The Refugee Rights Movement in Australia – “for” or “with”?


The inherent bias and privilege within the Refugee Rights movement in Australia must be examined and remediated if we are to be truly effective in dismantling the Australian government’s human rights abusing immigration policy, writes Gaye Demanuele.

“I felt unheard”.

“I felt intimidated (until you two spoke up).”

“They roll us out whenever they are having a fundraiser.”

“They don’t value us. They just use us to speak at events.”

We are white women who are not refugees. We do not have the lived experience of being an asylum seeker. Yet my friend and I, two white women, felt compelled to raise our voices at a national meeting of refugee rights activists. The actual voices of former and current asylum seekers had been excluded. Whilst some had been kindly sponsored for accommodation, flights and even a platform to speak of their achievements, they were ultimately not included in decision making processes.

We were angry that we felt compelled to speak in their absence, that we could claim the right to speak, even if we were largely disregarded, while our friends were silenced. Our friends were not “delegates” and they had not followed the “correct” procedure that would give them a say at a meeting that would elect a national coordinating committee. The interim committee was challenged with the fact that many of the people concerned had not been informed of the process and had not had the opportunity to field delegates*. There were people who are actual asylum seekers outside the door awaiting admission but no, we were told, the (rigid) process could not be altered.

Sound familiar? The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, stated on the same day that “fake” refugeeshadn’t bothered to present their paperwork to make a claim. The (no) opposition Labor Party failed to directly challenge this erroneous misinformation in any serious way. The bipartisan support for mandatory detention, offshore processing and deportations of asylum seekers to danger stands as firm as ever.

Is the refugee rights movement as heinous as our government in the treatment of asylum seekers? Of course not. The refugee rights movement is full of good people with good intentions. However, is it paving a road to hell? Any movement that replicates the hierarchy of the oppressive dominant system will be naturally dissented and will not be effective in dismantling Australia’s human rights abusing immigration policy. Despite the very best efforts of refugee rights activists working tirelessly for nearly three decades the situation is worse than ever.

We can not use the same methods over and over again and expect a different result.

“I have worked with people with a lived experience for a long time… I find it offensive for it to be suggested that I don’t know what refugees want.”

“The committee needs to be made up of people with the right skills and expertise, it should not be determined by if they have a lived experience or not.”

“Refugees have busy lives and many do not have the time or skills needed for the committee.”

“They are in the struggle of life (with young families, study etc). They haven’t the time (to dedicate to the committee).”

These words are painful to record here. They didn’t come from monsters like Dutton or Morrison; they came from people who perform kind acts and are considered to be leaders. These words require our attention and must be examined and challenged if we are to move forward. They are more than painful to the people who are subject to them; they reinforce paternalistic and colonialist patterns of privilege and exclusion. They ignore the acts of resistance of asylum seekers themselves, acts that compel the rest of us to act.

In their article “The Palm Sunday March – does it do justice to refugees?”, Baqir Khan and Gavin Ackerly, remind us that:

“One of the major barriers to real progress is not being able to admit that we have a problem. Sometimes this forces us to ‘put our fingers in our ears’ when the people we don’t agree with are speaking out and, in the worst cases, it causes us to apply pressure to prevent these troublesome people from speaking out at all.”

Acknowledging the “problem” requires us to examine the ideology underpinning refugee and other humanitarian movements. What are the dynamics? Is there a power differential? Is the movement based on a compassion or a human rights framework? Is the struggle “for” or “with”?

Where the impetus is primarily one of compassion, a hierarchy of merit that reinforces the current dominant discourse operates. Actions become focused on individuals, either on their perceived vulnerability- as babies, women, the elderly in need of protection – or on their achievements in the face of adversity – excelling in education and business, speaking multiple languages, giving back to society. Pleas to the government to be “kinder and fairer” fall on deaf ears as they present no threat to a government (and its wealthy donors) that never intends to be kinder or fairer but benefits from the status quo.

A human rights framework upholds that human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated. They are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background. A refugee rights movement that is upheld in a human rights framework acknowledges that our rights, asylum seeker and citizen alike, are implicitly interconnected. Actions based on human rights are compassionate, not because they are deserved but because they fight for the human rights of all.

We are in the midst of an humanitarian crisis. Asylum seekers are being deported to danger at an alarming rate, some are never heard from again. The political prisoners held hostage on Manus, Nauru and onshore continue to be traumatised. They have no time for the refugee movement to repeat well-intentioned but ineffective strategy.

We can’t wait for the approval of a majority of people, we must collaborate to escalate our actions to bring about the end of the human rights abuses committed in our name, with our tax dollars. We must move beyond polite, state-sanctioned rallies and vigils that make no impact on business as usual. The author of a #CantStandBy blog piece argues the case for acts of civil resistance and cites Martin Luther King’s iconic model of civil disobedience and direct action that:

“openly involved demonstrators intentionally acting as an annoying minority and not a pre-approved majority as is often mistakenly believed. The stated purpose of King’s demonstrators was to deliberately create tension so as to create a situation which the mainstream society found unbearable (not appealing).”

It is imperative that the rest of us take the lead of asylum seekers themselves. They have shown the way in acts of resistance in situations where they have nothing left to lose. They have used hunger strikes, refused to comply with orders, stood up on planes before take-off to deportation, and rioted in response to imminent danger. Their acts of resistance compel us to act.

The rest of us have freedom and privilege to use direct acts of civil resistance to shut down business as usual until justice for asylum seekers is realised. Our actions may be limited by state-imposed, but not life threatening, consequences. However, with enough of us, the state would not be able to impose such consequences as the sheer volume of administration would become too onerous.

Or at the very least, support those who do take action.


Gaye Demanuele

Close the Camps Action Collective


*Footnote: Perhaps in response to our protest, one member organisation swapped their nomination at the last minute to one of their members who was a former asylum seeker. He was elected.

(via WACA)

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