Mobilising rural Australia - Page 4
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Ann Coombs
RAR COULD NEVER HAVE GROWN INTO A MOVEMENT as quickly or as geographically dispersed as it is without email. People can feel included in the work of the network regardless of where they are located. We can respond quickly to unfolding events – targeting politicians or sending out requests for help for specific detainees. The website has been invaluable and one of the main ways that new supporters find us.
By late 2002, when Mudgee RAR hosted our first national get-together, there were probably close to 5000 people who were, one way or another, in the RAR loop. Some of them were city-based sympathisers. By then, Susan, Helen and I were burnt out. At Mudgee, a national steering group was formed and the administration of the network transferred to a group in central Victoria.
When there is no structure, when there are no clear lines of responsibility and hierarchy, how do you transfer leadership? We thought it was as simple as handing over the database and email lists and saying, "go for it". But even non-organisations develop their own culture – and RAR's was, from the beginning, essentially anarchic. People will do what they want when they want. The RAR leadership was only ever able to offer information, ideas and – most importantly – the sense of being part of something. This is the essential ingredient in a network and it was particularly important for people feeling isolated in rural communities because of their non-conformist views.
The new leadership team took over co-ordination for RAR at a difficult time. By 2003, the early, angry days were over. The refugee issue was mostly off the front pages and it was hard to maintain the energy. The central Victorians got some good things happening in Victoria – a regional conference that helped change the mind of at least one federal politician, a lot of networking with refugee advocates in Melbourne, some excellent media stories. Many of the Victorian groups thrived. But the flow of information through to the national network dried up. And as a result people felt abandoned. Many of us kept
on with our work but the network almost ceased to function. Or rather, people developed and relied on their own contacts both inside and outside of RAR.
RAR's experience during 2003 says a lot about the difficulty of keeping networks alive across this vast country of ours. But in genuine grassroots movements, when someone drops the ball someone else picks it up and runs with it. In October 2003 that's exactly what happened, when two of RAR's most effective operators, Anne and Rob Simpson from Bellingen, volunteered to take over co-ordinating the RAR national network. Within weeks the energy and sense of connectedness was thriving again. Anne Simpson is one of the most experienced of RAR's networkers with connections right across the movement.
From the beginning, RAR plugged into the wider refugee movement. The movement has brought together an amazing spectrum of people, from conservative church groups to radical left political groups, all working for a common cause. Some of these have been working in the field for years. Others, such as RAR and the highly effective group Chilout (Children Out of Detention), are more recent developments. Like RAR, Chilout is essentially a middle-class movement made up of people who have been roused to take action by their outrage at the Government's policy.
There have been numerous attempts to co-ordinate the refugee movement nationally but so far none has been very successful. A Just Australia, based in Sydney, has attempted to be a national umbrella organisation but has met some resistance. Justice for Asylum Seekers, in Melbourne, has undertaken a National Networking Project (NNP) to overcome the communication problems. It has made some significant steps but is still not widely known. The Australian Refugee Rights Alliance (ARRA), again based in Sydney, has been doing some groundbreaking work, primarily in lobbying foreign delegations at the United Nations in Geneva. But ARRA is hardly known in Victoria. The need for greater co-ordination is universally acknowledged yet so diverse and dispersed and busy are refugee advocates, most of them volunteers that it never seems to happen.
Mary O'Kane, co-ordinator of the NNP, says: "Everyone wants it but no one has the time and resources to do it." The NNP has made a couple of significant advances. For example, there is now a national network of welfare organisations and legal advocates with a single initial contact point in each state to help detainees released by court order. It sounds so simple but to make it happen the available agencies had to be identified in each state and decisions made as to which was the most appropriate point of first contact. The need for this arose after the landmark Al Masri (Habeas Corpus) decision that found that people could not be kept locked up indefinitely after their appeals had been exhausted. Immediately after, eight long-term asylum seekers were released without warning in Port Augusta, Port Hedland and Sydney. They had no work rights, no access to government services and no community support. They had been imprisoned for years and were traumatised. The men had literally been left on the street until refugee welfare workers swung into action.
IN THE ABSENCE OF FORMAL NETWORKING SYSTEMS, connections tend to be ad hoc, made when there is a need. Anne Henderson, deputy director of The Sydney Institute, became involved in the refugee movement after being taken to visit a detainee at Villawood detention centre by writer Linda Jaivin. While there, Anne met a 17-year-old girl who had come to Australia from Ghana to avoid a forced marriage and circumcision. She had been taken to Villawood straight from the airport because authorities said her visa was not in order.
The young woman had come to the attention of Chilout and was being visited by members of the Manly Social Justice Network. A Chilout organiser persuaded the Member for North Sydney, Liberal Joe Hockey, to make a commitment that if any constituent of his were prepared to take a minor into his or her home he would go into bat for him or her to be released from detention. As it happens, Anne and Gerard Henderson live in his electorate.
Anne says she always knew she would be prepared to do that. She had already called on Gerard to write a letter in support of Linda Jaivin's detainee friend. The only way the Minister for Immigration will intervene in these cases, after they've been rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal, is if there are exceptional circumstances and new evidence. Then the minister may issue what is known in the trade as a "417" – in other words, if you get the minister's dispensation you get a visa. But to even get a letter read by the minister is a feat.
Other people were also called on to help. They included Judy Hunt from the Jesuit Refugee Service and a sympathetic Phillip Street barrister who does pro bono work on behalf of refugees. The young woman's cousin, who lives in Sydney, went back to Ghana to gather the necessary "new evidence".
After months of silence, Anne Henderson's young friend – now 18 – was released last August. She was lucky and received a permanent protection visa that will allow her to become a citizen in two years. She is living with the Hendersons and doing her HSC through TAFE.
The thing that keeps people going in the refugee movement is the personal contact with asylum seekers – meeting people behind the razor wire, hearing their stories, seeing their despair. We are involved in a struggle that is both political and humanitarian. The politics makes us angry; the people make us care. RAR and the rest of the movement will keep on going as long as there are people in detention and as long as Australia refuses haven to refugees who simply want the chance to rebuild their lives. ♦