Returning from abroad – Letter from the CEO

ASC CEO Frances Rush shares her insights from Europe, where she met with organisations like the ASC fighting for the dignity of people seeking asylum. September 22, 2023

It’s been great to be back at the Asylum Seekers Centre after my sabbatical.

Walking for change

In the two weeks since my return, I have been proud to see many of our staff, volunteers, and supporters take to the streets for two important issues.

First, with Neil Para, who we joined on the 39th day of his 1000km walk from Ballarat to Sydney. Neil was bringing attention to the 10,000 people who were subject to the infamous ‘fast track system’ and are still waiting on visa decisions from the Federal Government a decade later. Neil harnessed community and media support and was met with the terrific news upon entering Sydney that he and his family had been granted protection visas. Sadly, so many like them are still in limbo with little clarity as to whether and when their visa situations will be finalised.

This past weekend, our team walked again in support of the Yes campaign for a Voice to Parliament, joining tens of thousands of others in the heat going from Redfern to Victoria Park. This referendum is so important to our community, our nation and our future, and the ASC is proud to support the YES vote.

Neil Para wearing the ASC shirt during his walk into Sydney. Image: Sumi (Asylum Seeker Solidarity)

Contrasting approaches: Australia & UK

As we look to the future, the UK, where I have been based for the last few months, has been taking inspiration from Australia’s past. The UK Parliament has been debating the merits of offshore processing in Rwanda, based on the Australian approach. I met with sector agencies, including the British and Scottish Refugee Councils and the Red Cross, who couldn’t believe Australia’s punitive response to people seeking asylum nor the delay in processing visas. At the ASC, it is not uncommon for people to wait ten years for an outcome.

Unlike Australia, where homelessness is rife among people seeking asylum, the UK and much of Europe provide accommodation for people seeking asylum. However, it is accommodation with no choice, often of low quality or not culturally appropriate, and with the proviso that you can be moved at any time. We have all watched with horror at the UK’s decision to bring in barges and the subsequent health risks.

While they provide accommodation, the UK doesn’t allow people seeking asylum to work, depriving them of the ability to be independent. In Australia, we know that having the right to work doesn’t always mean that people can get work. Neither situation is ideal and robs people of the ability to thrive.

Challenges beyond borders

I was also fortunate to attend conferences supported by the European Commission. The key themes were concerns about closing borders to people seeking asylum, the barbed wire fences on Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia, ethnic filtering, and the general move across Europe to adopt punitive responses to refugees.

In contrast to these cruelties is the vision held by Portugal, which, with its ageing population and low birth rate, openly welcomes refugees. Portugal is among the OECD countries where asylum seekers have the earliest access to the labour market and language classes. In fact, Portugal has adopted a flexible approach that allows people to change visa track if they learn the language and find work. I was able to visit both urban and regional locations, doing amazing work in resettlement with great outcomes for the whole community.

In Italy, I spent time with Mediterranean Hope, an organisation funded by faith-based groups that has taken on government responsibilities of integrating and settling people who have come to Italy via the Humanitarian Corridors program. I met their CEO in Rome before spending time with them in Sicily and on the tiny island of Lampedusa, the primary European entry point for people seeking asylum. Lampedusa has the capacity to accommodate just under 400 people arriving by boat until they are moved to mainland Europe. In my last 48 hours on the island, over 3000 people arrived. Whilst Mediterranean Hope is a relatively modest program, it was clear the difference it made in people’s lives, even when pushed to the brink. Like us, all the organisations I met with were grappling with how much they should continue to put resources into work that should be done by the government.

“Together”, created by the Milanese artist Lucio Oliveri, was donated to the community of Lampedusa and Linosa by “Re d’Italia Art – international society for art collecting and publishing”.

Over the past few months, I have met countless passionate people, so similar to our staff, volunteers and supporters in their tirelessness and pragmatism. Of utmost importance to them, as it is to us here at the ASC, is the value and humanity of the individual.

Even when government policies reduce the dignity of people who flee persecution, we will be here to steadfastly walk alongside them.

Warm regards,

Frances Rush OAM
CEO, Asylum Seekers Centre

* Frances’ sabbatical was supported by a Social Impact Leadership Australia scholarship

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