The treatment of Australia’s ‘Boat people’ is currently a hot topic in the national media. Should Australia be taking refugees? Can we handle more refugees? Will we be overrun by an ‘Asian invasion’? What do we do with people who arrive without visas? The solution to this trumped-up paranoia is detention.

About 50,000 people overstay their visas each year in Australia, compared to the approximately 2,000 arriving by boat and seeking asylum. On average, 95% of people seeking asylum arrive by plane. As of 2012, there are eight detention centres in Australia, not including the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre located on the eponymous, excised Australian territory. Those looking for protection in Australia are people fleeing war, violence and oppression in their home countries, who, when put into immigration detention, are incarcerated and in some cases, held indefinitely within the confines of the Australian immigration detention complex.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Ramesh Fernandez, founder of RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees. In 2009, Fernandez, along with some other youths at RMIT’s CBD campus, founded RISE at the campus’ Swanston Library. After three months they moved to their current CBD location in Ross House. RISE officially launched in 2010.

“The main reason we started RISE,” Fernandez says, “was to have a place for people in our community to be respected and have a safe environment where they can come and raise concerns about what they feel about certain things, including settlement or policy or their own personal issues. We don’t have luxury fund- ing, but we try as much as we can to assist people.”

RISE has taken a very firm position against mandatory immigration detention, and is vocal in its advocacy work on behalf of those in detention as well as those who have come out of the system but still suffer the effects of their time inside. “Many of our mem- bers fled war zones or other traumatic experiences, and were then exposed to trauma inside detention,” Fernandez says, “and some of the problems they are facing now in the community are a result of what they endured in detention. As an organisation that works with them and for their interests, we have to address those issues. It would be dishonest not to.”

Fernandez arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka in 2001, and was held in detention for three years. “I wanted to empower my own community,” he says, when asked why he wanted be a part of an organization like RISE, “and tell others: chill out, pipe down, we can look after ourselves. Organizations speaking on our behalf don’t have the first-hand knowledge, and RISE fills that gap. They’re out there doing ad hoc work which is not relevant to our lives, and it’s not relevant because they are not part of the community they claim to serve.”

RISE defines itself as a “not-for-profit incorporated association… the first refugee and asylum seeker aid and advocacy organization in Australia to be run largely by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees; as such, we view those who seek assistance from RISE as members and participants, not ’clients’.” Members can access all of the RISE services regardless of status and at no cost.

RISE also does an extensive amount of advocacy work through community education, research and publishing, positive media coverage as well as legal and governmental advocacy. In advocacy, and in their programs and services, RISE stays true to its core values. The RISE Charter reads: “…successful resettlement is best achieved by engaging refugee and asylum seeker communities.” Indeed, the ideas behind many of RISE’s annual projects actually come from members of the community themselves.

“I am not fond of any organization working for refugees unless refugees themselves are involved in decision-making or governance” says Fernandez. RISE’s governance system is structured so that all RISE board members must be active members of refugee, migrant and asylum-seeker communities. “We cut out the middle man,” explains Fernandez, “by working with our own communities.”

Organizations that provide services to refugee, migrant or asylum seeker communities have to ensure that they are providing a foundation that will give the people they are working with a sustainable future in Australia. That means engaging with people and em- powering communities that are being marginalized by current policy – in some cases it means stepping aside and letting those communities articulate their wants and needs themselves.

RISE, independent of the Australian Government, is able to work on a grassroots level to support, empower and engage with refugees, migrants, asylum- seekers and those in community detention. In only two years, RISE has an established drop-in centre with public computers, a resource library, an annual arts festival in Federation Square as well as over a dozen programs and workshops.

Find out more about RISE at:

as published in Lot’s Wife, 2012