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Masood and the Freedom Bus

What if no one had spoken out against this policy?

The Rise of Asylum Seeker and Refugee Advocacy in Australia

"Through the dimension of bearing witness to this period - the voices of asylum seekers and refugees and their advocates may well be heard not only in the present, but into the future as part of Australia's historical record."

A paper by Diane Gosden

"It is impossible to ignore the issue once one becomes friends with people who have been through this appalling regime, all of them following horrors perpetrated in their places of origin. The blatant and ceaseless lies of the government, whilst sometimes draining one's energy, more often serve as impetus to continue. The truth must come out one day."

"What if no one had spoken out against this policy?"

The Rise of Asylum Seeker and Refugee Advocacy in Australia

Diane Gosden: Centre for Refugee Research, School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. Sydney

"What if No One Had Spoken out Against this Policy?"
The Rise of Asylum Seeker and Refugeee Advocacy in Australia
Gosden D, 2006

Portal: Journal of Multidicsciplinary International Studies Vol 3, No 1 (2006): Other Worlds

Biographical note

Diane Gosden is a postgraduate research student at the Centre for Refugee Research. Her PHD topic is titled 'Australian Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy: A Contested Area'. She is also an advocate in this area. She can be contacted at dianegosden(at)


This paper examines the rise of an asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement in Australia in recent years. It situates this phenomenon within Alberto Melucci's understanding of social movements as variable and diffuse forms of social action involved in challenging the logic of a system. Following this theoretical framework, it explores the empirical features of this particular collective action, as well as the struggle to redefine the nature of the relationship between citizens of a sovereign state and 'the other' in the personage of asylum seekers and refugees.

Keywords: social movements / asylum seekers / refugees / human rights advocacy / Australia

Related pages:

This paper links to and mentions many subjects, topics and Australian asylum seeker cases from the period 2001-2006. Many of these cases are mentioned or discussed elsewhere on this website. Below is a selection of these pages. For further information, use the Google search box above the main menu on the left hand site of any of the pages on this site.

23 March 2008: About the Bali bombings and a refugee family - Everyone knows there were 88 Australian victims in the Bali bombings, but just a few know the unfolding details of the story of someone locked up in Woomera who lost his Indonesian wife, and who, while locked away from seeing his two small children, had to wait for justice for more than another year. Here's the story of that justice slowly unfolding and Project SafeCom's role in that unfolding.

Tony Kevin, A Certain Maritime Incident5 August 2004: Tony Kevin's SIEV X book: A Certain Maritime Incident - With impressive courage and determination, Tony Kevin has unearthed the grim and deeply moving story he recounts in this remarkable book, an "always powerfully contested story" and one of "durable national significance" that has "crept into the hearts and consciences of many Australians" and must find its way to the hearts and consciences of many others...

1 April 2004: Australians Welcome Refugees, The Untold Story - A report compiled by Margaret Reynolds, to the 60th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, April 2004, highlighting the extensive work of Australians supporting refugees. The "Untold Story" contains personal testimonies of many Australians who have rejected official detention policy to offer friendship and practical support to people in detention.

There is No Place Like Home10 March 2004: There is No Place Like Home: the 2004 Refugee Story Competition - The 2004 Refugee Story Competition has just been launched by Australians Against Racism. This is an Australia-wide competition. Many schools and individuals will take part. You are invited to submit your essay for judging, and for possible publication!

28 February 2004: No Liability: Tragic Results from Australia's Deportations - Reports of death, disappearance, imprisonment and torture, of fear-filled lives spent in hiding, privation and despair have filtered back to Australia about some people Australia has removed after disallowing their claims for protection...

Dark Dreams, the book cover23 February 2004: Dark Dreams: Australian Refugee Stories - With editors Sonja Dechian, Heather Millar and Eva Sallis, this is another remarkable book published under auspices of Australians Against Racism. The book is the result of many refugee stories that were submitted for the Australia Is Refugees Essay Competition for young writers in 2003 in primary and secondary schools around Australia.

