Greg Lake writes of his journey from youth pastor to immigration official on Christmas Island.
My journey from ministry to detention centre manager was a fairly simple one. Towards the end of my diploma with Anglican Youthworks, I decided that I wanted to continue my theological education at a higher level. I knew I couldn’t afford that on my church stipend as a youth worker on the South Coast of NSW, so I resigned and took up a job with a bank.
Before long, I started to see my earning potential and career advancement as more than just a means to an end. I never did finish the Bachelor of Theology and instead went on to start a business degree.
Perhaps it was some sort of left over sense of civic duty that saw me shifting my focus away from banking. Keen to work in a job where more people would be impacted by my work, I started applying for jobs in the public service.
Immigration was the first job I got offered. I didn’t have any particular interest in (or even knowledge of) the portfolio. At first, I worked in legislation and labour market economic policy.
However, after a short secondment to the Australian Senate, I started looking for something a bit more challenging. That’s exactly what the department’s executive had in mind for me. Not long after indicating I was ready for a change, I was appointed to Christmas Island.
“Have you got any body bags? We’ve run out …”
Those images of the boat crashing against the rocks at Christmas Island are etched in my memory. The only thing I will remember more was that frantic phone call from the hospital asking whether we had any body bags because they had already used up the 20 or so that they had in their stores.
In the weeks leading up to the crash, I had been heading into the office very early in the morning, sometimes before 4.30 am. Christmas Island was four hours behind Canberra time (because of daylight savings), so I would arrive in the office and get as much done while my colleagues were at their desks.
The summer swells had been really big and there had even been community bulletins for the Kampong residential area (opposite the jetty at Flying Fish Cove) warning against freak waves that could swamp the ground-floor apartments. All the asylum seeker offload operations and first day processing had been put on hold until the weather died down. Each morning, I’d head down to the jetty on my way to work to look at the conditions, trying to work out if the offload was possible.
On the morning of December 15 2010, I did just that—drove past the jetty (at about 5.45 am, a bit later than usual) and then went on to the office. The swell was enormous and I knew as soon as I saw the cove, that we wouldn’t be doing an offload operation that day. It was simply too dangerous.
Almost as soon as I parked my car and walked into the detention centre front gate, my phone rang to say that an unexpected boat had arrived. The Navy had missed it (as sometimes happened), and it was dangerously close to the shoreline. When the boat crashed against the rocks shortly after 7 am we had a disaster on our hands.
My role was to coordinate operational support through the provision of medical staff and supplies, logistics and welfare support (blankets, food, transport, etc.) and also personnel to help with the practical work, such as carrying the bodies off the Navy/Customs RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) to the triage centre where doctors were pronouncing people dead.
Despite all the practical help we were able to provide that day, we still felt powerless. Like most Australians watching the TV, we were wondering how we’d reached the point where this sort of thing happened.
Getting a call for body bags was one of the worst experiences I had during my time working for DIAC. It was right up there with the call I got on Nauru (in early 2013) saying eight asylum seekers had sewn their lips together, and the call I got in Queensland (in 2011) saying one of the Afghan asylum seekers had taken his own life. I knew the hospital only had about 20 body bags. So getting that call meant they had probably already exhausted their supply.
In all, about 50 people died that day. There was no part of what happened that wasn’t tragic.
Amazingly, the boat crash wasn’t enough to jolt me back into thinking seriously about how my work aligned with kingdom values. I did have an inkling that perhaps I needed to think about my work and how it aligned with my faith in Jesus a little differently, but I wasn’t ready to face that issue just yet. In the meantime, I was justifying my profession by helping to organise Christian asylum seekers to visit the Christmas Island Christian Fellowship on Sundays and setting up a system where members of the church could come into the Christmas Island detention centre to minister to those inside.
Following my stint on Christmas Island, I took up a position as Regional Manager of Queensland detention centres and Centre Manager of the Scherger detention centre in Cape York. After a stint back in Canberra working in a policy and administrative role, I was asked to come back into the detention division when the Gillard Government announced it was going to re-establish offshore processing. I was asked to take up the role of Director of Regional Processing Operations—providing Canberra-based operational coordination to all offshore transfers of asylum seekers.
It was during this time, when we were setting up the Manus and Nauru Regional Processing centres, that I really began to question working in such a role. The most challenging part of that position was when I was asked to select some people from family groups to be transferred to Manus Island.
My instructions (from the Minister for Immigration’s office) were to find families with children as young as possible (because we had to send a message to people smugglers that children, even young children, weren’t exempt). We couldn’t transfer children under seven, as they couldn’t be inoculated against Japanese Encephalitis or Malaria, so I had to choose children who looked young, to send a message to people smugglers.
As I was looking at the names of these young children, knowing that I was sending them to a place where they had no hope for the future, I found myself crossing an ethical line that I simply couldn’t live with.
I lasted in that job for just a few months before they sent me to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre and then on to Nauru as the director of the detention centre there.
It was when I was given those marching orders that I realised I’d become something of a specialist in running detention centres. I knew how the detention contracts worked, I understood the legal issues, I knew how to develop good stakeholder relationships and I knew how to manage staff. But over time, I realised that running horrible detention centres where the most vulnerable people in the world were sent away to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to the Australian community wasn’t something I was overly comfortable with.
While on Nauru, I was faced with daily demonstrations by asylum seekers in need. I was responsible for organising the medical evacuation of a man whose underlying psychological condition was made so much worse by his transfer to Nauru that he would experience perpetual psychosis if he wasn’t given a better level of care.
I sat and listened to the stories of Afghans who literally ran for their lives after watching their wives and children being killed in front of them. I wept with Sri Lankan Christians who had lost all hope. I negotiated with people who had sewn their lips as a way of expressing the feeling that they had no voice.
While I was on Nauru, I read Crazy Love by Francis Chan. At the end of the book, Francis encourages his readers to ask the question “Is this what I want to be doing when Jesus returns?” He encourages us to think about whether the thing we’re doing right now is where we want Jesus to find us when he appears in his majesty.
I was challenged by that idea. I realised that I had wandered away from a life defined by my faith—a life that sought out opportunities to share the gospel, to love people and to live in obedience to our wonderful God.
I had slipped through a phase where money and career became the end game, and at Immigration found myself in a position where even the most horrific of incidents wasn’t enough to make me question my focus.
I realised that I didn’t want to be in that job when Jesus returned. I didn’t want to be looking back on this time in our nation’s history with shame at the part I played in locking vulnerable people in detention. I didn’t want to find myself in front of Jesus on that great day, explaining why I didn’t give the asylum seekers a glass of water (Matthew 10:42), explaining why I didn’t give voice to the mute (Proverbs 31:8-9), explaining why I treated the refugees with contempt.
I’m not saying the public service in general is a bad place for Christians to work—we need strong Christians in those important roles. However, I’d become a specialist in a field that is far from godly and, while there are people of integrity working in those roles, it is hard to see how on the one hand, a Christian can pursue kingdom values, while on the other hand, treating the vulnerable in this way.
Greg Lake resigned in April this year after finding an unavoidable conflict between his faith and his work. These days, he blogs at theimmigrationblog.com and shapes surfboards on the NSW South Coast. He attends St Martin’s Anglican Church, Ulladulla.