28 November 2017

Rebuilding Our Damaged Reputation: A Strategy for Australian Leadership on Refugee Protection

By Shamsiya Mohammadi

Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been a strong topic of debate in recent years. Amidst concerns being expressed internationally about the government’s refugee policies and its human rights record, it is questionable whether Australia will be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council in October this year.

Paul Power lecture image

On Thursday 7th September, the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, addressed this issue in his public lecture ‘Rebuilding our Damaged Reputation: A Strategy for Australian Leadership on Refugee Protection’.

As the Hawke EU Centre’s Journalism Intern, I also had the opportunity of an exclusive interview with Mr Power conversing on advocacy, youth, refugees and the importance of inclusion in restoring Australia’s damaged reputation. Mr Power raised some interesting points in both his lecture and his interview with me.

Growing up amongst a diverse community in western Sydney, Mr Power said a multicultural Australia has always been his understanding of Australia and western values. “For me giving people who have lost everything because of persecution and conflict an opportunity to start again is very much at the very heart, in my understanding, of western values,” Mr Power said.

Mr Power said Australia’s current refugee policies are the harshest that our government has ever had and believes it is counterproductive for our nation and the international community.

“Having policies based on deterrence, detention and punishment is a very bad model for nations in Asia,”

“If nations in Asia take our policies seriously and apply it to their own borders then that actually creates greater uncertainty, greater fear, and also greater irregular movement of people… its counterproductive,” he said.

Mr Power suggests looking beyond our borders to address the root causes of refugee displacement issues.

“The issues related to the movement of refugees is sourced outside of Australia, so in many ways our international engagement with refugees is even more important than our domestic,”

“But our domestic policies need to be of the nature and standard of the policies that we would like other nations to implement.” Mr Power said.

Mr Power said Australia’s damaged international reputation draws attention to the worst aspects of our past.

“There is a suspicion among quite a number of people in other countries that there is an inherent racism in Australia and the history of Australia,”

“It presents Australia to the world as an intolerant and harsh society, which I know from living here is not reflective of the way that the majority of Australians think and feel,” he said.

However, Mr Power is positive we as a nation can overcome these policies and also restore our reputation.

“Being active citizens is really important, and for people who are disgusted or unhappy about the policies to make clear to their politicians that they are unhappy,”

“In many ways it’s easier than people think, there is scope for people to have their say,”

“Giving up, despairing, and becoming cynical is the worst response because when we give up, we give in. We allow those who are pushing harsh and intolerant policies to continue their work unchecked,” Mr Power said.

Although, he believes the scope is much more limited for people of refugee backgrounds despite the significance of their personal experiences.

“Sharing personal experiences means a lot more than arguing policy,”

“However, much of the policy discussion at the higher levels, at the international level, and the national level, doesn’t include people who have had personal experience of being a refugee and yet there are many articulate former refugees in Australia who would like to have a greater opportunity to influence policy,”

“They also have a whole lot of information… about the communities that they are in all the time, about what is actually happening for the people on the ground, what is happening for new arrivals and what is happening for people who are seeking refuge in other countries. They need to be part of the debate,” Mr Power said.

Mr Power takes pride in his work as it allows him to give other people an opportunity to be advocates for their communities.

“Something that has made me feel proud to be part of it [RCA] is seeing advocates from refugee communities that we have worked with and created opportunities for them to advocate, to actually see them shining on the international stage and making an amazing impact in the way that they are not only sharing their own experiences but actually drawing attention to critical issues of importance to refugees,”

Shamsiya Mohammadi is the Hawke EU Centre 2017 Journalism Intern

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