 70 years before. ‘I can still see her,’ he cried. ‘I can still see little Enid running after the car as Mum drove off. Why did she leave us? How could she do that to Enid?’ I said, ‘Dad, that was so long ago. That was so long ago, can’t you forget it?’ He said, ‘No, I see it like it was yesterday.’ Long before that day I understood the pain my father felt all his life, but out of his pain came compassion. He taught us to welcome the stranger, the homeless to our home, to always have a meal and food for all who came, never to turn anyone away and as a family to stick together. He never wanted to see any of us divorce, and children were sacred to him.

‘The child is indeed’, as Wordsworth said, ‘the father of the man’. My father went to serve his country New Zealand in the Middle East and in Italy in the Second World War. He was a truck driver. His job was to drive the young vital men to the front and then go back afterwards and pick up those who remained alive or the bodies and parts of those who were dead. He never forgot this. He returned, as so many did from the war - and still do - with nightmares and trauma which unfortunately, despite all his efforts, he could never shake.

He married my mother who had migrated at the age of five from London with her parents and three older siblings. They also travelled by boat and settled in Christchurch. My mother’s family was stable and full of love, so she provided a stability of purpose and educational goals that my father so desperately yearned for himself and his children. But my mother always called England home. My parents had their ups and downs, but the marriage survived 44 years until my Dad died. When my mother’s father died, our little grandmother came to live with us from the age of 77 until she died at 96 still living in our home. My parents loved her. We learned respect for the elderly, and I learnt so much from her stories in England and her memories of her grandmother, Granny Sparrow, who lived outside London in a little village where the children visited on occasion.

The generations of a family became so important in our lives, and pain and loss walked hand in hand with mischief and laughter. We were wanderers without meaning to be. All my three brothers came like me to Australia. All of them, like me, eventually settled for a time at least in Canberra. Two of them worked here on Parliament House, on the Cameron offices, Tuggeranong Hyperdome and other significant buildings.

My youngest brother Alan was constantly on the news as an outspoken member of the BLF. Another was a union rep with the CFMEU. I remember one time down here outside the Old Parliament House before the new one was opened and they were up there building. My youngest brother was the biggest of us all, he was huge. When he died he weighed about 27 stone, they said. He used to play rugby here in Queanbeyan and in Canberra with the Maoris pretending like my grandfather had done that he was a Maori. They were so dark.

Anyway on this particular occasion I was being interviewed about something solidly serious. I came on the news that night talking about these things, and of course my name wasn’t Roderick so no-one knew that we were related. And there was my brother on the news, huge with all these builders labourers people on some sort of strike about Parliament House. I don’t know whether any of you remember but there was all that union stuff going on, and the BLF were actually deregistered. Apparently they were out at Tuggeranong building the Tuggeranong Hyperdome and some government inspector came. He presented his credentials, as they have to do before they go on to a union site, and he said he wanted to speak to my brother.

My brother said to the guy, ‘I’m too busy building to talk to this guy. Tell him to go and wait in the union office which was a demountable.’ It was a really hot Canberra Day. He was always mischievous, my brother. My mother in fact said that he was the most humorous of all of us as kids - the naughtiest and the most humorous. Anyway he was always playing tricks on people. So he said to this guy, ‘Show him to the demountable. Tell him to sit down, give him a coffee and then tell him I’ll be with him.’ But then he said, ‘As you come out lock him in.’ And then he says that he completely forgot him and the guy was in there for two or three hours in the heat and whatever locked into this demountable. When he came out he said, ‘I need to go home and have a rest.’ My brother was on the television screen that same night with me trying to explain away how they had locked this poor guy in this demountable.

All of us have been given over the years to speaking up for the various causes we believed in. Sometimes I could see two of my brothers were actually at loggerheads in the different unions, and you could almost understand how the Irish would come to blows within their own families in disputes when I could see it happening politically within my own family. One of my brothers at least doesn’t have any truck with what I do with migrants and refugees. So growing up in the same family doesn’t necessarily mean that you all share the same beliefs and the same focus or passions. So I have to say that. Not everyone would agree with what I picked up from my parents.

