Harding, Philip: Asylum Seekers Now and Then

The introduction of Dr Philip Harding by Mr Geoff Coles AM, Chairman, Board of Directors, Royal Adelaide Hospital

It is my very great pleasure to introduce Dr Philip Harding to deliver the William Wyatt Oration today. In his capacity as past director of the Endocrine Unit, Royal Adelaide Hospital, Dr Harding is well known to all of us.

Dr Harding graduated from the University of Adelaide and in 1965 commenced his vocational training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital as a resident medical officer, rapidly proceeding through the ranks of the hospital’s medical staff. He was director of the Endocrine Unit, the Royal Adelaide Hospital, from 1976-96 for twenty years and presently is a senior visiting physician in the Internal Medicine Service.

Dr Harding enjoys a very illustrious career. In his earlier days he held appointments in England and United States of America.

His wide interest in medical affairs led to his election as the chairman of the hospital’s Medical Staff Society and president of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Medical Association, together with his appointment to the council of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science.

Dr Harding has been chairman or member of a number of Australia-wide committees and subcommittees including those of the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee; The Australian Health Ethics Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council; The South Australian Diabetetic [sic] Services Program Committee; the South Australian Hospital Scientists Assessment Committee and The Medical Services [The Medical Defence] Association of South Australia. He is also a member of several associations related to his specialty in endocrinology and metabolism.

We are delighted that Dr Harding accepted his appointment as the William Wyatt Orator for 2002 and we look forward to his oration on the subject Asylum Seekers Now and Then.

William Wyatt Oration

Dr Philip Harding

17th July 2002

I thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. I have chosen to deviate from the tradition of Foundation Day addresses and to speak on a contemporary social issue, but at the same time to view it from the perspective of the people and forces responsible for the development of South Australia and indeed the foundation of this hospital 162 years ago this week.

It is now 309 days since 11th September 2001 and much has changed in our world. There have been economic burdens, inconvenience and frustration; but above all, a change from our comfortable sense of safety and security to one of uncertainty and suspicion. Obviously, these feelings have been most manifest in the United States; but they have occurred in Australia and last September they became focused on the flow of refugees arriving on our shores, mostly from that very part of the world where the trouble has arisen. Ragged, desperate and terrified people suddenly became potential terrorists. We saw increasing efforts to deflect these arrivals – the so-called “Pacific solution”. At the same time, we began to hear international criticism of our treatment of refugees, and were confronted with reports of mental illness, suicide attempts and hunger strikes amongst those detained at Woomera and elsewhere.

Since 1999, a large number of boat loads of people seeking refuge or asylum has come to our northern shores mostly by way of Indonesia. Whilst there was the impression of a huge invasion, the fact is that the numbers were but a small proportion of those arriving in countries with land borders or even in the British Isles. In Australia, matters came to a head with the incident involving the Norwegian ship Tampa in August 2001. As you will recall, some 400 people were rescued from a sinking boat and the ship’s captain decided to bring them to Christmas Island. 11th September 2001 needs to be remembered for another reason; it was the date upon which Justice North of the Federal Court handed down his decision that the detention of refugees by Australian troops on board the Tampa, and their proposed expulsion from Australian territory, were illegal under Australian law. Although this ruling was subsequently overturned by a majority decision of the Full Court, it serves to remind us of the legal and political turmoil which occupied those few weeks.

For any group to devise terrorism of the sort we have seen recently, there must exist hatred, based in turn on division, division between black and white, capitalist and communist, Christian and Muslim, Protestant and Catholic, Arab and Jew. Whilst our country is not free of such problems, we tend to take pride in the level of tolerance and harmony which exists in Australian society. It is becoming obvious, however, that divisions are emerging between us over the way our country is handling those people who have landed here seeking refuge or a better future. Many of us must admit to some misgivings about the treatment being experienced by those arriving as refugees.

How do we define somebody as a refugee? The international refugee convention to which Australia is a signatory uses a definition in which the key phrase is “Any person who, owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted…..”. Interpretation of the phrase “well founded” can, obviously, be highly subjective. A further and important point is that such persons have a legal right to make an application for refugee status irrespective of whether they arrive in Australia with prior authorisation; furthermore, the refugee convention provides that they should not be discriminated against on the basis of their method of arrival or their possession or otherwise of documentation.

Managing our feelings about this issue is not made easier by the fact that the refugees appear alien to us. I make no apology for this statement; it is a simple factual observation. What, as a Sydney Morning Herald columnist observed in May last year, if they were “more like us”? What if a group of white Zimbabwean farmers fled in fear of their life, without opportunity to make an official application for refugee status, arrived here without permission and our response was to place them behind barbed wire, possibly after separating them from their families? There would, of course, be outrage.

