Into Our ‘Heartlands’: a journey

I think that I am here, on this earth
To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory

Czeslaw Milosz, The Unattainable Earth

A work-in-progress by Merrill Findlay. A narrative meditation on Australia’s 2001 ‘Tampa Affair’ about dangerous migrations and uncertain futures; about politics and xenophobias; and about welcoming strangers into our hearts.

Indian Ocean, August 2001. A 44,000-ton container ship, MV Tampa, is steaming north from Fremantle to Singapore on a regular round-the-world run. Its captain, Arne Rinnan, receives a request from the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre to intercept a stricken vessel off Australia’s north-western coast. [1] He changes course and by that evening more than 400 asylum seekers are huddling on the deck of his ship watching their little wooden ferry sinking to the sea floor.

Beginnings …

Most of the people rescued by the Tampa crew that day were ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan. For them, this story ‘ begins’ months, even years earlier in Hazarajat, the Hazara homeland in central Afghanistan, or in the refugee communities of Balochistan or Pakhtunistan in Pakistan; and in circumstances most of them would now want to forget.

For me this story ‘begins’ in Budapest as I watch events unfold on BBC World News, CNN and in the international print media. I simply can’t believe what I’m seeing and hearing. Can Australian SAS commandos really be storming a foreign freighter to take control of it and forcibly transfer the passengers to an Australian naval vessel for transportation to an impoverished island state in the Pacific Ocean? And in the year 2001?[2]


Politics of fear

From Budapest this ‘Tampa Affair ’, as it became known, simply didn’t make sense —until CNN and BBC reporters reminded me that it was election time in Australia, a season when politicians traditionally stir up our deepest fears to make us vote for them.[3] The custom was introduced in the earliest days of British colonisation by Anglo-settlers whose first targets were indigenous Australians and Irish Catholics. Later, in the 1850s and ’60s political opportunists and xenophobes shifted their attention to Chinese gold miners. Indeed, one of the founders of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner, claimed that the colony of Victoria was in danger of ‘becoming the property of the emperor of China and of the Mongolian and Tartar hordes of Asia’ no less! [4] By the end of the nineteenth century such fear-inducing narratives had morphed into the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 or ‘White Australia Policy’, the first piece of legislation passed by the Parliament of the new Commonwealth of Australia upon Federation.

Exactly one hundred years after the White Australia Policy was enacted, and just two days after the tragedy of 9/11, another Australian politician, Defence Minister Peter Reith, suggested that the little wooden boats that were still bringing Afghani and Iraqi asylum seekers towards our shores were a ‘pipeline for terrorists’.[5] Good on you, mate! John Pascoe Fawkner might have said!

From Budapest, where many people proudly claim descent from the ‘Mongolian and Tartar hordes of Asia’, what was happening in my homeland during the 2001 election campaign seemed bewildering, even frightening. The more so because so many of the people then setting out for Australia in little wooden boats were Afghan Hazaras who also claim descent from the ‘Mongols’ John Pascoe Fawkner and others had already taught Australians to fear.

So was history repeating itself in my homeland after all these years? Was this nation of migrants, refugees and their descendants closing its borders again to those who were fleeing war, violence, persecution, hunger and/or poverty? Were we Australians discriminating against newcomers out of fear, prejudice and ignorance once more?

I’m exploring these themes in a new book I’m tentatively calling Into Australia’s ‘Heartlands’: a journey. It is an extended meditation on migration and on the xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives that were unleashed and legitimised in Australia and elsewhere in 2001.

This on-going project is my search for fresh understandings about the many mass migrations we are all part of.  As part of this search I’m able to introduce some of the asylum seekers I met at Melbourne’s Maribyrnong Detention Centre and elsewhere, along with some of their many supporters. I’m also re-visiting Sydney Cove, the site of Australia’s first immigration detention centre for ‘boat people’ established in 1788 as Britain’s ‘Pacific Solution’ to its overcrowded prisons, and to revive my memories of some of the countries I’ve visited from which refugees have been fleeing over the past decades, such as Sudan, Eritrea, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and, most recently, the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.

Pakistan 2006

I visited Pakistan in October/November 2006 and was astonished, delighted, shocked and humbled by what I saw and experienced. I was overwhelmed by people’s hospitality, generosity and kindness to me personally but, as an Australian, I was also disturbed, discomforted and shamed on many occasions …

In Quetta, for example, I was especially shamed when I was introduced to two young Hazara refugees who told me about being incarcerated on Nauru Island after seeking asylum in Australia. They had no access to lawyers nor even to Hazaragi translators on Nauru, and were informed by Australia’s then-Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, that they had no option but to return to Afghanistan. When they finally reached their home villages they discovered that their parents had died or been murdered and that their family land had been stolen. And so they fled a second time across the border into Pakistan.