My brothers, Alan and Noble, left here after Parliament House was completed, and both became successful builders in Cairns where Alan died in 1997, the morning after Princess Diana, and he’s the one that had the good sense of humour. He watched the news of her death on TV and he commented weakly, ‘Well she’ll be there to meet me when I arrive at the gates of heaven.’ Many of the significant buildings in Cairns, including the casino, were built by him and his team. To this very day, once a year the locals hold their annual rugby match in honour of big Al.

Rugby, the strong Labour Party values that the New Zealanders Michael Joseph Savage and John A. Lee through his wonderful political writings, which included a book-called Simple on a Soapbox, British [James] Keir Hardie and his cloth cap, all shaped my views politically and led to many political discussions in our home, especially because we were often in conflict at election time.

Why have I chosen to talk about this here today? Because you can read about my achievements in the media and on the Internet, but what you cannot read so easily is about the people who shaped me and my values: my parents and the history of the families from which they came; the Catholic Church into which I was born by virtue of my father; the Protestantism which I later embraced for myself; the books I read, the music I love, the political independence of my views; and my strong advocacy for the vulnerable in our society.

My political development is due to the years of formal education in both Australia and New Zealand. My university study in both countries, at Christchurch Teachers College and Canterbury University and then at the Alliance College of Theology, and the ANU here in Canberra where I completed my honours degree in history and my graduate studies in international law. At the ANU particularly I was fortunate to experience the amazing teachers who have been my inspiration and my mentors and have remained, or did remain until the death of some of them, to become my friends and advisers - teachers who include Manning Clark; John Molony and his wonderful wife Denise; my dear friend Father John Eddie, the senior Jesuit here for many years; Professor Don Grigg and his wife Rosalie Baulkman; and many others.

I taught in Canberra for over 20 years, mostly at St Francis Xavier High School - or college as it is now - and I am proud of the students who are making their own unique contribution to this city and this country. I owned and operated two Vietnamese restaurants here in Canberra with my husband as head chef for over 15 years. I have assisted people from almost every country in the world to settle here. I pay great tribute to the former chief minister Jon Stanhope for his immediate reaction when I asked him if I could bring ten Afghan families straight off Nauru and into the Canberra community. His response was unhesitating. Jack Waterford and the Canberra Times played an important role in assisting in the initial settlement here of those families directly off Nauru in 2004.

Over the years I have assisted migrants and refugees from many countries settle into Canberra. I am proud of the people of this great city for the way in which we welcome and accommodate the stranger in our midst. I applaud Nick Manikis and his department for their vision and commitment to multiculturalism in our city. I love this city and I hope that in years to come I can continue to contribute.

There are so many more things to achieve here. At the moment we have a need to reform our care and protection systems so that this territory can become a beacon for all states and territories in the way we care for our children and the families who need us. We have a serious problem with some of our young people. If you read the court lists and the court reports, you can see that every day in the Canberra Times. The juvenile justice system and the prevention systems clearly are in need of reform.

Public housing is still at crisis level. It’s been that way for many years. It should be a focus point for the coming election. We need to house our citizens appropriately in affordable housing. It breaks my heart to see people sleeping outside the Legislative Assembly and near the other museum in the city - sleeping homeless in freezing cold winter conditions in Canberra.

With an ageing population, we baby boomers and those earlier should still have enough life in us to shape our lives for the next 20 years or so so that we can have fun and lead full lives well into our 80s.

