Open House: Inside Australia's Refugee Movement
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Open House: Inside Australia's Refugee Movement

Issues/Refugees , Stories/17 , Issues/Policy
Canberra ACT, Australia
14th Jun 2017
Open House: Inside Australia's Refugee Movement
"I took my seat and in silence posed a question to myself and the mainly white room. Are we going to listen?" Our editor Alexandra Havas attended The Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) Inaugural Conference in Canberra from May 20th to May 21st.

The Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) Inaugural Conference

Unlike most attendees of the inaugural ARAN conference in Canberra, I wasn’t representing an organisation. I had, however, heard about the joint campaign by RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Detainees and Ex-Detainees) and Democracy in Colour called #ItsTimeToListen. A strong critique of the mainstream refugee movement for not listening to and being led by refugee voices, #ItsTimeToListen resonated with me. My Dad grew up a Jewish Hungarian refugee in a deeply anti-Semitic 1960s Sydney, at a time when ‘whiteness’ was reserved for Anglo-Saxon Australians. So with suspended skepticism, I took my seat and in silence posed a question to myself and the mainly white room: Are we going to listen?

Zaki Haidari
Pictured: Zaki Haidari

The conference was opened by Zaki Haidari, who arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker from Afghanistan and in 2015 was awarded International Student of the Year. His words were sobering, and extremely necessary.

“A detention centre is a jail. Every morning you wake up and think, what crime have I done? Is seeking asylum a crime?”

Zaki was one of the ‘lucky’ ones - after a period of mandatory detention he was spared Nauru or Manus Island and was instead released into the community with a bridging visa. However, to those who arrived in Australia by boat on or after August 13, 2012, a bridging visa affords no work or education rights.

“All refugees want to do is to go to school, to learn the language and to experience Australian society.”

Pictured: ARAN Conference

Being a child of the 90s, I don’t have a concrete understanding of what Australia was like before mandatory detention. Regardless, it was confronting to hear that 2017 marks 25 years of mandatory detention in Australia. With our history of violent colonisation, denying sovereignty to First Nations Peoples and the White Australia Policy, it’s no stretch to say that mandatory detention represents the icing on the cake of our deplorable track record.

Given the status quo, a conference aimed at strengthening Australia’s diverse and at times divided refugee movement is an undoubted step forward. It was made clear from the onset that ARAN’s vision was one of national coordination, while maintaining the autonomy of individual organisations. A fine balance perhaps, but according to Chris Breen of Melbourne’s Refugee Action Collective, one that is achievable.

“It’s more than just gaining public opinion, it’s how we mobilise that public opinion. We don’t want to abolish the identities of separate groups. They speak the language of their constituencies, and have a better chance of mobilising their constituency.”

Speaking a language that resonates with the Australian public was a theme explored in different contexts throughout the ARAN conference. Fabia Claridge, of People Just Like Us, highlighted that with our history of colonisation and genocide, Australians have become “fearful, obedient and the experts in denial.” In the case of white Australians, how then do we overcome white privilege and apathy to engage and mobilise this demographic?

Dulce Muñoz, of Mum’s 4 Refugees, had a powerfully symbolic answer. She suggested that one approach is to draw upon shared lived experiences like motherhood.

However, the refugee movement should not and cannot focus exclusively on white Australians. As the Human Rights Campaign Director at Getup! Shen Narayanasamy so aptly highlighted, reaching out to migrant and multicultural communities is crucial.

“They know what’s at stake in many ways better than our movement. It hasn’t been dominated by people with lived experiences.”

Pictured: Shen Narayanasamy

But what about the prevailing stereotype that migrant communities are more resistant to positive refugee policy change than other communities? Shen emphasised, “in fact, 70% are pro changes to law reform compared to 25% in the white community.” Consequently, the refugee movement needs to focus on, “what messages can wake up and energise scared and oppressed communities.”

When it comes to messaging, Laura Stacey of the Refugee Council of Australia, had her own relevant message to express.

“Successive governments have done a good job at selling their policy as the only system that is both humanitarian and protects our borders...We need to be able to present an alternative that is stronger than their current policy.”

One viable alternative to Australia’s current policy of deterrence is The Pledge for Refugees. Already signed by over 3500 people including Noam Chomsky and Julian Burnside, it calls for an end to mandatory detention, a substantial increase to our refugee intake and the “safe and just passage of asylum seekers to Australia, with no punishment based on means of arrival.”

According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Refuge From Our Rhetoric, “The job of a good message is not to say what is popular, it is to make popular what needs to be said.” But whose stories are being told, and why? Shouldn’t we be listening to those with lived experiences, and not police the way they choose communicate their own stories?

Evidently, effective messaging and focusing upon lived experiences can go hand in hand. As Sister Brigid Arthur of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project expressed, “What we want is structural and political change in Australia.” This requires strategic messaging to engage different communities.

While there was a considerable amount of refugee representation in the panel discussions at ARAN, I did notice that the refugee run and led RISE chose not attend. Another significant absence was any First Nations Peoples representation as speakers, panelists or groups. As the traditional custodians of Aboriginal land that was never ceded, the experiences of First Nations Peoples are pivotal in creating an intersectional and inclusive refugee movement.

Despite this, the organisers and attendees at ARAN were clearly intent on listening to lived experiences, improving consultation with refugee groups and opening up leadership positions to those of refugee backgrounds. For many refugees on bridging visas, there is a fear that speaking publicly about their experiences may adversely affect their case. That said, a person’s refugee experience does not define them. My Dad is more than a Jewish Hungarian refugee, although that forms part of his identity. Some people choose not to engage with the movement either because it is too painful or out of personal choice, and this needs to be respected.

Pictured: Snap protest at Parliament House on Sunday May 21, 2017

On the morning of Sunday May 21, the second and final day of ARAN, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made a deeply troubling public announcement that all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were being given until 1 October to apply for refugee status or face deportation. According to RAC Sydney Coordinator Ian Rintoul, “It is a completely arbitrary deadline and a cruel hoax on people who the Government has left in limbo for years.”

GetUp! was able to organise a snap protest on the lawns of Parliament House in response to Dutton’s announcement. This was a testament to ARAN and the power of national coordination - a number of refugee groups participated in the protest at short notice, sending a strong message of unified resistance to the Australian Government. It is these coordinated actions that have the power to snowball into positive policy change.

So how can we speed up this process? The Australian public is fearful when it comes to acts of non-violent civil disobedience. But after all, aren’t unfair laws made to be broken?

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