21 February 2004: Tom Mann: Australia's Culture of Despair for Children in Detention - "The symptoms of the failure of the detention system are obvious by now. I know, from my experiences at Woomera, that if we are going to have a system of mandatory detention, three months is the limit. Otherwise we will irreparably damage children's lives."

7 December 2002: Justice for Asylum Seekers Alliance: Reception and Transitional Processing System - Speaking at the Mudgee Rural Australians for Refugees Conference, Grant Mitchell presents an alternative approach to dealing with the processing of asylum seekers for Australia: The Reception and Transitional Processing System provides a realistic, detailed and soon to be costed reform of the immigration detention system which resolves many of the serious problems...

8 November 2003: Frank Brennan's Lecture: Tampering with Asylum - "Given that Australia has the advantage of geographic isolation, I ask my government, why don't we try to be just a little more decent rather than less decent than other countries with the same living standards when it comes to our treatment of those who arrive (whether with or without a visa) invoking our protection obligations?"

Frank Brennan SJ: Tampering with Asylum3 November 2003: Frank Brennan's book: Tampering with Asylum - With the Howard Government's revelation that 90% of the unauthorised boat arrivals in recent years have been proved to be refugees, it is timely to reassess the harsh measures instituted to process these people who were labelled as unlawful queue jumpers. Brennan does so in his new book.

25 October 2003: A child in detention: dilemmas faced by health professionals - If a government's policy conflicts with ethics of care workers, health professionals, psychologists or psychiatrists, these ethics are undermined if these policies are deemed to be followed or implemented. This paper deals with the dilemma in the case of a child held in detention and faced with serious psychological distress symptoms.

6 May 2003: Malcolm Fraser launches the book 'From Nothing to Zero' - "These extracts from letters from asylum seekers will help Australians see the refugees' many human problems. They have their hopes, their fears and their concerns for the future, as we all do. Their stories should create an understanding that people from different countries, different cultures and different religions have very similar concerns and interests to ourselves."

10 April 2003: Borderline: Australia's Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers - Sonia Tascon interviews author Peter Mares: The detention of asylum seekers, including children, the detention of families for long periods of time, was seriously under-reported, covered in a veil of secrecy and indifference.

"What if no one had spoken out against this policy?"

The Rise of Asylum Seeker and Refugee Advocacy in Australia

This paper examines the rise of an asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement in Australia in recent years. A harsh onshore refugee policy with mandatory detention has existed for more than a decade, and had been contested by small numbers of concerned individuals and core refugee, human rights, professional and church groups. However, further hardening of the policy by the Australian government in much publicised events in 2001, made it a highly contentious public issue. The policy was supported by a majority of the population, and community hostility was engendered in government and media discourses which demonised asylum seekers. At the same time however, a myriad of asylum seeker and refugee support groups sprang up across Australia to contest the policy. This paper examines this latter phenomenon following Alberto Melucci's understanding of social movements as variable and diffuse forms of collective action.

The policy at the core of asylum seeker and refugee advocacy contention, is the Australian onshore refugee policy (Maley 2004). This is the policy, based on Australian legislation, which applies to people applying for refugee status and protection from within Australian territory (Crock and Saul 2002). [1] There is evidence that several aspects of this policy are inconsistent with international human rights agreements such as the Refugee Convention (Glendenning et al. 2004) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child CRC (HREOC 2004).

The policy has long enjoyed support from both major political parties, and has provided political advantage to both parties in various periods. It has proved valuable for international political purposes for a Labor government in the early 1990s (McMaster 2001), and valuable for national political reasons for the Coalition government in the early 2000s (Goot 2002; Warhurst and Simms 2002; Manne 2004). For more than a decade, a small number of refugee and human rights NGOs, and professional and church groups have been involved in opposing the policy. In more recent times because of the publicisation of the issue both nationally and internationally, and the overt utilisation of it in national politics, there has been a much larger uprising of passionate opposition (Coombs 2004). Although polling has indicated some shift from 2001 to 2004 towards a more tolerant position on asylum seeker and refugee rights (Saulwick and Assocs. & Muller and Assocs. 2004), advocates [2] remain in the minority in terms of national public opinion (Dodson 2005). [3]