Now I turn not only to Canberra but to some of the things that have affected me over the years and which I wanted to share quickly with you today. I will talk briefly about some of the legislation that this government is trying to put through in parliament. One of the pieces of legislation, which I think might have gone through while I was blinking my eyes in Adelaide earlier this week, is the amendments to the Migration Act called ‘Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities Bill’. I’m not sure if it went through or not, but it was certainly due to be debated. This is what the Hon. Stephen Charles QC, who is a retired Victorian court judge, said in his opening statement at the Senate hearing into that bill:

I am a retired judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal. I want to address some legal points trying to view it from the viewpoint of the way a court might approach this. One has to bear in mind at the outset that these amendments to the Migration Act will, in effect, result in guards being authorised to beat asylum seekers in detention to death on the basis that they reasonably believe it is necessary for some reason to do so.

That is a bill that is before our parliament or, as I say, I am unfortunately not sure, that possibly went through in the last few days.

I wanted to talk to you about the issue of children in detention. As you can see, [image shown] I have a photograph here of a group of children lying together on a floor. This photograph is actually of children awaiting removal from the Darwin detention centre to Nauru. In Gillian Triggs’ report on Nauru, which if you haven’t read it - at least read some of it by going on online and getting a copy or ring the Human Rights Commission and have a look - the situation on Nauru is appalling. Women are being raped there. Children are becoming sick. Some of them in the past have been brought to Australia, but the government has decided in its wisdom that there is too much of an outcry when that happens and some of the do-gooders among the human rights activists actually might get access to them. So they are currently trying to arrange with India to have people who are sick, children who are sick, be sent to India for treatment. In fact, last week I was reading about a child with a broken arm and the mother was begging that that child’s arm be treated. The department’s response was: ‘Well we are still awaiting a clearance from India for him to go there for treatment.’ These things are being done in our names – unbelievable, but they are being done in our names.

There were three other children in this category of babies awaiting ‘transportation’, if I can use that word, to Nauru with their parents. These were the children who were born after the 5th of December deal that some of you might remember with the cross-benchers in parliament where they were told that ‘If you will agree to this bill going through the parliament, we will release the children who are currently in detention.’ What they didn’t include - or Scott Morrison as the minister at the time did not include - was the fact there were many pregnant women who were at that time waiting to give birth and that children born after the passage of the bill would still be transported to Nauru. So these babies have been born after the 5th of December last year and they are in the process of being deported to Nauru.

I want to read you a chilling eyewitness account of what happened in April, just six weeks ago. This is by someone who was interviewing some of the families who were removed from Darwin to the Melbourne detention centre. She wrote:

This week I met with families who’d been transferred down from Darwin last Sunday. They were previously on Nauru and then brought to Darwin to have their babies. These babes were born after the first of December deal with the cross-bench senators. The families were transferred to Melbourne to stop the protest which was building in Darwin in reaction to the threatened transfer of baby Edwin and his parents back to Nauru. This was the catalyst to the trouble as the families tried to get through to red compound to rescue three-month-old baby Edwin and his mother - I think Edwin is one of these children in the photo - The father had been taken somewhere else.The families individually told me about their extraction from Wickham Point detention centre at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning. Large numbers of police and guards entered their rooms and physically pulled them from their beds, handcuffed them and removed them. Three of the couples had babies aged three months and four weeks old. The police and guards took one baby away from his mother because she was crying as her husband was taken. This mother says they did not bring her baby back until 10 a.m. The father is in shock.The husbands and sons were separated from mothers and daughters. Men were taken in police vans to a police lockup in Darwin somewhere. This included a 17-year-old boy. When they realised his age, he was taken out of the cell with his father and put in a room in solitary. The 17-year-old boy says 15 commandos - his words - woke him at 5 a.m. and pulled him from his bed. He was pushed to the floor and handcuffed behind his back. He was crying, ‘What have I done?’ but no-one answered. He said that his little brother aged nine years had his arms grabbed and pushed up his back and that he was so afraid he wet himself.

The women and children were taken to Blaydon interview rooms and put in individual rooms in which there was a mattress and pillow on the floor and nothing else. The door was kept open with a guard sitting on the floor at the door. No-one was allowed to leave the rooms until afternoon. One woman, who has a four-week-old baby, was separated from her husband and taken with the men to the police lockup. She was told that he was a ring leader. She’s lost her milk and now the baby is having formula.

