Allowing Refugees, Migrants and Asylum Seekers to RISE

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: http://riserefugee.org/

as published in Lot’s Wife, 2012

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“JAILS AWAIT REFUGEES”: York panel discuss the Canadian response to Tamil asylum seekers

October 2010

“JAILS AWAIT REFUGEES” was just one of many sensational and dramatic headlines to grace Canadian newspapers in the past year regarding Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.

Last October, 76 asylum seekers that had arrived on Canada’s western shore were detained for three months on suspicion of terrorism before finally being released, and before the process of their refugee claim was initiated.

This past August, another boat arrived with 492 asylum seekers, and they are still being detained.

The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka are currently facing violence, persecution and receiving no international aid.

Canada’s actions regarding these refugees and the escalated violence in January of last year (which saw many protests across Toronto, though poorly received by the Canadian government) are being heavily debated and critiqued.

Last month, York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies hosted an informative discussion panel on these recent events.

Present were Sherry Aiken of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Craig Scott, of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Jennifer Hyndman of the Cen- tre for Refugee Studies in the Social Science Department at York, and Kubes Navarantnam of the Canadian Tamil Congress.

Susan McGrath, Director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, moderated the comprehensive panel.

Topics covered the historical, geographical and political situation of Sri Lanka, the dangerous route of asylum seekers coming to Canada and their reception by the Canadian government and Canadian media.

When discussing the situation of Tamil refugees, one must consider the political complexity that governs their actions.

First, as Navarantnam succinctly explained, “any Muslim, Sinhalese, or Tamil person [in Sri Lanka] op- posing the government is in fear for their life.”

As we saw last January, the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to annihilate the Tamil Tigers, an organization fighting for an independent Tamil state, resulted in a shameful number of civilian casualties.

Though the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been declared a terrorist organization by the Canadian government, and are obviously enemies of the state in Sri Lanka, there exists scattered support for them among Tamil people in Sri Lanka and abroad.

“I’ve had issues with the methods,” says Mera Sivane- san, Law student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “[But] the Tigers provided infrastructure. They had hospitals set up, courts…schools, a credit union.”

“All of that was wiped out during the fighting last year,” continues Sivanesan, “hundreds of thousands of people were herded into camps and now when they’re told to go back home they have nothing to go back home to. This has also been compounded by an active campaign of colonization of formerly Tamil areas with Sinhalese settlements.”

Once the decision is made to seek asylum abroad, however, the journey ahead is by no means an easy or safe one.

Jennifer Hyndman illustrated this point by quoting an Edmonton Journal headline that described the refugee’s journey, “through hell or high water.” She also mentioned that boats used by refugees are those previously deemed not seaworthy, and headed to the boat equivalent of the junk- yard.

Hyndman’s presentation, focusing on the media mania that ensued following the arrival the asylum seekers, illuminated one of the central issues, that the “spectre of boatloads of refugees seems to stir up hysteria.”

This may be because as a part of the process of confirm- ing the refugee status of the Tamil asylum exiles, they must also be cleared of their almost automatic status as terrorists.

Accused of being involved with the LTTE, these émi- grés, are detained first, perhaps welcomed later.

Even after the brutal assault on LTTE institutions last winter, the Sri Lankan government “has been repeatedly say- ing they are regrouping,” explained Navarantnam. Though there is “no evidence of other violent mobilizing” on the part of the Tigers.

“The Tigers have demised but the fight for Tamil independence has not,” he says.

Consequently, anyone coming out of Sri Lanka is guilty until proven innocent. But, Mayoori Malankov, graduate student at York University and attendee to the panel, brings up a valid question: “How would we even know if they are terrorists?”

Considering they have spent such a short amount of time in Canada and that virtually no information is coming out of Sri Lanka, it is viable to question the process by which the Canadian government determines who is terrorist and who is not.

Despite Canada’s international reputation for being open and accepting, it is obvious that the government’s political ties to Sri Lanka and the Western ‘War on Terrorism’ have affected their welcome of these asylum seekers.

In this case, it appears that while the Canadian government loses respect, Tamil refugees are just plain losing out.

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, October 2010