In examining the rise in collective action around asylum seeker and refugee advocacy in Australia as social movement action, I follow Alberto Melucci's definition of a social movement as 'collective action expressing a conflict' (1981,176). On first appearances, this seems to be an overly simple definition that could apply to many forms of social action. But a closer examination of Melucci's definition of 'a conflict', introduces much more exact criteria to this definition. A 'conflict' is not just conflictual action, nor deviance, nor crisis behaviour, though all of these may co-exist within the practice of a social movement. Rather, a conflict denotes a challenge and a struggle at the level of the logic of a system. Collective action as social movement action questions the legitimacy of the logic of that system. In Melucci's schema, what must be defined in analysing collective action is the arena of conflict, the challenge to the logic of the system, and the empirical features of the collective action.

The Arena Of Conflict

Conflict within a system is often brought to the surface by particular crisis situations. In Australia this occurred dramatically in relation to refugee policy, through a series of events in 2001 and 2002 (Mares 2002; Weller 2002; Corlett 2002; Marr and Wilkinson 2003; Kevin 2004; Manne and Corlett 2004). [4] Of all these events, the 2001 actions of the Australian government in refusing entry to asylum seekers on board the Norwegian vessel The Tampa, and the subsequent development and implementation of 'The Pacific Solution' and 'Border Protection' in the 2001 pre-election period, were the most politicised and publicised, both nationally and internationally.

The discourse of demonisation of asylum seekers which accompanied the government actions, ensured that the issue became an increasingly polarised one for the Australian public (Manne 2004). This period saw increased levels of hostility directed toward asylum seekers, refugees, and their advocates (Piper 2002). It also resulted in passionate and committed advocacy for asylum seekers and refugees by people across Australia who had not previously been active in this area. Whilst polling showed majority support within the Australian public for the government's actions (Manne 2004), a phletora of groups opposed to the policy and supportive of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, sprang up across Australia during this period, and brought a new energy to advocacy in this area.

At one level, both the earlier and more recent social mobilisation around asylum seeker and refugee advocacy can be understood as responses to particular events and to particular aspects of the policy (McMaster 2001; Corlett 2002). At another level, the advocacy as a whole can be understood as a challenge not just to the detail of the policy, but also to the logic that has guided and continues to guide the development and implementation of the policy. At another level again, what has been engaged in, is a struggle for the future direction and values of Australian society.

This issue exposes an underlying cultural tension within Australian society. On the one hand, for some years, sections of Australian society had been aggrieved around issues of immigration and asylum seeker and refugee arrivals (Blainey 1984; Hanson 1996; Hage 1998; Jupp 2002; Burchell 2003; Poynting et al. 2004). For these sections of the Australian public, there was a sense in which their identity as an Australian had become violated and diminished through government policies which they perceived favoured multiculturalism and reconciliation (Hage 1998; Manne 2004). The government actions of 2001 and 2002, which outraged old and new asylum seeker and refugee advocates, resonated positively for this section of the population in accordance with long held grievances and fears, and ensured their electoral support (Manne 2004).

On the other hand, both the practices and the logic guiding the Australian onshore refugee policy are perceived by asylum seeker and refugee advocates, supporters and sympathisers as un-Australian, and as a violation of the identity that they had previously associated with Australia in terms of a shown respect for human rights values and a sense of social justice. In a questionnaire study circulated in 2004 by Professor Margaret Reynolds for the United Nations Association of Australia UNAA, many advocates mentioned both their personal outrage and its connection to their Australian identity, as well as their desire to redeem the good name and behaviour of Australia. [5] The following are some examples:

I remember being overcome with shock and even disbelief ... I remember thinking, No this is not going to happen. The Australian people will not allow it. How wrong was I!

I found it unbearable that politicians who are supposed to be representing me could maintain such a harsh policy against innocent people. I needed to have some way of expressing my support for asylum seekers, and my disgust with our government's policy. I wanted to let them know that not all Australians agreed with their detention.

