Fighting for the rights of refugees in detention: a history

Because no one deserves to be locked up for attempting to seek safety.

From Kids off Nauru to the passing of the Medevac bill, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) has been fighting for the rights of people in detention for 17 years. Because no person deserves to be incarcerated for attempting to seek safety and freedom.

Currently, the ASRC’s detention advocacy team, as a part of the Medical Evacuation Response Group, is helping to facilitate the medical evacuation of critically ill refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. 

As with everything at the ASRC, the detention advocacy program has grown from humble beginnings. 

Back in 2002, Kon began visiting Maribyrnong Detention Center to provide connection and friendship to people in detention. But it quickly became apparent the people that he was visiting needed so much more. 

“I found a lot of people were not being linked up to legal assistance. People who had become undocumented or had fallen through the cracks due to mental health issues or homelessness and had disengaged from the legal process had been detained and had no idea how to access legal help to know what their options were. Some were facing deportation and had no one to help them stop it.” Kon.

So Kon, filled the need, giving legal advice on his weekly visits to the detention centre. Endeavouring to run a free legal clinic during the allotted visiting hours. 

Leafing through newspaper articles chronicling the ASRC’s body of work in detention advocacy, Kon is buoyed by pride and nostalgia. Reflecting on the significant challenges the ASRC has already overcome fuels the drive to tackle the difficulties ahead.

Detention advocacy spans the personal and political – striving to change a system while advocating for the people suffering within it. The ASRC continues to successfully do both.


Detention Advocacy success over the years

The ASRC began working with other organisations to provide support to detainees throughout the early 2000s. Lobbying to convince the federal Government that detained people seeking asylum could and should be released into the community, creating community care plans to prove that people seeking asylum would be provided with support from legal assistance, food, access to medical care to casework support and housing, on release. This advocacy resulted in the release of hundreds of people from detention into community settings. Where they could thrive and join the community.

It was the addition of Pamela Curr to the ASRC team in 2003, that signalled a big step forward, her determination and dedication to fighting for the rights of detainees resulting in some of the most significant achievements the refugee sector had seen at the time.

Pamela publicly revealed the intention of the government to lock up children on Christmas Island and the first photos of children on Manus Island and Nauru were also obtained and leaked by the ASRC.

“We’ve (the ASRC) consistently put a spotlight on the plight and vulnerability of refugees. We’ve lobbied and fought for the end of indefinite detention of refugees and it’s been a standing policy of the ASRC since day one that we play a key role in highlighting the human rights abuses in onshore and offshore detention on Manus and Nauru. We’ve exposed some of the worst human rights atrocities that have happened in detention.”

Over the last 17 years of fighting for the safety and rights of refugees and people seeking asylum, there have been incredible highs and soul-destroying lows. 

It was the ASRC that revealed the truth surrounding the death of Reza Barati in 2014.  After the Australian Government claimed that Barati was killed trying to escape Manus Island, the ASRC released phone message recordings of desperate cries and pleas for help from detainees on the island, saying that they were under attack. After it became global news, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was forced to back down and admit that Reza Barati had been murdered.


The ASRC’s role in refugee policy change

In addition to the direct support given to thousands of people seeking asylum, the ASRC’s detention advocacy team has made significant contributions to policy development, several government inquiries and legislative changes. From the discovery of Australian resident Cornelia Rau locked up in detention to contributing to ‘A last resort?’, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, the Palmer Inquiry and helping to get all #kidsoffnauru the ASRC has been at the coalface fighting for change.   

“I’m very proud of what we have achieved in the last 17 years. We have been able to influence policy and be a real part of systemic change. I’m proud of us helping to get kids off Nauru and having freed hundreds of families, men and women from immigration detention through lobbying the government and providing community care plans. We showed that people can be safely supported and housed in the community and proved that mandatory and indefinite detention is not needed.” Kon 

Most recently, the ASRC has played a critical role in the passage of Medevac and our detention advocacy role has never been more important as we now help manage that Medevac process. 

But the fight isn’t over, we will continue to fight for the rights of people seeking asylum. We will continue to provide legal advice, advocacy and support. Together we are standing on the right side of history. 

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