A Cry Went Up in the Desert: Documenting Woomera Detention Centre

The book ‘A Cry Went Up in the Desert’ provides a unique eye-witness account of the impact of the Australian Government’s policies towards asylum seekers and those who advocate for them over the period of late 1999 – 2000. These policies and actions sadly continue to reverberate and impact asylum seekers in Australia over twenty years later.

In this important book documenting the early stages of Woomera Detention Centre, editor Margaret Gunn has reproduced, with permission, a series of letters she received from  Rev Dr Tom Atherton of his attempts to advocate for people detained at Woomera.

The books editor Margaret Gunn has provided the following summary of the book:
In late 1999 the United Protestant Minister Rev Tom Atherton was living at Woomera and so saw first-hand the building of this centre and was at the receiving end of backlash against people who advocated for the people detained in the centre. At this time 800 or so American service-people were completing a rotation at the Woomera space research base when the detention centre began to be constructed in the area. Surprised by this new development, both the Rev Atherton and the local Catholic priest’s first response was to publicly ask the Minister for Immigration for air-conditioning in the 1950s brick huts on the Woomera town construction site which were to be used to house the initial 400 or so men, women and children from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


“The picture I have is of a prison-like enclave in the desert in which the 1,500 residents have rights which no one tells them about (right to legal advice, for example). They are involved in a process of evaluation of their refugee status but no one tells them about the process… and they have no idea when a decision will be made…” –  Rev Dr Tom Atherton, 13th June 2000

In response the Minister himself led the onslaught which enveloped Tom with the Minister of Immigration seeing the request for habitable accommodation being an unwelcome interference. This personal attack of exacerbated by Sydney shock-jock John Laws.

When Margaret wrote a letter of encouragement to Tom he responded and this began a 6-month exchange of emails where Tom documented confidentially his first-hand experience of doing what he could to help the detainees and guards at the detention centre.  Later Rev Atherton would say that Margaret’s letter of encouragement was the only positive letter he received amidst a torrent of hate-mail.

“I feel the need to tell this stuff confidentially to someone and you have been elected unopposed.” – Rev Dr Tom Atherton to Margaret Gunn, 25th May 2000

The 36 emails that Tom sent to Margaret were saved on her computer and recently she sought and received permission from Tom and his wife Judith to share them publicly.

As journalist Peter Mares writes of the resulting book:

“These important documents [are] a reference point for others, including future generations, to better understand, at a personal and visceral level, the pain and anguish inflicted by Australia’s immigration detention regime.”

‘A Cry Went Up in the Desert’ was published in 2023 and is available for purchase from the publisher MediaCom Education.