For many of these 'new' advocates, it was the beginning of a process of educating themselves about a policy which had already been in existence for a decade. That this was so, only heightened the outrage of the situation for them. [6]

I first became aware of Australia's detention policy when I saw a report in 2001 on the ABC Four Corners program where a little boy named Shayan's story was aired. I vividly remember the images shown of this little boy who would no longer speak and of his distressed parents. I remember Jacqui Everitt the family's lawyer being asked by the journalist "How could something like this be happening in Australia?" Jacqui's response was "Well, bad things happen when good people do nothing". I couldn't sleep that night and felt very angry to learn that Australia was locking up children for years on end. How come I didn't know about this?

As a middle class, forty something, ordinary, average Aussie mum, I simply could not believe that the country I loved so much could allow something like this to happen. How naive I was. As soon as the program finished, I got onto the web and found websites dedicated to helping those people our country has almost demonised. That began my belated education.

The Challenge To The Logic Of The System

The asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement challenges the political-administrative logic exemplified in the theory and practice of the policy, and it does so in the name of the legitimising social value of justice, and the legitimising humanitarian value of human rights. In challenging the particularity of this policy, what also becomes challenged are the cultural norms that the policy represents and the cultural directions it has provided for Australian society. It is in this sense, that social movement action may 'spill over into the general social arena, and if strong and persistent, become harbingers of general social change' (Pakulski 1991, 39).

Asylum seeker and refugee advocates have responded to the previously mentioned much publicised crisis events, and continue to respond to the ongoing crisis events which are the legacy of this policy. This legacy includes the traumatic effects upon asylum seekers and refugees of detention in Australia's immigration detention centres (Silove et al. 2000; Steel and Silove 2001; Sultan and O'Sullivan 2001; Mares et al. 2002; Zwi et al. 2003; HREOC 2004); the effects of diminished benefits of 'second class' visas accorded to refugees in the community (Barnes 2003; Phillips and Manning 2004); and the effects of deportation (Glendenning et al. 2004).

Across a diversity of groups and styles of engagement, advocates have challenged the policy which these events disclosed, and have protested and lobbied against the current policy, whilst also developing alternative policy models (JAS. 2002; RCOA et al. 2004; NASA-Vic. 2005). In addition, while ostensibly fighting a defensive battle against this policy, the societal logic underlying the policy has been challenged, and there have emerged new visions of and desires for an Australian society more respectful of human rights (Corlett 2002; Burnside 2004; Brennan 2003 and 2004).

Agnes Heller has observed that the future of a society is to a large extent dependent 'on the actors of the present, since they reinforce one logic of society as against another' (Heller 1982, 284). In terms of the logic of Australia's onshore refugee policy development, David Corlett amongst others, looks towards a more humane society in calling for a needs-based rather than fear-based approach to the development of this policy (2002, 354). Such a policy would only be possible within a political and social context 'in which asylum seekers' humanity is viewed as part of a common humanity' (2002, 359). [7] The achievement of this is the challenge with which advocates are engaged.

As Melucci has noted, social movements may act as a 'sign' (1996,1), 'allowing society to openly address its fundamental dilemmas' (Melucci 1996,10). In Australia, these include a society which has become increasingly unequal in terms of its citizens' access to opportunities, and the utilisation within that social environment of a politics of fear which demonises and scapegoats 'the other' (Manne 2004; Dodson 2004; McMaster 2001; Maley 2004; Brennan 2003 and 2004). In this regard, the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement has signalled a renewed interest in, and commitment to an inclusive model of social justice in Australia. While a number of those involved in asylum seeker and refugee advocacy may well have had prior involvement in other social justice issues, the 'on the ground' experience of human rights abuses in this particular advocacy, has brought home in a very tangible manner, the dangers of complacency and non-involvement in terms of general social justice advocacy within their own countries (Higgins 2003). In the context of a conflict in which there has been historical bipartisan support for a hard line on asylum seekers, Corlett suggests that 'It is at the level of localised interaction that hope ... resides' (2002, 358).