Whenever we are confronted with a new, foreign or unfamiliar group of fellow human beings the first step in developing understanding is to find some common ground. Those of us who belong to international medical associations take great joy in the bond of fellowship which exists between doctors and which transcends ethnic and cultural boundaries. The same applies to all professions. What, then, if one of the refugees was a doctor? – or a nurse, or an engineer, or anything with which we could identify. Well, there certainly are such people. Some of you will have read the articles about the physical and mental health of refugees in the December 2001 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia. One of these was co-authored by a detainee in the Villawood detention centre, Dr Aamer Sultan. I have been in correspondence with Dr Sultan. I have been in correspondence with Dr Sultan. His story is a compelling and challenging one, and he allows me to tell it to you. His CV is fairly typical for a young doctor; he graduated from the Medical School of University of Baghdad (an English-language School) in 1992, did hospital residency, compulsory military service and rural terms and then became involved, in that strife-torn country, in treating injured insurrectionists. His group’s activities being discovered, he fled Iraq in fear of his life, crossing the border into Turkey with the assistance of a smuggler who then arranged for him to fly to Australia where he believed he would be given asylum. It is more than possible, of course, that the smuggler knew better but it was certainly not Dr Sultan’s expectation that the response to his giving himself up to the first official he saw at Sydney airport would be his placement in detention. By the time of the publication of the article to which I have referred, he had been in Villawood for three years – a tenth of his life. His correspondence with me eloquently expresses feelings of helplessness and frustration at the inability of human rights or international refugee organisations to assist his situation or that of fellow detainees. The Medical Journal of Australia states that he cannot be returned to Iraq because Australia has no diplomatic relations with that country; and Dr Sultan tells me that it is very difficult for him to apply for acceptance by any other country whilst he is in detention here. It is difficult to think of a better description of being between a rock and a hard place.

We might refer to people such as Dr Sultan as refugees, asylum seekers or illegal immigrants, but in her recently published book, Mr Mary Crock – an Australian authority on migration and refugee law – calls them future seekers. This is an interesting term as it places the focus on what these people are looking for rather than on what they have left behind. I acknowledge Dr Crock’s excellent book as the source for some of the factual material I have presented.

Why then, are there future seekers? Any person seeking refuge or asylum for themselves or their family, is doing so because they perceive their future to be uncertain and are expressing a fundamental human need to survive and to grow. These same motives applied to at least some of those who came as the first settlers of South Australia a little over a century and a half ago. Whilst it may seem to many of you surprising, or even odious, that I might compare our forefathers with the current generation of boat people, it has interested me to reflect upon whether they might be some parallels. To start with, they also came by boat; they endured an arduous journey, often under miserable conditions; sometimes, with significant loss of life. It is also possible that some of those arriving had, like Dr Sultan, a rather false impression of what was to await them; Captain Sturt’s description of “a magnificent river falling into the sea at Gulf St Vincent” suggests that he must have seen the Torrens in an unusual flood! These 19th century boat people certainly landed without the permission or approval of the local population who today might take quite a different view of their arrival.

The colonisation of South Australia leaves its record in documents couched in a rhetoric of idealism, religious freedom and the hope of prosperity for all. Necessity is, however, always the mother of such invention. What were the circumstances which drove this development? What drove these future seekers of the 1830s to the southern coast of Australia? Edward Gibbon Wakefield is perhaps more than any other individual responsible for us being here today; but how well known is it, for example, that he spent much time on his theories for systematic colonisation in Newgate prison, where he had been sentenced to three years for a series of social indiscretions. The Kings Bench debtors prison also provided fertile ground for meetings between Robert Gouger, later our first Colonial Secretary, and others including Captain Dixon who was able to provide useful information about the southern coasts of Australia.

Then there was our first Chief Justice, Sir John Jeffcott, who applied for a position in South Australia being in somewhat urgent need of employment overseas, having killed a medical practitioner in a duel and being deeply in debt.  

The social structure of early 19th century England was complex. The French had recently found a convenient way of getting rid of their aristocracy, but in contrast the British upper classes were treated with a curious mixture of affection, deference and envy – much as they are today. The church, despite many reforms, was entangled with conservative politics and there was much abuse of privilege. In its economy, the country was experiencing considerable hardship as it recovered from the cost of the Napoleonic wars. This impacted considerably on the middle classes, whether those at the upper end trying to infiltrate the ranks of the nobility, or those at the lower trying to keep themselves separated from the workers. It was from these middle classes that we see emerging the prime movers for South Australia, and many of the early settlers. They saw for themselves the opportunity to be in charge, unfettered by the control of hereditary wealth and privilege, and to enjoy religious freedom. They were referred to as the “superior settlers”; those with capital to invest in the venture by way of land purchase, money which would turn be used to fund the emigration of labourers and servants.

The economic hardships of Britain were also impacting on the working classes and there was, periodically, enormous poverty and a strong movement to encourage emigration so as to relieve the country of some of the social burden it its poor. Thus the forces of demand and supply conspired to provide and transport to South Australia its own working class.

