Tiwi islanders: 'We're all non-Australians'



MILIKAPITI, Melville Island — On November 4, a small boat approached through the waters of Snake Bay on Melville Island. Tiwi people knew it wasn't from around there, because it didn't use the main channel in the bay, but instead made straight for the beach across numerous shallow bars.

It was low tide and the boat bottomed out in shallow water, just off the beach. Locals say that between four and six people got off the boat and came onto the beach. Nervous locals urged the strangers back onto the boat and then immediately pushed it off. It then sat some distance off the beach until police and customs arrived.

Within hours of the landing, the boatload of asylum seekers was at the centre of a government storm, which resulted in the excision of the Tiwi Islands from Australia's migration zone. [See article on the back cover.]

One week later, I had the opportunity to speak to some Milikapiti residents, although none wanted their names printed in the media.

The media speculation and comments from federal politicians seemed to have made a greater impression on the Tiwi Islanders than the actual boat arrival. But there was some sympathy for the asylum seekers.

"Everyone was feeling sorry for those people. Maybe God put them this way", someone said to me. Another comment was, "They towed the boat away in the middle of the night. We felt sorry for them, poor things. They were asylum seekers weren't they?"

The islanders pointed out that government ministers had lied about the landing. "They said that [the asylum seekers] didn't land here, but six men were on the beach."

"[Immigration minister] Amanda Vanstone said Tiwi people have boats like that [fishing boat]. We don't have those sort of boats, we have speedboats, aluminium boats and outboards", was another comment, and "that Amanda Vanstone doesn't know what she is talking about".

But it was the decision to excise the Tiwi Islands from Australia's migration zone that has touched a raw nerve with the mostly Indigenous islanders. Not surprising perhaps, given Aboriginal peoples' past experience of discrimination and exclusion.

"We watch the news and read the paper. We're not stupid people, we're educated. We know what it means to be non-Australians. If that boat comes back, we'll welcome them and give them food and water. You know why? Because we're all one group — non-Australians."

"We don't like the government to talk about us like this", one person said. "Government mob they don't come and see us here. They closed the airport straight away."

"We don't want to see that on the news anymore. What they say on the TV is not true. If they want to talk about this, they have to come out here and see this place."

Some people indicated that their anger would change the way they would vote at the next election.

"We're a Labor Party island here, but they didn't do anything for us. Only that Democrats [politician], he spoke up for us."

"Next time an election comes around, Labor Party, Liberal Party, they'll be out here asking us to vote for them. We'll say, 'Sorry we're asylum seekers, we can't vote'".

"If the Greens or Democrats come out, we'll vote for them"

When asked what people's general feeling in Milikapiti was about the whole affair, one Tiwi woman replied, "They think it's all bullshit".

Not an unreasonable summary of another farcical episode in Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.

From Green Left Weekly, November 19, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.