The Empirical Features Of The Collective Action

The essence of the collective action

The asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement can primarily be understood as an issue based movement. Across a wide spectrum, advocates and supporters are opposed to the assault on human rights which has occurred within the Australian government onshore refugee policy (Oxfam/CAA 2002; Bhagwati 2002; HREOC 2004). In this sense, this mobilisation can be understood as 'other regarding' social action (See Burgman's 1993 discussion of 'other regarding' and 'self regarding' social action). [8] The policy is perceived as unjust and inhumane, and advocates have felt a moral responsibility to respond to the situation. The social action engendered is aimed at both ameliorating the effects of the policy and at bringing change to the policy.

Social action aimed at ameliorating the effects of the policy includes the provision of social, emotional, practical, lobbying and medical and legal support. Associated activities can range from letter writing to people seeking asylum who are being held in the immigration detention centres, to visiting them there, to practical support for them in the form of telephone cards and other small items, to social and emotional support.

It can also involve lobbying for individual or groups of asylum seekers and refugees; and involvement in their legal assistance either by finding legal representation for them, or if that is not possible, assisting them with their submissions and applications. In some cases, supporters may do one of these things. In many cases, they will do all of them. [9] The following answers to Reynolds' questionnaire gives some idea of this involvement:

I really wanted to do something to change the policy or make it a bit more bearable for these poor imprisoned people somehow.

In a personal sense, I write to detainees in Baxter Detention Centre.. I also visit detainees in the Perth Detention Centre. I work with a small informal group (the Freemantle Support Project) who try to help asylum seekers. Here, I set up an email based group of people who wanted to help. Generally, people transfer $2.50 a week or $5.50 a week directly into X's account. Others who are not in a position to help financially simply give their emotional support. The list has now grown to 70 people".

"I work to organise legal help. I put people in touch with people who can help them. I have sent phone cards and parcels ... I have organised for affidavits that might be helpful for appeals. I phone one person every second night for eighteen months now, and give counselling and relaxation when he is suicidal. I have travelled to Port Augusta four times and stayed to make a total of seventy visits to people in the centre by now. I have had some people on Temporary Protection Visas stay with me, one for ten months and others for just a few days.

Social action aimed at challenging and bringing change to the policy includes political activism, lobbying, community education, and the development of alternate policy:

I campaign to change policy. I collect and present petitions to members of parliament. I write to newspapers. On invitation, I have spoken to school groups and church groups about refugees. I work about eight hours a day most days from home, helping to organise information stalls, sending out newsletter, campaign to change government policy, contact people in detention, try to find lawyers for those who need this, liase between lawyers and detainees, research country information, help with appeals to the Minister for Immigration, maintain a data base to monitor needs of persons in Baxter detention centre, organise for letters and parcels to be sent to those in detention, write to politicians, work with a refugee activist committee. I work on the No Deportations campaign.

It also includes, through a role modelling and 'signing' dimension, the previously mentioned actions aimed at ameliorating the effects of the policy. [10] As illustrated in the following comments and as noted above, involvement may include all of the above:

I have done all the normal things; lobbied federal government ministers personally, written letters to the prime minister and the Minister for Immigration, attended rallies, joined and helped set up action groups. I have spent a lot of time educating myself and then evangelising for the cause. I speak to people every day and make them aware of the facts on the matter. I have accommodated a person on a Temporary protection Visa in my home for the past 18 months at no expense to him at all. I have organised his medical and psychiatric care and hi visa applications. I have attended meetings in the Department with him and argued with the government officials about the accuracy of the information they were trying to put across as to the security of sending my friend back to where he came from. I have found him work and I have tried to be a good friend to him.

The awareness ramifies. You can start by wanting to do something about detention, which leads you to an awareness of the determination process, the politics of mandatory detention, the problems for refugees after you get them out of detention, the threats of deportation, etc. One aspect leads to another. It tends to become a systemic questioning. [11]

The everyday practice

In the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement, it has been the personal relationships established between asylum seekers and refugees and their supporters which has become a central aspect of the milieu of the movement and the social action emanating from that. It is within the closely woven fabric of relationships between asylum seekers and refugees and their advocates, that the social action of advocates becomes informed and directed:

I realised the despair that this poor boy felt when he asked me to tell John Howard to free him ... I felt his despair as he told me about his father in the Nauru hunger strike, and he asked me "When will I be free?

