The Paris Metro station of Bir Hakeim, not far from the Eiffel Tower, serves both the Australian Embassy and a monument that was erected in 1994 to commemorate the mass round-up of Jews, brought to the Velodrome d’hiver (an indoor cycle track known as the Vel d’hiv) which formerly occupied the site. The Australian Embassy in Paris is built on railway yards across from that Vel d’Hiv site.
The bronze monument depicts a small group of people including a pregnant woman, a sick old man, children, one with a doll, a suitcase. It represents the 13,152 Jews, the majority of them stateless or refugee, who were arrested on 16-17 July 1942 by the French police under the Vichy government’s “Operation Spring Wind.” They were interned in the Vel d’hiv for five days in atrocious conditions, and then moved to two transit camps before being deported to Auschwitz. There were, among them 5802 women and 4051 children. “Of the 76,000 French Jews sent to Auschwitz, only two and a half thousand returned.”
The French operation was surrounded by secrecy and the press was collaborationist. However, on 22 July, the annual assembly of cardinals and archbishops handed the Prime Minister, Marshal Pétain, an unpublished resolution signed by them, the text of which condemned in the name of “imprescriptible human rights, the en masse arresting of Israelites” and “the harsh treatment which is being meted out to them, particularly at the Velodrome d’hiver.”
The state, unlike the individual person, has no conscience. So decades passed before the failure of French civilization could be admitted politically. By the time of the 70th anniversary of the round-up, President François Hollande could give a speech at the monument.
… all ideologies of exclusion, all forms of intolerance, all fanaticism, all xenophobia, that seek to develop the mentality of hatred will find their way blocked by the Republic. To tirelessly teach historical truth, to scrupulously ensure respect for the values of the Republic, to constantly recall the demand for religious tolerance in the framework of our secular laws, never to give way on the principles of freedom and human dignity; always to further the promise of equality and emancipation. These are the measures we must collectively assign ourselves.
In 1992, only the year before that monument was commissioned, the Australian Government of Paul Keating, forestalling a High Court decision on the Government’s right to intern refugees and asylum seekers, introduced an amendment to the Migration Act which allowed for people arriving in Australia without visas to be detained for 273 days, thus violating the international commitments with regard to refugees and asylum seekers to which this country was a signatory.
Even earlier, the xenophobic culture in the Department of Immigration had become evident with the arrival of the Cambodian refugees in 1989, the naming of their boats (after dogs) the use of the label “economic refugee” by then Prime Minister Hawke, the disdainful style of evidence given by senior public servants in the trial brought to allow the Cambodians to stay in the country (Mok v. the Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, 1993,) the hunger strike of Cambodian women in Sydney and their force feeding, and the deportation of the Cambodians back to their country for one year.
The concept of institutional bias within the Department and the tribunals has been around for a long time but seems to have been used successfully only once. In Mok versus Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, three Cambodian asylum seekers who were refused entry permits by the Department (in the days before the commencement of the RRT) applied for judicial reviews, primarily on the basis that the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, had made comments on national television to the effect that Cambodian boat arrivals were not refugees, would not be granted permanent residence in Australia, and that he would act “forcefully” to ensure that applications for refugee status were refused. Keely J in the Federal Court found that such statements, despite the efforts of successive immigration ministers to disown them, meant that all of the refusal decisions were affected by apprehended bias. (Freckleton, A. 2015, Administrative decision making in Australian immigration law.)
The state, supported by High Court decisions, and under successive Prime Ministers, beginning with Keating and including Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and the current incumbent, Turnbull, has maintained and extended this policy to offshore detention, thus demeaning our neighbouring countries.
Asylum seekers, desperate for liberty from repressive regimes and war, have encountered a state which has refused to look at them as people with rights. For the first time in our peacetime history, press censorship has been enforced to ensure that. Our governments are determined that their stories shall not be told. The clear condemnatory statements from church leaders and other public figures are politely and patronisingly set aside; their appeal to morality ignored.
In July, Australians elect a new government. Neither party has thus far shown any moral leadership and it looks as though, as in France, another generation will one day have to stand in front of a memorial to those men, women and children who suffer at the hand of governing ideologies.
Bill Clements is a sculptor and writes about social justice issues. Barbara Clements teaches English as a second language, and is an advocate of nonviolence in life and politics. They live near Wagga Wagga.