Paul Power, CEO Refugee Council of Australia addressed the Immigration Lawyers Association of Australasia breakfast meeting March 10, 2012 at the 6th annual CPD Law Conference. His focus was on asylum seekers, detention centres and a divisive political debate. Below is an authorized transcript of that speech.
Two weeks ago I had what has probably been the most positive experience of my six years as CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia. For the 12 months to July this year, Australia is chairing the international dialogue on refugee resettlement which brings together governments and NGOs from resettlement states and senior officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
This dialogue largely focuses on issues relating to the selection and preparation of refugees for resettlement but I suggested that Australia should put on a sharper focus on the post-arrival support of refugees by hosting a meeting of the Working Group on Resettlement in Melbourne. This group had never met before outside of Europe or North America. Despite some initial concerns that few people would come to Melbourne because of the distance and cost, the meeting attracted 87 delegates from 18 countries – government, NGO and UNHCR people involved in senior management roles in refugee resettlement programs.
The meeting was chaired by Jim O’Callaghan from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and co-chaired by me, and was organised with an impressive level of cooperation from people in various government and non-government organisations. We organised two days of site visits to refugee settlement programs in Melbourne, Geelong and Shepparton, showing examples of good practice of support services for on-arrival orientation, housing, health, education and employment. We explained how different levels of government work with the non-government sector and with business. Visiting delegates met many former refugees involved in all aspects of the support of new arrivals and heard how feedback from, and the involvement of, former refugees had been critical to incremental improvements to services over the past 65 years. The two-day formal gathering which followed discussed different approaches to support services, multiculturalism and the contribution of former refugees to their new society.
I was expecting that the gathering would create a great deal of energy and interest but the feedback from the visiting delegates was even more positive than I had dared to hope. The gathering confirmed that, while we all know that there is room for improvement, Australia has the most comprehensive and sophisticated systems of support for resettled refugees anywhere in the world.
But while the visiting delegates were effusive in their praise of our settlement support services for refugees, they were also asking questions in the meeting breaks and over lunch and dinner about the political debates about asylum which were being reported in the media. How is it that so many asylum seekers are in detention? Are recognised refugees with adverse security decisions really left in detention indefinitely? Is the debate about flows of asylum seekers to Australia really only about six or seven thousand arrivals per year? Aren’t Australians aware of the numbers of asylum seekers flowing from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, from North Africa to Europe or from many countries into the United States and Canada? Is the Opposition serious about suggesting that boats be turned back to Indonesia? Does anyone in the Government consider international law when looking at its detention policies?
People centrally involved in their own national debates about refugee policy in their countries in Europe and North America still have difficulty understanding why the Australian national debate about asylum is so high-profile, so divisive and is so disconnected from international refugee needs. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, is a highly skilled diplomat. But he had to acknowledge during his visit to Australia last month that he found it hard to share Australian politicians’ concerns about the small numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat to this country when he compares it to the scale of humanitarian needs he sees in many other parts of the world.
The needs of refugees and asylum seekers seem to bring out the best and worst in our national character. The question for Australians who are upset by the unacceptability of policies which hurt asylum seekers is: How do we respond? What positive steps can we take to reclaim the initiative on refugee policy?
Recently I met the Melbourne filmmaker Robin Hughan to discuss her current work with refugees in South-East Asia and the meeting prompted me to look again at the film she released in 2008 called “A Nun’s New Habit”. It tells the story of Sr Carmel Wauchope, a nun in her seventies who, after a lifetime in schools and community work in rural South Australia, felt she could no longer remain silent when she saw the crushing impacts of long-term detention on asylum seekers. Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie are not known as centres for political action but members of the Christian communities in those towns became very actively engaged in visiting and supporting asylum seekers in Woomera and Baxter detention centres and in advocating for change with Federal Parliamentarians – as did people in many other suburbs and towns across the country through movements such as Rural Australians for Refugees, the Circle of Friends in South Australia and through countless community and faith-based groups.
The unacceptability of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and the provocative way in which asylum issues have been debated by political leaders have encouraged many people who would otherwise be inactive politically to speak up about the wrongs that they see. This is even noticed at international meetings organised by UNHCR in Geneva where I’m regularly asked why Australian NGOs are so active, so organised and so vocal. To understand this, you have to go back 10 to 12 years ago to a time when Australia’s then Immigration Minister was regularly participating UNHCR meetings in Geneva to promote his government’s detention policies and its new Pacific solution. In response, NGOs had to get organised to publicise the damaging nature of these policies, to let the world know of the suffering of asylum seekers in Australia and to make clear that many Australians opposed these policies. Today, Australian NGOs are centrally involved in international alliances to raise issues of detention and refugee rights well beyond Australia’s shores and have played an important role in supporting refugee representatives, particularly refugee women, to take their concerns directly to international decision makers in Geneva.
Other Australians respond just as effectively but in a quite different way. Brad Chilcott, a Pentecostal pastor in Adelaide, last year saw the need for a non-political response to the never-ending political debate about asylum. He formed Welcome to Australia, a community initiative which engages Australians in cultivating a culture of welcome in our country. Brad believes there are thousands of Australians who don’t care much for politics and don’t know much about immigration policy but do know that they care about people. His organisation promotes parties and local gatherings of welcome for new arrivals, sharing of stories and is promoting the idea of street walks of welcome in Refugee Week this year.
Some of the most effective responses to the inequities of Australia’s asylum policy have come from people such as yourselves – practitioners in immigration law. In the past 18 months, we have seen three vitally important High Court judgements which have resulted from highly effective pro bono work from talent lawyers. In these judgements, the High Court has determined that:
- procedural fairness must be applied to all asylum determinations, even those decided under the excision provisions of the Migration Act;
- under the Migration Act, Australia cannot forcibly remove asylum seekers to a country which does not provide protections for refugees under domestic or international law;
- unaccompanied refugee minors cannot be excluded from family reunion because they might turn 18 before the Immigration Department finally determines their family reunion application.
Work by lawyers on behalf of asylum seekers is so vital that I would encourage you, if you are not already involved, to explore how you might assist. People in this room know far more about this than I do. However, there are opportunities for lawyers to get involved in working with IAAAS providers in the vital work of visiting remote detention centres to provide legal advice and representation to newly arrived asylum seekers. There is a great need for lawyers to provide pro-bono assistance to asylum seekers seeking judicial review of asylum determinations. And we need lawyers who are prepared to explore possibilities for running test cases aimed at restoring rights to people seeking protection from persecution.
When we consider current Australian refugee policy, we do live, to borrow a line from Charles Dickens, in the best of times and the worst of times. As I have outlined, it is possible simultaneously to be very proud and deeply embarrassed by different aspects of our national policy. But we have many examples around us of people who were not content to do nothing in response to additional suffering inflicted on asylum seekers in Australia. It is our choice whether or not we join them.