The support that I give to my friend in detention is very basic. I simply visit whenever possible to sit and have a chat. This may not sound like much, but it can make a world of difference ... It is the value of the knowledge that there are Australians who care, and that Australia as a whole is not trying to reject him, that is important.

This contact has occurred despite the psychological obstacles erected to interaction between asylum seekers and the Australian public by government and media discourses of demonisation of those people, and despite the practical obstacles which militate against the realisation of that contact, such as the physical isolation of immigration detention centres, and the limitations placed on communication with asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention centres. Across these barriers, a 'common humanity' bridges the gap:

They are real human beings with needs common to us all, not the demons they are made out to be by politicians.

I've been in personal contact with asylum seekers since 2001, and have maintained contact throughout this period with so many people I couldn't count, but I'd say around 100. Young men, young women, children, fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers detained in centres around Australia, as well as people in Nauru.

The penetration of secrecy

A respondent to Reynolds' questionnaire outlined the shock of meeting people used to identifying themselves within the administrative system of Australian immigration detention centres, by their numbers:

I drove the first Freedom Bus around Australia, gathered 'numbers' thrown to us over fences, and painstakingly tried to write down foreign names to line up with the numbers. The people didn't give their names first up. They just told us their numbers. The memory still makes me cry. It was truly shocking.

In order to make contact with asylum seekers in Immigration detention centres, people have acted to access information about these people and their situation, and to share this information with others. [12] As Dr. Aamer Sultan, a detained Iraqi doctor, observed in the August 2001 ABC television program Four Corners, which showed video footage of a traumatised young child inside one of the immigration detention centres, 'After a time, I realised these fences are not to prevent us from escaping ... No. These fences have been set to prevent you, the Australians from approaching us'. [13]

In the course of social action aimed at ameliorating the effects of the policy on asylum seekers in Australian Immigration Detention Centres, a significant penetration of the censorship and secrecy associated with the policy, has been achieved. The resultant information which has been gained and shared across and outside of the movement has become a major aspect of the functioning of the movement. From the efforts of those in the 'Freedom Bus' which travelled around Australia in 2002 visiting detention centres and 'raising public awareness of the plight of refugees' (Crock and Saul 2002, 5), many advocates in urban and rural area of Australia became informed of the details of this policy for the first time.

Dedicated advocacy communications groups relay email information about happenings within immigration detention centres, as well as media and current events updates in regard to asylum seeker and refugee policy. [14] Melucci has noted that the social actions within movements often become intimately interwoven with everyday life and individual experience (1989, 71-72). This is particularly apparent within the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement in Australia. By their determination and persistence in making contact with asylum seekers and refugees, and in their everyday habits of interaction with asylum seekers and refugees, these movement actors along with the asylum seekers and refugees they interact with, model relationships of common humanity which transcend the 'national boundaries' of Australian sovereignty. In this sense, advocates both model and live the future they work for.

As Anne Coombs of Rural Australians for Refugees RAR describes it:

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. (2004, 135)

The shape of the social collective

Coombs has described the asylum seeker and refugee movement in Australia as:

a vast mosaic of overlapping networks: lawyers, church people, human-rights advocates, welfare workers, political activists, and ordinary people; from highly skilled professionals with specific expertise to the many thousands who have joined a grassroots movement to oppose the Government's treatment of asylum seekers. (2004, 125-6) My emphasis.

The patterned vista to be observed in this mosaic of networking and overlapping is one which is best understood in reference to its beginnings. The previously mentioned core refugee, human rights and religious NGOs and agencies, along with small numbers of individuals and groups (ranging from professional to political involvement) had been struggling with aspects of this policy with little media coverage and public knowledge, before the 2001 events brought wider awareness of and engagement with the issue. The 'grass roots' engagement of the 'later' wave of advocates is best compared to the effect of a sudden scattering of seeds of awareness across Australia, where following the much publicised events of 2001 and 2002, a phletora of 'new' groups sprang up in support of the rights of asylum seekers. [15] The orientation of people within these groups could be characterised by a sudden shared sense of the urgency of the situation, and of the need for the taking of individual responsibility in opposing and bringing change to this policy.