I also recall a mother I met in Quetta who wept as she showed me her daughter’s wedding photos. This young woman, a beautiful bride, drowned in the Indian Ocean somewhere between Indonesia and Australia. ‘If I could just see her grave …,’ her mother said.

The Quettta Question

But perhaps my most unsettling experience occurred at one of the remarkable Shamama schools for Afghan refugees in Quetta when an Hazara student very politely asked me the following question: ‘Madam, why do Australians think that Muslims are terrorists?’

Without knowing it, this young man in his sparkling white school shirt and dark trousers had raised one of the many questions I was trying to answer myself. There was no simple response I could give him, no quick and easy way of unravelling the many threads of this troubling question in a few minutes to a class of very bright teenagers, however. I remember saying something about politicians using religion for their own purposes, and commenting on the diversity of Australian society, that there were some 360,000 Muslim Australians, for example, and that many of us non-Muslims were far too sophisticated and knowledgeable to believe the populist nonsense we were exposed to in the mass media.

I also suggested that Hazaras probably knew more about terrorists and terrorism than most of us because they’d been the victims of so many attacks by Islamist groups, even in Quetta.

My answer was inadequate of course, but I hope that it at least partly satisfied my young interrogator and challenged some of the stereotypes about Australians that he might have been exposed to.

How others see Australians

The student in Quetta was not the only person to express concern about Australian attitudes to Muslims while I was in Pakistan. A prominent Punjabi lawyer stopped me in the Mall in central Lahore one day and asked me about racism in Australia; and a pharmaceutical company representative asked me a similar question in the provincial town of Jhellum.

At Royal Television, a satellite news and infotainment studio in New Garden Town, Lahore, the Director of News, Rai Husnaian Thair, commented that he too had heard that Australia was a very racist country. ‘But I don’t pick that up in your demeanor,’ he added. I smiled and said something about not all of us being racist, although yes, some of us undoubtedly are.

As I was leaving the newsroom the Director of News plucked a red rose from the arrangement on his desk and graciously presented it to me as thanks for visiting his homeland. Not to be outdone, his colleague, the Assignment and Reporting Editor, pinched a yellow rose from the same vase and gave it to me. Like all the liberal Pakistanis I met, these two young journalists were anxious that I portray their homeland as a sophisticated, modern and liberal country, which it is certainly appears to be from their state-of-the-art television station with its global reach into 140 countries.

What to do?

The ‘Quetta Question’ – Madam, why do Australians think that Muslims are terrorists? – continued to haunt me, and I had plenty of time to think about it on the long journey from Quetta back to Lahore on the Jaffer Express. Somewhere in the Bolan Pass, the gorge between Balochistan’s high plateau and the Indus Valley, I decided that, as a writer, as a citizen, as a moral agent, I had to do something practical about promoting dialogue and understanding between the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Australia to help undo some of the damage that was done in 2001. I jotted down a few rough notes on the train about inviting people from different backgrounds to talk and write about what mattered to them, what made them happy and sad, what they loved and loathed about the places they called home, what kinds of futures they wanted to live in and how they might make these better futures real.

So, let’s now see where this idea takes us …

Merrill Findlay
2 March 2007

Merrill Findlay’s book project, Into Australia’s ‘Heartlands’: a journey, has been supported by Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, North Melbourne,  the Justice and International Mission Unit (fornerly the 2% Committee for Global Discipleship and Justice), Uniting Church in Australia (Victorian Synod), the Federal Government of Australia through an Australian Postgraduate Award, the University of Canberra’s Creative Writing Program though which Merrill completed a creative PhD, and  Universitas Terbuka, Indonesia, which awarded Merrill a Research Fellowship to continue her fieldwork in 2012. The author gratefully acknowledges all this support. She has no faith affiliations with the Uniting Church or with any other religious institutions, however.

She is also very grateful for the help contributed by many other individuals and groups, including Kerang Rural Australians for Refugees and the Holy Eucharist Centre, St Albans, Victoria, and many individuals in Pakistan.

Please note that views expressed on this page or elsewhere on this site are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of project supporters.


[1] Richardson, M. (2001) Australian Case Shows Rescues Can Be Costly: In Migrants’ Plight, a Sea Of Trouble for Skippers, International Herald Tribune, Thursday, September 6, 2001.

[2] Marr, D. and M. Wilkinson (2003) Dark Victory, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, page 19.

[3] Kelly, P., Ed. (2002). The race issue in Australia’s 2001 election: a creation of politicians or the press? Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Working Paper Series, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, page 9.

[4] McLaren, I. (1985). The Chinese in Victoria: Official Reports and Documents, Melbourne, Red Rooster Press, Ascot Vale, page 21.

[5] Quoted in Mares (2002), Borderline, UNSW Press, page 134.

Page first created 2 March 2007 . Reposted on this site 24 January, 2011. Last updated 22 October 2012.


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