The father was put in one of the Blaydon rooms. He says that the cold air conditioning was put on eye and the remote was taken away. When he complained that it was too cold for his four-week-old baby, they said ‘too bad’. He also said that he was given no milk or nappy for the baby until 8.30 a.m. The baby was screaming with hunger and she was fed last at 2 a.m. They were all locked up until around 3 p.m. on Sunday when they were taken with guards at either side and frogmarched onto buses and onto a plane to Melbourne. These families are in absolute shock. The husbands barely spoke. The wives cried as they told me their story.>

Then she goes on to say what she has witnessed herself.

In the past few weeks we have seen an escalation in the use of force and mechanical restraints. A young woman weighing 48 kilos was grabbed and handcuffed without notice by four guards and dragged to the solitary area at the back of the detention centre in Melbourne where she was locked in a room. She was heard crying out for two hours begging to be allowed to go to the toilet. She was then put in a van with guards on either side and taken on a plane for Nauru. She was a little thing. Why the exhibition of excessive force? It has terrified all who witnessed it.

That’s from a person I know very well who interviewed those people in the Melbourne detention centre. She goes on to another incident that again she was there and witnessed:

A young woman was held in a van for hours asking if she could go to the toilet. We know her as extremely dignified and refined. She eventually had to squat inside the van to relieve herself. Can you imagine the indignity? This girl and her sister and brother were subsequently put on three different flights with seven guards each. That was absolutely unnecessary.

This week I was actually in a detention centre in Adelaide and I was there because there’s a young man who’s now 21 years old. He came here as an 18-year-old to seek asylum from a situation in his home country. His grandfather has lived in this country for over 20 years. His grandfather is an Australian citizen, as is his grandmother. His grandfather, 82 years old with his walking stick, came to the detention centre with this young man’s brother, his aunt-in-law and his wife. All of these people are Australian citizens. They came to beg the immigration authorities - two representatives - to release that boy into their care because he’s mentally ill, psychologically, mentally and emotionally incapable of being returned to his home country. We have doctors’ certificates, medical certificates that say that being in detention has brought about his complete breakdown and that he’s not fit enough to travel.

The department has made it very clear that the will of the minister is that, if you have become a so-called failed asylum seeker, you will be removed. They told them in no uncertain terms about how they had removed old people on stretchers, despite the fact that they had Australian citizen relatives. They said, ‘We can take him no matter how sick he is. If we have to, we will medicate you.’ That boy just rambled and rambled, and I watched as the old man, who was himself a refugee from a Communist country, begged. He said, ‘Please, where is justice in this country? Where is freedom? Why is my grandson treated like this? If you send him back, he will be killed or his fear’ - and I believe this – ‘will drive him to kill himself before those people who are targeting him do it for him.’

I watched these people. I watched his aunt, who’s married to his uncle, beg them: ‘Just look at him. He’s sick. How can you do this? He’s our family member. He’s sick. And if he goes back, he will die.’ The immigration officer said - and I feel sorry for them because they are only voicing the words of their masters - ‘We actually believe you. But it was not our decision that saw him refused his visa. It’s not our decision that he now has to leave. The only person who can probably do anything for you is Marion.’

Yesterday I spoke on the telephone and I lost it to another immigration officer. I used to lose it a lot when I was young. Now I don’t do it very often but I did it yesterday. I called the minister for immigration - the past one, Scott Morrison - an unthinkable name which I won’t say here, but I did say I might talk about it tomorrow. If they keep this girl in detention I will tell you. I will make it very clear across the media that it’s done because of what I am saying today. Do you know the last action that Scott Morrison did at 2.43 before he finished being minister for immigration at 3 o’clock? He signed a visa cancellation of a young girl who used to live here in Canberra. He cancelled her permanent resident visa because of something her father is alleged to have done. Her father is alleged to have been a people smuggler. He hasn’t been caught.

