“When it comes to people seeking asylum, we are lost: we have lost the checks and balances that we expect from a system of democratic governance based on a separation of powers. We have not only entered, but are well advanced into the frightening realm of authoritarianism.”
Speaking at the Australian Lawyers Alliance Conference in October 2018, The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s (ASRC’s) Principal Solicitor, Carolyn Graydon gave an insight into the dark legal world her team face every day in the plight to fight for the basic human rights of people seeking asylum.
As manager of the ASRC’s Human Rights Law Program (HRLP), Carolyn runs a team of 16 solicitors and over 200 volunteers who are often working around the clock to provide free legal aid to people seeking asylum trying to navigate the increasingly punitive legal system.
Even for those of us working within the sector and exposed to challenges faced by people seeking asylum in our community, it is difficult to truly understand the scope and magnitude of the work done by the HRLP. Over the past two years the non-profit community legal centre has faced unyielding pressure as caseloads continue to increase, while the government simultaneously shifts the goalposts for existing applications and processes, making it almost impossible to keep up with appeals and new policies designed to deter and derail applications for asylum.
Despite the constantly changing legal landscape, the HRLP team and their extensive network of pro-bono partners are unwavering in their commitment and determination to represent those most vulnerable in our communities, and to use our judicial system and advocacy to hold politicians to account.
In 2017/2018 alone the HRLP took on a phenomenal amount of work, with a recent report providing just a snapshot of what the team managed to achieve.
It assisted 893 people to seek asylum under the Fast Track refugee determination process, with 75% of these applications being completed in the six months to 1 October 2017. The Fast Track process applies to people who arrived by boat, mainly between 2012-2013 who, by virtue of the timing of their arrival, became subject to the new raft of laws aimed at curbing boat arrivals, including transfer to offshore processing centres such as Nauru and Manus Island, and Fast Track processing.
In recognition of their extraordinary efforts, the HRLP Fast Track team received Volunteer Victoria’s ‘Innovation Award’ in November 2017 for the innovative volunteering model used in our Fast Track Clinics and the fantastic work of our volunteers and students.
On top the Fast Track workload, the HRLP continued with a huge range of innovative programs and assistance including:
– Provided assistance to 77 clients who sought review before the Immigration Assessment Authority
– Provided advice and assistance to more than 250 clients to seek or advise on judicial review. With the assistance of pro bono barristers we provided 58 briefs to counsel in 45 matters
– Assisted 1464 new clients through Legal Triage, a service which remains the first stop for new clients and is a key strategy in our being able to assist as many people as possible by prioritising service levels, depending on client in need. Included were:
· 720 ‘walk-in’ clients
· 473 clients who contacted us through our telephone advice service
· 271 clients referred to us by other ASRC programs or by other organisations
– Conducted 49 Wednesday night clinics to ensure those who couldn’t make it to the ASRC during business hours could access help. During these clinics:
· 552 people were provided with assistance
· 452 assisted through ‘face to face’ client appointments
· 100 assisted through telephone or written advice services
– The innovative Gender Clinic:
· Supported 157 clients, mainly women, supported around 30 ongoing clients at any one time
· Provided full legal representation in 26 matters
These numbers represent real people, and leave no doubt as to the essential role the HRLP is playing in the fight for the human rights of people seeking asylum. But the reality is the numbers fail to truly represent the extent of the importance of their work on the political and legal processes – not just within Australia, but on a global scale.
Carolyn Graydon – Principal Solicitor, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
As Carolyn recently explained, “when politicians fail us, we must go to the courts, and we must go time and time again. This is what we, as a community of lawyers, of which I’m so proud to be a part, are doing. We are lawyers who recognise that the struggle for the rights of people seeking asylum, is not only a struggle for the thousands of people already harmed, being harmed or who will be harmed in the future by these failed policies, but is in fact one of those defining struggles for the soul of our nation, including its role in the world.”
“This is because when we lose these struggles, dangerous precedents are set for abrogating the rights of other groups of people both in Australia and overseas. For example, Europe is looking to Australia’s model of offshore processing.”
The work of this team and their legal partners is not only changing the lives of people seeking asylum, but is challenging the government’s unchecked power and bringing awareness to an unjust, unfair and often capricious system that is a bad influence on refugee law and policy around the world.
Just as their fight has immediate impact on our community, they are leading the way in taking a global stand against fundamental breaches of human rights for people seeking asylum. While as a nation we may be lost when it comes to people seeking asylum, as a team the HRLP are on the warpath. Armed with expertise and fuelled by determination to defend rights, case by case and through policy and advocacy, this team is making true, lasting change.
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