Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Reclaiming the heart of our nation

Written by By Rob Floyd, Assembly Associate General Secretary
Photo by Hilda Kaguma. Louise Olliff, Sara Shengeb, Najeeba Wazefadost at the Refugee Alternatives Conference Photo by Hilda Kaguma. Louise Olliff, Sara Shengeb, Najeeba Wazefadost at the Refugee Alternatives Conference

Earlier this week I spent two days in Adelaide at the Refugee Alternatives Conference in Adelaide.

Around 400 people attended with at least a third of those in attendance having experience as refugees or asylum seekers.

Presentations throughout the conference reflected this with more than half the speakers having had the experience of being a refugee themselves. Their stories and input were powerful.

Sessions picked up many themes but one which resonated was the importance of empowering refugees to have their own voice and choice in advocating for their needs. 

The conference reflected on what has worked well over the last year, particularly the #KidsOffNauru campaign and the advocacy efforts behind the recently passed Medevac Bill.

Thank you to UCA members who got behind these campaigns. Your efforts definitely made a difference.

The conference was facilitated by the Refugee Council of Australia, to which the UCA Assembly is a member, in collaboration with a number of other research and refugee support organisations.

Among participants there was recognition that the upcoming federal election is likely to have border protection, asylum seekers and refugees as a key focus. It is vital that we do all we can to avoid the demonising of refugees and asylum seekers in debate. We must question our politicians about their policy positions and clearly express our expectations for a just and compassionate system for all.

We heard of the dire situation for just over 1000 people still in detention on Nauru and Manus Island, along with the additional 1285 people in detention in Australia.

Alarmingly,  the average time in Australian detention for an asylum seeker is 17 months, while some have been held for more than 5 years. This is longer than the average time people convicted of criminal offences are held in Australian jails.  By comparison, the UK recently passed a bill limiting detention to no more than 28 days, except for extreme circumstances.

We heard of the almost 16,000 people seeking asylum who have arrived by boat since 2012 living in community detention, but having government support removed by increasingly restrictive policies.

For many, work rights, access to Medicare, counselling and other support services are being cut, causing destitution and adding to anxiety and stress for many people.

It is the people who came to Australia by boat that are so frequently talked about and portrayed as “illegal” and “criminals”.

Ironically the almost 30,000 people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia during the last year by plane are rarely mentioned. The way people are treated and reported depends on how they arrived.  

UNHCR reports that there are around 68 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Turkey, Uganda, Pakistan and Lebanon each host over 1 million refugees. Australia’s intake is small in comparison, despite our relative wealth.

The conference listened to the experiences of a number of refugees, particularly women, of racism, discrimination and stereotyping in Australia. They expressed their desire to feel safe, welcomed and a sense of belonging, free from abuse and prejudice.

So what can we do?

  • Meet with a group of friends or church members to discuss the situation of asylum seekers and refugees, particularly looking at how we can change the conversation from one of negativity and demonising to positivity and truth telling about the role and place of refugees in our country. Check out the #RightTrack workshops
  • Ask your local MP what their policies are in these areas and express clearly your point of view.
  • Reach out to some refugees in your community, offer friendship and a listening ear. Allow them to speak and remember that for some being asked to retell their story over and over can re-traumatise them. You might be able to accompany them or support them as they find their way in a new country.
  • Support organisations (including many of our UCA/Uniting care agencies) who are providing services to asylum, seekers and refugees here in Australia
  • Volunteer your time in an organisation that provides meals, offers English conversation classes.

This is an important issue for us all. It goes to the very heart of who we are as Australians, our hospitality, our commitment to a “fair go” and the very heart and soul of our nation.

For more coverage of the Conference visit Refugee Council of Australia