Just as we might view the refugee situation through the eyes of Dr Sultan, so too might we gain some insight into the life of the early settlers through the experience of another doctor, namely William Wyatt in whose honour this oration is given.

Wyatt was one of a large number of early settlers and immigrants recruited by George Fife Angas, who was particularly interested in Christians from Nonconformist or Dissenting congregations. As related in Douglas Pike’s book “Paradise of Dissent”, Angas saw South Australia as becoming the “headquarters for the diffusion of Christianity in the southern hemisphere”. In this respect, William Wyatt seemed to fit the bill; he is described as “studious, prudent, industrious, honourable, strictly moral and well disposed to religion, having had the advantage of pious parents”. He was by then aged 31, having obtained his medical qualification by the then accepted method of apprenticeship to a local surgeon in Plymouth, where he had continued to work until his departure for South Australia.

What made Wyatt leave a comfortable professional life and emigrate to South Australia where Adelaide was but a collection of tents and temporary huts, with Governor Hindmarsh still living on board the “Buffalo”? About this, I can only speculate but suspect that he may have seen his professional development as being limited by his rather rudimentary qualifications, with the remainder of his life being spent in a mundane regional practice. Instead, he chose what must have seemed to his contemporaries an enormous gamble. According to Pike, he hoped not only to practice medicine but to become an agricultural landowner.

Wyatt’s gamble paid off. There is little evidence on which to base an assessment of the quality of his medical work, but there is no doubt that he enjoyed enormous personal success. Doctors are notorious for doing very badly in business ventures, but Wyatt should be a role model. At the first land auction held in the colony – only about a month after his arrival – he bought some half-dozen town acre properties in locations such as Pirie and Grenfell streets and South Terrace at prices between L5 and L10; only four years later he was to sell part of one of the Pirie St properties for almost L200. At a professional and social level, there was hardly an office in the developing colony that he did not hold; within two years of his arrival in February 1837 he was appointed protector of aborigines (a paid position), city coroner and honorary Colonial naturalist. He became a magistrate and was one of the commissioners appointed to administer the affairs of the city of Adelaide when the council collapsed in 1843.

Wyatt was also one of the founders both of St Peter’s College and the South Australian Club which later became the Adelaide Club. In 1851, he became South Australia’s first inspector of schools, a position he held for over two decades. He was a founding member of the medical board of South Australia and of the board of this hospital, of which he was chairman from 1870 until his death in 1886. I doubt he would have done as well in Plymouth.

In the century and a half between these two stories I have told, people have come to make their home in Australia from many places and for many reasons. Fifty years ago, my own family brought me here – again in a boat, the SS Largs Bay, seeking a better future, this time driven by the economic hardships following another war involving Britain. At that time, the white Australia policy was alive and well; as Mr J. A. Beazley, a cabinet minister between 1945-9, said:

“Australia will seek migrants of our own kind who could be readily assimilated and who believe in the standards of living we have struggled to achieve”

In more recent decades, we have come to accept migrants, including a large number with refugee status, from a variety of regions and cultures; indeed, we have become proud of our multiculturalism. We should remember the large numbers of Vietnamese boat people who came here following the war in that country. We accepted them with much better grace that we are currently showing to Middle Eastern refugees. At least one child of one of those Vietnamese refugee families is now a graduate of the Adelaide medical school.

In summary, as we look around ourselves at the very considerable achievements of our immigrant forefathers, we should consider for a moment the forces and motivations which drove them to this country and reflect upon whether they really were very much different from those driving anyone, whether or not a refugee, seeking – to use Dr Mary Crock’s term – their future.

The story of Dr Sultan has an ending which might immediately seem a happy one but is probably better described as bitter-sweet. Two weeks ago, today, he was released from Villawood on a temporary protection visa. This does not offer him the prospect of permanent residence as would be offered to an “officially processed” offshore applicant for refugee status. What the future now holds for him, I do not know.

In raising these issues today, I seek not to excite any form of political controversy. I simply encourage you to take a step backwards and take a broader view of the situation currently faced by some thousands of fellow human beings undergoing mandatory detention which might be described as combining the endurance of limbo with the suffering of purgatory.

In the Christian atmosphere of this service, we should remember the words of Christ himself:

“that which you do unto the least of my brothers, you do unto me”.


Crock, Mary and Ben Saul. Future Seekers: refugees and the law in Australia. Federation Press, 2002

Pike, Douglas.  Paradise of Dissent.  Melbourne University Press, 1957

Smith, Mitchell M.  Asylum seekers in Australia. Med J Aust 2001; 175: 587

Sultan, Aamer and O’Sullivan, Kevin.  Psychological disturbances of asylum seekers held in long-term detention: a participant-observer account. Med J Aust 2001; 175: 593

In Retrospect 1886-1950.  The Wyatt Benevolent Institution Inc.