Although many of these people did look to contribute by adding their energies to established refugee, human rights, and church campaigns by NGOs and established agencies, [16] for many others there was a felt need to take immediate and direct social action in whatever way they could, and wherever they were situated. In addition, social action which led to personal interaction with asylum seekers in immigration detention centres and later with refugees living in the community with second class protection visas such as Temporary Protection Visas and Bridging Visas, reinforced and heightened the already perceived urgency of the situation. Because of this orientation towards the need for immediate social action, groups were often initiated in a 'local' or 'associational' manner, ie. groups began "locally" in myriad locations across Australia in places of residence, of work, and of social, religious, political and professional interaction.

A pattern of autonomous social agency

Observers looking for a familiar tree branching structure of a major centralised group coordinating the strategies and responses of other groups, will be disappointed in the shape of this social collective. The scattered pattern of asylum seeker and refugee advocacy groups reflects the history of the periods of earlier and later engagement with the issue; and the nature of the 'later' wave of advocacy in terms of the spontaneous response that occurred in multiple sites across the nation. Those suddenly galvanised into action from 2001 onwards did not say to themselves 'What are other people doing about this?' They said to themselves 'What can I do about this? What can we do about this? and What can we do here, and now?'.

In this manner, groups sprang up from multiple locations and their resultant action has been correspondingly organic and exploratory in nature, with contributions specific to the nature of particular groups and particular individuals. This has produced the remarkable diversity within the movement ranging from long standing peak refugee, human rights and church and welfare groups - to arts, media, theatre and educational groups; social and practical support groups; agencies; [17] medical, legal and academic professional involvement; political activist involvement; communications groups; specific focus groups; urban and rural groups; refugee groups; unions; and many individuals who cross through the group actions and dynamics. Emanating from this diversity comes collective action which is both 'local' in the sense of an individual's or group's primary advocacy identity, and is also a part of a whole.

Contributing to the whole - a work in process

If the shared concern for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees acts as the binding glue of the movement, it is primarily the technology of email and web which facilitates the ability of these dispersed and localised networks to function collectively. As Coombs notes for the group Rural Australians for Refugees RAR: [18]

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. (2004, 133)

While there have been many examples of individuals and groups travelling across and outside of Australia to make contact with asylum seekers and refugees and with advocacy support communities, email and web provide a nationwide forum for the various campaigns initiated by different individuals or groups. Email newsletters, petitions, updates, calls to action, and websites provide both knowledge of and access to the larger collective. It is this forum, which in addition to the personal contact with asylum seekers and refugees and the 'local' networks of social action of individuals and groups, maintains and invigorates the collective. Through this access to the social action initiated by other groups and individuals, advocates can come to 'know' the nature of the larger social collective of which they are a part.

Tensions within

Tensions can be observed between various movement actors within the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement. These tensions reflect often observed patterns within social movements between more reformist and more radical approaches to social action and social change (Burgman 1993, 251; Pakulski 1991, 173). With the reasonably sudden entry of numerous groups to this domain from 2001 onwards, tensions have also been played out between earlier and later groups. As an advocate involved for some time in the arena observed, the earlier groups had the knowledge and experience of the field, while the later (2001 onwards) groups brought tremendous energy into their new engagement with the issue. [19]

Tensions have included differences around expectations and strategies. At the same time, there is cooperation between the various sectors with combined actions, plus an understanding of specific marking of territory in terms of what each sector can contribute to the whole, and can provide as resources for other groups' utilisation:

It was just a thing where people had to gradually come together, and realise what's been going on, and what was happening in both groups. NGOs have funding and paid staff - with time and expertise to network with each other and develop policy. The other groups operate on the good will of people and they realise their resources are better placed to mobilise people at the grass roots level. I think they do complement each other in a lot of ways. [20]

The focus of the social action of this collective ultimately lies in the particular contribution that can be made from a particular location with the particular expertise at hand. As one advocate observed of the engagement against the Australian onshore refugee policy, 'It's not so much a war, as a series of battles', [21] and these battles can be fought on different fields, simultaneously. What binds advocates together is a shared concern with the logic and the detail of the Australian onshore policy and the human suffering that has resulted and continues to result from it.

