Every Sunday afternoon, Richard Davis conducts a lone vigil outside the Wickham Point Immigration detention centre, thirty-five kilometres south of Darwin. Affectionately known by detainees as ‘The Grandfather’, Davis, 76-years-old, has conducted his weekly vigils for the past four years—first outside the Darwin Airport Lodge where asylum seekers were once housed, and for several years now outside Wickham Point, defined by its Orwellian acronym as an APOD, an Alternative Place of Detention. He also maintains a vigil, two days a week, outside the immigration offices in Darwin.
Vigil—from the Latin vigilia meaning wakefulness—is defined variously as a period of purposeful sleeplessness; an occasion for devotional watching; an act or a period of observing. To be vigilant, is to be alert, attentive, heedful. Those who maintain a vigil are in effect declaring: ‘Not on my watch. Not in my name.’
I first met ‘The Grandfather’ on his Sunday vigil on the highway turn off, outside the high security Wickham Point, in December 2014. At that time it stood alongside the Bladin detention centre, which has since been closed down. Detention is a euphemism. Wickham Point is a prison. Like other mainland detention centres, it requires visitors to place belongings in a locker, and proceed through a scanner, and several sets of locked doors before entering the visitors’ room.
A tall slim man, with a straggly white beard, The Grandfather perches on a stool beside his white four-wheel drive van. In front of him rests a placard, captioned: ‘Until we are all free, none of us are free’. Attached to the side of the van is a weathered sign: ‘Kids don’t belong in detention’. It is accompanied by an image of a child behind bars. A placard leaning against a rock calls for detention centres to be ‘closed down.’
For detainees, The Grandfather’s vigil, and his visits, have represented a slim ray of hope, as too have the regular visits by members of the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network.
‘When someone visits us,’ one detainee has written, ‘it is more than a visit…You do not know what this means to us inside. We feel despair. You give us hope and friendship.’ Says another: ‘When I knew someone was coming every week and we could talk about anything, or just sit together, and l could be with someone from outside, it made my long days more bearable.’
When visitors delivered flowers on Mother’s day, back in 2014, one detainee said: ‘I want you to tell people those mothers in the camp are crying tonight. But they are crying from happiness because you came. The flowers are some beauty in this prison. They are a sign that we are not alone.’
The Grandfather’s ongoing vigils have therefore served at least two purposes: First, he has helped relieve the desperation, the sense of despair and isolation experienced by detainees in remote places, and his vigils have also served as a reminder that as we go about our daily business, something terrible is taking place somewhere out there.
Since immigration detention centres were first set up back in 1992, many have been deliberately located onshore in remote outback locations, or in distant Christmas Island, and in isolated offshore centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Without the efforts of those who have remained watchful, by various means, these centres would remain— as intended—out of sight, and hence out of mind.
Until recent months, the centres south of Darwin housed, among others, women from Nauru and the babies born to them in Darwin Hospital. The families, especially the children, were suffering high levels of self-harm, anxiety and depression. Richard Davis’ efforts helped expose their hidden plight.
The Grandfather has remained steadfast. He will not be moved. He will keep going as long as there are people in detention. ‘I love the word vigil’, he says. ‘It has Biblical overtones, a sense of bearing witness’. In the past four years, he estimates that he has had over 12,000 direct contacts with passersby in Darwin, and countless conversations. His lone stand, he says, speaking from Darwin this week, is ‘an outpost of reason. So people can have alternatives.’ He has endured vitriol, ‘vulgar outbursts’ he calls them, mainly from men—and tried to engage them in countering the superficial catch-cry ‘they are taking our jobs away from us.’
Perhaps the most powerful impact comes from The Grandfather’s many lone hours of silence. It is a silence that speaks—an eloquent silence. His vigils, and the vigils and visits of others, have, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, kept open that crack where the light gets in.