Dandenong's Asylum Seekers' centre celebrates 20 years

The Asylum Seekers' Centre has provided almost $6 million in material aid to asylum seekers in the past two decades

David Spitteler (right) founded the centre in 1997

PHOTO: Rochelle Kirkham

By Chris Shearer

February 10 2017The interdenominational Asylum Seekers' Centre celebrated its 20th anniversary on February 6.

In that time the entirely volunteer-run organisation has assisted over 4000 asylum seekers from 69 countries, distributing nearly $6 million in material aid in food packages, clothes, and electronics, including around 3000 computers.

Founder David Spitteler, 75, an Anglican lay pastoral minster, says the organisation has expanded from humble beginnings as support from churches and the community has grown over the last decade. In the past ten years alone they’ve provided about $3.9 million to asylum seekers in the Dandenong and Casey region.

“We can handle more asylum seekers for an indefinite period, whereas in the first place I had to restrict the time and the geographic area,” he said.

“So now the area has expanded to greater Dandenong and Casey, and the [support period] has increased from 6 months to indefinite. So those things couldn’t happen without the level of support.”

Mr Spitteler said he believes many asylum seekers today face greater stresses than when he began in 1997 as Australian laws around claiming asylum tightened and public perception changed.

“When I started people had a hope of being permanent. Now… we’re helping them indefinitely because there’s no end in sight.

“The whole ethos of ‘people who aren’t the right sort of people’, not queueing, coming by boat, ‘throwing their kids overboard’, the whole language has changed so that people see them as someone they can demonise.”

As well as providing material aid, Mr Spitteler says he tries to combat these notions by regularly addressing public forums around the country about his experiences helping asylum seekers. A meticulous record keeper, he says he’s spoken on the issue 1,907 times in the past twenty years, including 971 sermons.

“I’m very objective about what I say so that it can be validated. I try to give people a true picture,” he explains.

Vicar-General of the Diocese of Melbourne, Bishop Philip Huggins, congratulated Mr Spitteler and the volunteers of the Asylum Seekers Centre for their years of dedication and “gracious, compassionate and persistent” ministry that has blessed so many of the community’s most vulnerable people.