Taking a stand for refugees
A coalition of Catholic organisations has launched a campaign to change Federal Government policy and increase support for refugees and asylum seekers.
Led locally by Vinnies Refugee and Asylum Seeker Service (VRASS), the 150 Days of Action for Refugees is a response to Pope Francis’ declaration of 2021 as the Year of St Joseph. The Pope has described St Joseph, who was a refugee in Egypt, “the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty”.
The national campaign calls on people to write to their local politicians urging them to:
- Provide income support and a financial safety net for all people seeking asylum in Australia
- End temporary protection visas and create a clear pathway to permanent residency
- Ensure access to family reunion for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.
The campaign also involves educating the public about inhumane government policies and their impact on people who have experienced trauma before coming to Australia.
At national level, the campaign is being coordinated by the Sisters of St Joseph and the Justice and Peace Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
VRASS Special Works Committee chair, Henrietta Wighton, said the Adelaide group was planning to approach parishes and schools to conduct brief talks in order to promote the 150 Days of Action Campaign.
It also intends to work with the Vinnies Youth and Community Engagement Officer, Umes Acharya, to include young refugees and asylum seekers in planning activities and learning the skills of advocacy.
Ms Wighton said ways for people to respond included employing a refugee or asylum seeker, donating much-needed items such as blankets and nappies, holding fundraising events and having conversation amongst friends and family about the realities behind Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum and refugees.
“The campaign acknowledges that many refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia have, for many years, experienced inhumane and cruel treatment,” Ms Wighton said.
“People who have come to our shores seeking protection deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
“We want to encourage everyone to work towards our country becoming a generous, smart and compassionate nation. Everyone should try to do something to contribute to us becoming a humane and fair Australia.”
VRASS recently held an art and story-writing competition in which refugees and asylum seekers, both adults and children, reflected their experiences through pictures and stories. St Gabriel’s School, St Brigid’s School and the Art Bus project were the main contributors. It is intended to hold this exhibition every year from now on.
Ms Wighton said Vinnies House of Welcome in Kilburn had been providing assistance to increasing numbers of asylum seekers no longer eligible for any form of social security.
“VRASS has instituted a special program to assist with rent payments to prevent homelessness amongst this cohort,” she said.
“If it wasn’t for this assistance and that of other agencies and charities, with whom we work closely, these asylum seekers and their families would literally be sleeping on the streets and begging for food and clothing.”
While many people in Australia are suffering from poverty and disadvantage, this is magnified for refugees and asylum seekers due to:
- the trauma they have experienced prior to coming to Australia;
- their difficulties with the English language;
- their lack of family support;
- feelings of isolation;
- lack of recognition of their skills and qualifications (and the often prohibitive cost of retraining/upskilling);
- their lack of local work experience and local contacts.
- their lack of resources. Almost all live in rental accommodation with no ‘back-up’ in terms of family support and no savings
Refugees and asylum seekers are just like us
They bring a lot to Australian society. Historically people who have come to Australia as refugees have been successful in:
-Science and academia
Refugees and asylum seekers want to, and many are contributing to Australian society by working, paying taxes, supporting their children’s ambitions, and by volunteering.
Refugees and asylum seekers are ready willing and able
Refugees and asylum seekers in Australia engage heavily in job searching and vocational education, and often accept work below their levels of experience and education.
The energies, talents and drive of refugees are often under-utilized. This detracts from our nation building and economic potential.
Refugees and asylum seekers in limbo hold our nation back
Leaving people seeking asylum who have had their refugee status rejected, under what has been criticised as a system lacking in natural justice and procedural fairness, living in limbo on temporary bridging visas and, in many cases, without access to any form of social security is a deliberate strategy depriving them of hope or certainty. The same situation is faced by those who were sent to Australia after years in detention on either Manus Island or Nauru.
Children of these families struggle to receive a fair education: for tertiary study this Government requires refugees on temporary visas to pay international student fees, making it inaccessible for most.
Refugees care about their kids’ future, just like us.
Being cruel to refugees and asylum seekers is un-Australian
Australian values are for a ‘Fair Go’ and a tolerant society, welcoming the contributions of people from all walks of life.
We can do the right thing and treat refugees and people seeking asylum the way we would want to be treated; humanely, with compassion and dignity.
- X is 19 years old and lives with her parents and younger brother. The family fled Iran and arrived in Australia by boat from Indonesia in 2013. The government has processed them under its ‘fast-track’ system, denying them refugee status. Note that this legal process has been criticised as lacking in procedural fairness. The family is therefore only entitled to a temporary visa of six months duration (with right of renewal).
X finished Year 12 in 2019 and wanted to study nursing. However, due to the nature of her visa, she would have to pay full international fees, so this was not an option for her. For a young woman to have her aspirations crushed in this way seems to be the height of cruelty.
To make matters worse, the family is not entitled to any form of social security. The father has some part-time work, but not enough to support the family who therefore rely on the Vinnies Refugee and Asylum Seeker Service (VRASS) to help with rent and utilities payments.
VRASS is trying to help X and her mother to find work, but it is very difficult given their lack of work history here in Australia, the lack of local contacts and the short, temporary nature of their visas.
- A and his wife and children fled Iran as a result of imminent persecution due to religious affiliation. They arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and have been unsuccessful in establishing refugee status. (Note that until 2016, asylum seekers who arrived by boat were not permitted to work) A. has volunteered at VRASS over a number of years and has been particularly useful as a bi-lingual assistant.
VRASS has helped him with rent and utilities where necessary, but he has always wanted to give something back in return and, like most people, hates having to ask for financial help. However, he too, is no longer eligible for any form of social security
Despite all the obstacles the family faces, A. has remained incredibly positive. He has almost finished a course in aged care and is finishing his placement. He is pretty sure he will be offered work afterwards and hopes then to be able to fully support his family.
- B and C spent 5 years on Nauru with their two children, before being sent to Australia approximately two and a half years ago to live in what is called ‘community detention’. While living in ‘community detention’ the family’s rent was paid by the government and they were provided with a modest living allowance, but they were not permitted to work or study,nor did they know how long this condition of living in limbo and uncertainty would last. However, in October 2020 they were told they had to vacate their premises and find their own rental accommodation. They are now permitted to work but not to study. They have a 6 month temporary bridging visa and no access to any form of social security.
Life is extremely stressful for this family who have been through so much living on Nauru where they were referred to not by their names but by a number. Everyone needs to live with some prospect of certainty and hope, but this has been denied to this and many families in similar circumstances for many years. The long-term effects of this are devastating. VRASS and the Red Cross are trying to help them find work but it is proving very difficult.
- Z is an asylum seeker who arrived with her husband and two children in Australia by boat in 2013. Her husband has significant physical health issues and is not able to work. Z. is very artistic. She has now started working as a domestic cleaner for a company in the southern suburbs of Adelaide and has been offered a lot more work, provided she has the necessary equipment. Circle of Friends and VRASS have supported her to buy the necessary equipment in order to set herself up as with this company, who have reported that her existing customers are very pleased with her work. Z. is very proud of her efforts.
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