But that girl is married and she has two beautiful children. They lived here in Canberra. I went to Vietnam for the holidays on 23 December. On that same day Scott Morrison - and someone in the department told me he knew I had gone – signed, and he wrote the time so people would know he did it before he ceased being minister, a cancellation of her permanent resident visa which meant that, when she went into the department of immigration in Sydney, they dragged her from her two beautiful little girls who have played in my house. One of them is now five and a half because she’s going to school. They dragged the mother away and the children screamed and screamed and the father apparently went amuck. They took the girl and they put her in detention. She’s still in detention six months later. The children started to self-harm. They agreed that those children who are Australian citizen kids would be allowed to live with her in detention.

The Human Rights Commission did a report on her and sent it to the immigration department to ask them what is happening about these children. They said, ‘Oh they are not in detention. They are only there because the mother asked for them to be with her.’ At the moment this current minister has agreed that she can probably be released. But guess who’s doing all the work for that? Me. The other day they said, ‘You still haven’t done X piece of paperwork,’ which is very difficult because the girl in detention doesn’t have access to any of her documents. I said yesterday, ‘Look, really I am over this. That man put this girl in detention for nothing. She’s a recognised refugee. The UN, if they knew about it, would be horrified.’ I am horrified; I am over it. Six months - those children started self-harming.

They are allowed to go to school. They go to the school just down from the Villawood detention centre, and the principal there apparently has asked several times what can she do for them. The mother is allowed to take them there I think under escort. She’s done nothing wrong; she’s not a criminal. She’s a young, beautiful woman. The principal said, ‘What can we do because these children are self-harming?’ What is happening? She is supposed to be paying herself for them to get a psychological report every so often to see what can be done. What can be done is let them out of detention and don’t lie about it when you are talking to the Human Rights Commission. What would happen if these little kids three and five years I think they are walked to the guards and said, ‘We’re not really in detention. We’re Australian citizens. We just want to go for a walk.’ It’s ridiculous. It’s cruel. It’s happening every day in our name - every day in this country.

Let’s look out what’s going on about paying the people smugglers. How dare they! When I was in Adelaide there was a cartoon called ‘turning back the boats’. There are the people smugglers with all the people on the almost sinking boat, an Australian naval vessel in the background and Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers with his loud hailer. The happy people smuggler is saying, ‘Well of course I am profiting from an evil trade. I’ve got your cheque here to prove it.’

What is going on in our government? What is going on in a country where so many of our women are being bashed in their own homes; where so many children taken into care are being returned to their fathers who have bashed their mothers in the name of the rights of the father to have access to his children? Listen to the voice of my father all those years later, yet I know cases here in Canberra where men who have abused and beaten the mothers of their children are told, ‘You’re allowed to have access and the children can sleep overnight,’ and the abuse continues. We have a very, very sad record in this country of the way we treat children. Thank you. [applause]

CARISSE FLANAGAN: It is quite late and that was quite a pretty emotional and amazing presentation, but would anybody like to ask Marion a question?

QUESTION: Marion, thank you for your love and care that you show the people who are less vulnerable - more vulnerable. Sorry, I’m emotionally upset too. Thank you for sharing so much of your life and what motivates you to help these people. You came from a Catholic background and Tony Abbott comes from a Catholic background - how come you are so different?

MARION LÊ: Tony Abbott and I used to know each other. We still do, I guess. Before he was in government, Tony would save a seat for me whenever there was a function on. Under the Labor government of Bob Hawke there used to be lots of functions. It was a really good time to be in Canberra. You’d get invited to various dinners and functions. A lot of talk fests went on. Tony would usually save a seat for me. I would turn up a little bit late and the thing he wanted to talk about all the time was multiculturalism and religion. I once said, ‘Tony, it’s quite boring,’ because all he wanted to do actually was argue. Now I wish that I had sat there and argued more because how was I to know that this man would one day be Prime Minister of Australia?

