Refugee Alternatives Conference – Empowering refugees

“My name is Somayeh Farahani and I am teacher’s aid in a primary school. Many people call me a boat person, illegal. To some people, I am a criminal.”

This is how Somayeh introduced herself at the Refugee Alternatives Conference held in Melbourne on 13-14 February.

She shared what it was like be rejected in her own country, to risk everything to seek refuge only to again be labelled as someone outside the law.

Somayeh spent 5 years living in detention both offshore and in the Australian community. After finally being identified as refugee, she was given a temporary protection visa.

However, the visa expires in three years, and Somayeh will again have to go through the process of seeking permanent protection.

Somayeh shared her story in a session looking at the limbo experienced by people seeking asylum in Australia.

Greg Hanson from Refugee Legal outlined just how difficult the process had become for people to gain permanent status as a refugee in Australia.

“There has never been more delays in the process for people seeking asylum. For the majority of people, that process will take anywhere between 2 to 10 years. The hardships people face have never been more significant.”

Many people seeking asylum in Australia are denied the right to work or study. Additionally, recent changes to how refugees are supported in the community will mean that many refugees living in the community on temporary visas refugees will no longer qualify for the minimal financial assistance they currently receive.

As well as causing enormous financial difficulty and stress, the changes will disrupt the pathways many refugees have made into restarting their lives.

Miriam Pellicano from the House of Welcome said the current policies were creating an underclass of vulnerable people in the community.

“They undermine a sense of belonging or the ability for people seeking asylum and refugees to participate in the community and start a new life.”

Addressing this issue, the conference explored how Australians can advocate against the current policies but also how they can support refugees living in the community.

Somayeh said people could help by creating opportunities for people like her to be involved.

“People seeking asylum have great skills, they have lots of hope and passion. They just don’t know where to start so they need people to support them.”

The conference organised by the Refugee Council of Australia brought together around 300 people working or volunteering in the refugee sector and provided space for discussion on ‘alternative’ ideas and partnerships to achieve better policy and outcomes.

Discussions included the latest global agreements on refugees and migration and the need for Australia to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific region in creating more options for displaced people.

In 2017, 1.2million people were in need of emergency resettlement globally but less than 1 per cent were actually able to access that help.

A major theme of the conference was that people with lived experience of seeking asylum should be at centre of the policies that deal with their lives.

Sr Bridget Arthur of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project acknowledged the disappointment that while the refugee sector in Australia was so strong and passionate, that this had not translated into better policies.

“We need to build numbers (of supporters) and become more of a movement,” said Sr Brigid.

“We need a coherent and relatively simple message – I think that comes down to three things.”

“We’re all humans, Australia is a decent country where all people have rights and we do not want cruelty inflicted on other people in our name.”

The Uniting Church in Australia has long called for better policies in regards to refugees and people seeking asylum – Shelter from the Storm

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