The question about the religion is a very intense and very deep one. I do understand where Tony is coming from. I also understand where Scott Morrison is coming from, a very fundamental right-wing Christian background. Tony is very sincere in his Christianity, and I suppose it is just the different emphasis that we put on the things that are important and whether you see the separation of church and state. As I say, it’s a very long and involved in discussion, which we could take a whole hour or more to talk about, and it would be one that I would like to have one day with Tony.

I will say this: I don’t think that anyone who calls themselves a Catholic or a Christian can really countenance the sorts of things that are being done now in our names when we’ve had the UN condemn us, when we have the world that used to look to us for leadership in these things now standing back and going ‘What’s going on in your country?’ The countries around Syria that were at one stage taking 10,000 people a day across their borders, and we create the kind of furore that we do over a few hundred. Then we have this problem of the Rohingya in their thousands in boats. I am being interviewed on Asia TV and Radio out of Singapore and they ask, ‘What is happening in your country?’ When we refused to assist the people of South-East Asian to handle this problem. I don’t think that I could do any justice to where the religious convictions of Tony or anyone else come into it. I do think Tony is a sincere person but he’s sincerely wrong.

QUESTION: Can you also fill us in on what we can do to stop the abuse of children and the releasing of children out of detention.

MARION LÊ: You see the double speak, the smoke and mirrors. That was the problem on the 5th December when people were desperately trying to get through to the cross benchers to say to them ‘You’re being sold a lie here in reality.’ We still have children in detention. The other day I heard someone - I don’t know whether it was the minister, Mr Dutton - saying ‘We only have so many children in detention now but under the Labor government we had all these…’ It’s one of the things they throw at Gillian Triggs that she didn’t publish her report until after this government got into power. But I think the point Gillian is making and the point I make is one child in detention is too many.

How can we stop abuse of children? We have to start with educating our own children. We have to educate boys and girls that abuse of anyone is not on. It’s not right. Whether it’s a boy abusing a girl or a girl abusing a boy and, believe me, a lot of women have abused men as well. They do it in a different way but they still abuse them. I don’t have a simple answer to this. But I think we have to come out loud and clear and call something what it is when we see it. Once we started locking children in detention, I called it. I think I was the first person to call it - in the days of Philip Ruddock - child abuse. That’s what it is: it is child abuse. We will reap the whirlwind from that. We will.

When we see Mohammed Ali Baqiri who actually was living in Nauru - the situation in Nauru in those days was not so bad. Baxter, Port Hedland the other detention centres were far worse. They were hell. On Nauru, at least at that time, the children could go to school; they could go swimming and fishing. Nowadays that doesn’t happen at all; and they are living in squaller in tents with hardly enough running water. You read that report from Gillian Triggs.

If you are not proud of what you are doing, - let me put it the other way. If you proud of what you are doing, you are not going to hide from it. You are not going to abuse the person who presents the report, are you? You are either going to say, ‘Whoops didn’t know it was that bad, we’ll act to fix it,’ or you say, ‘Wow I’m proud of what we are doing abusing children in this way, of making sure that women don’t get sanitary pads just because we have the power to be able to stop them having them on Nauru.’ You take ownership. But that’s not happening. They’re hiding; they’re telling half-truths or they’re telling blatant lies.

QUESTION: I would like to follow on your comment about how detrimental to the people it is when they have to enforce these laws. I have a friend who’s a retired naval officer and they said that there is more post-traumatic stress amongst the people that are turning back the boats than there are in the Defence Force that came back from Afghanistan.

MARION LÊ: I almost think I should do a Tony Jones on that and say, ‘I will take that as a comment,’ because that’s true. You imagine - and I have heard someone say this - they saw the bodies floating in the water for miles from a boat that they were told not to rescue. The bodies are there. When they were pulling babies out of the water, imagine that. So, yes, the people that are serving us in that way are being forced to do unconscionable things in our name - and the same with the immigration department officials.

I don’t know whether you have read the Canberra Times recently to see how many people have left that department. People I know who are still working there put their heads down now and are hoping that they will last it through to their superannuation payouts. Some of them absolutely hate it.

But the other thing I have noticed - and they might strike me off as a migration agent for saying this - is the dumbing down of the department, and nobody cares. I put in an application or something, and it doesn’t get handled for four or five months. We’ve got applications in that normally under the law had to be finalised within three months, 90 days, and people are waiting three years. In a case this week, someone is waiting one and a half years with dependent children and suddenly those children are no longer dependent; they have the jobs and the parent or parents cannot find work because they are in limbo; so they are being supported by the children who are working at Maccas, KFC and getting a small amount of money to help them survive. Suddenly a departmental officer says, ‘Now I have to assess whether in fact your children are dependent on you and whether they can be assessed as part of your application after all.’ It’s cruel; it’s horrible; it’s unconscionable; and it’s totally unnecessary. But the effect on people who are employed in that work is unimaginable. Yes, I have heard from doctors the same thing that they are treating people within the department, within the defence forces - within the navy particularly - for post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, I know a doctor here who gave up his position and has left altogether because he himself started suffering from the effects of listening to people.

QUESTION: Marion, I am deeply touched by your story and I think everybody here would be, too. It’s gut wrenching. I came out here as a migrant child in 1952. My husband came a year earlier with his family. We met in Bendigo. We were married here in Canberra 54 years ago, I think, something like that. I often wonder when I hear these dreadful stories about whether the old migrant system with very basic accommodation but where families are held together and where there is an office you can go to if you have a problem with translating a document; you have a freedom but you are still protected in the sense you have very basic facilities, which is a lot of people here would not tolerate, but at least you had a freedom. You could go outside a gate. You could go looking for work. You were subsidised and you had free accommodation, but then once you obtained a job you had to pay board. You had to pay for your living expenses.

I often think why can’t they put up more migrant hostels which are individual cocoons where the family stays together? They are still supervised because you have to report back to get your meal card and your clean linen every week, so you are being taken care for. But at the same time a lot of these people who are coming out on boats and risking their lives on boats don’t speak the language. They need a lot of care - not restriction and constraint and abuse. I feel that is a great possibility. We all survived it and we’ve done very well. We worked hard but we’ve done it.

MARION LÊ: Thank you for that. My husband came on a boat in 1977 from Vietnam. They went into the hostels in Villawood actually, which is now the detention centre. They were accommodated in those hostels, and some of you who were here in Canberra remember the times when we resettled people in Canberra directly from the camps to save them going through the hostel situation. We pioneered that here in Canberra where we said, ‘Let’s bring them in and have these people supported in the community,’ much as you are saying. But we put them straight into government provided housing and, where we couldn’t, then the settlement groups who were helping them arranged to help them pay their rent for the homes. The children just went straight to school.

I was talking to someone else about the Introductory English Centre - I was one of the original friends of the Introductory English Centre here in Canberra which was set up then to cope with the English language needs of the children. But we are looking at a different policy now. We are looking at people who are driven by fear and ignorance as to why these people have come. Over 90 per cent of all people who have arrived here by boat have been found to be refugees; yet we are punishing them.

When I look at the children in this display photo here, it reminds me of another photograph that was in Time magazine where they lined up the bodies of the children who had been gassed and then shot in the head in Syria. The number of children who were deliberately slaughtered in Syria is phenomenal that grown men - in most cases men - actually take a gun and shoot a child in the head deliberately. They were just lined up exactly like these children are lined up in the detention centre here awaiting transportation to Nauru. For what reason? Because their parents brought them from situations like Syria so that it didn’t happen to them there. But for some reason we’re punishing the victims, not the perpetrators. I agree with you that of course all people need freedom.

One of the things that happened with the Villawood IDC as it is now, the detention centre, when that was transformed into a detention centre they actually had Cambodians living there in the way you said. Suddenly one night they turned up with a huge bus and started loading them all on to it to transfer them to airplanes to be sent to the opening - they were the first intake into Port Hedland. At that point the regime changed. That was under the Labor government. Gerry Hand and others at that time took that decision that the places of refuge and of protection would become detention centres. There were immigration officers at that time throwing themselves in front of the bus to stop the buses moving with those families, but it went ahead. We have had the detention regime ever since.

CARISSE FLANAGAN: I know there are probably more questions that we are not going to be able to get to. We will have one more question. I know a lot of you will have parking meters that are ticking down at the moment. And then please if you have any more questions for Marion, I hope she can stay with us in the lounge for a little bit and you can talk to her yourself. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thanks for your account of what has been going on. I agree with you. I was here when we were so welcoming to the people who came from Vietnam. I don’t recall much opposition at the time to that. Community groups welcomed them and everything.

What’s changed? You indicated there’s a fear element now. I had an opportunity to put this question to Jim Molen at a forum last week here in Canberra. He’s the architect - he’s quite proud of it - of Operation Sovereign Borders and he’s Tony’s adviser on these matters, a retired major-general. His answer was: the difference is these people are using people smugglers whereas the Vietnamese didn’t do that. I don’t think that is correct. I don’t have the figures on any of that. It seems like something deeper that has changed in our society that’s led us to being so fearful and so reluctant to accept people.

MARION LÊ: It’s true that most of the Vietnamese came directly from Vietnam in their own boats - those that arrived here and those that went to Malaysia and other camps came in boats of people that they knew; they weren’t using an intermediary. Of course some of them were paying people to get on those boats. There used to be a woman in Melbourne who they paid the money back to, so some of them did pay the boat operators. But those were generally boats that were put out to sea by their owners who were also fleeing and who took passengers along to pay for the voyage.

The whole issue of control of our borders is a very complex one. I think they have used this excuse that we’re saving lives at sea so we will turn back the boats to save lives at sea - I think that’s a false premise to act on because if you are not dying at sea, you are dying somewhere else. What we have to do is have a regional solution to this situation, as we did in those days of the Indo-Chinese refugees, and set up a system, which is what they were asking for two or three weeks ago. That was the first time I had heard a concerted cry from the countries of South-East Asia - from Indonesia, from Malaysia, from Thailand and even for that matter from, Burma as I call it, Myanmar to try to solve the problem of the Rohingyas in their thousands. I cannot even contemplate thousands of people in boats waiting to land somewhere and dying.

We have to solve this problem. The only way we can do it is if we will negotiate with the other countries of the region and with the UN, as the UN are wanting us to do. But to keep saying the reason we’re doing this, the reason we’re turning people back, the reason we’re scuttling their boats and paying people smugglers - that just doesn’t make any sense at all - the reason we’re doing it is to stop the people smugglers? I don’t think that’s the sensible thing. I think they hide behind that. We do need to be looking at the situation as it has arisen in these last years.

But there is no doubt that the fear has come out of the rise of terrorism. It really started when John Howard was there when the towers went down in America and suddenly that kind of violence was brought home to him in a very real way. That’s when we got this idea of we must protect our borders. I agree we must protect our borders but I think we’ve gone overboard in that area. [applause]

Can I just say one last thing: I have some little photographs here of this one. If any of you want to take a little graphic reminder with you - for those of you who pray or those of you who feel you might want to take up the issue of children in detention and of the cruelty of what’s happening to these people, if you want to take one of these away, I’d be very happy. I have run off a few of them for anyone that’s interested.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Thank you, Marion. Carisse has already mentioned that you can follow on any of the conversations, and I am sure many of you have many more ideas and questions for Marion and her very deep involvement with this issue, so please join us in the Friends lounge for refreshments. Marion, from all of us, thank you so much for that very personal view of your passion in this ar

ea. Thank you. [applause]

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top