The entity of the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement

Melucci has observed that social movement actors frequently spend a lot of time deciding who and what they are (1989, 218). Yet this can hardly be said to apply to the Australian asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement as an entity. As Coombs has noted (2004, 134), advocates are generally too busy with the task at hand - too busy with the 'emergency work' of ameliorating the effects of the policy on asylum seekers and refugees. In addition, this kind of capacity building or identity building enterprise when it occurs, tends to again have an emphasis on the 'local', whether in terms of place as geography or as an 'associational' locale (eg. as in associational locales of profession, politics, religion, etc.) [22]

The asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement is a multidimensional and fluid entity which can best be understood at present as 'the sum of its parts'. Advocates from many sites and many orientations combine their particular focus and expertise to contribute to the multiple tasks associated with ameliorating the effects of Australia's onshore policy; challenging the practice and the logic of the policy, and struggling to redefine the values of a compassionate Australia. It is apt for the members of the movement to consider Burgman's opinion, that social movements are only as strong politically as they are 'unified entities' and 'coherent forces' (1993, 19). Yet, the multifaceted nature of the resultant advocacy may well ultimately prove to be the movement's greatest strength in terms of its many tentacled reaches into different sections of Australian society.


'What if no one had spoken out against this policy?'

With the weight of popular support for Australia's onshore refugee policy policy, this fear has galvanised advocates' social action around the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees under the Australian onshore refugee policy. This fear has come for younger Australians from the reading of history, and for older Australians from the living memory of the genocides and other human rights atrocities that have occurred in the twentieth century. The dangers posed by the non-responsiveness of 'ordinary citizens' to human rights abuses, is perhaps a spectre which continues to haunt twenty first century societies. As one respondent to Reynolds's survey asserted, 'I couldn't complain and do nothing, or I'd be guilty of complicity'.

Many Australian people have spoken out against this policy - in their passionate and dedicated support and practical social action for asylum seekers and refugees in personal conversations with friends and acquaintances; in community education; in creative art, theatre, film, literature and music; in professional life; within political parties and in parliament; to friends and acquaintances; in protest rallies; in church groups; in international human rights forums - wherever they happened to find themselves and wherever their expertise could be utilised in this regard. They continue to speak out against this policy.

Klaus Neuman points out that the bipartisan political support for a hardline Australian approach to asylum seekers is not unprecedented. As he shows in Refuge Australia, it has a long history. What is unprecedented, he argues, 'is the willingness of many ordinary Australians in the last few years to assist asylum seekers and refugees ... They consider it their personal duty' (2004, 113).

As one of the respondents to Reynolds' questionnaire asserted:

It is impossible to ignore the issue once one becomes friends with people who have been through this appalling regime, all of them following horrors perpetrated in their places of origin. The blatant and ceaseless lies of the government, whilst sometimes draining one's energy, more often serve as impetus to continue. The truth must come out one day.

Through the dimension of bearing witness to this period - the voices of asylum seekers and refugees and their advocates may well be heard not only in the present, but into the future as part of Australia's historical record.


[1] As Crock and Saul explain 'Most of these applicants arrive on valid visas as tourists or students, or on short-term visas, and then seek to change their status to that of permanent resident on the basis that they are refugees. A smaller number enter Australia without valid visas and then seek protection as refugees. These are the people referred to as 'asylum seekers'. They are, in fact and as a matter of law, seeking asylum, refuge or protection in Australia' (2002, 10).

[2] Throughout this paper, I use the term 'advocate' as a generic term for advocates and activists. The range of activities undertaken is a particular feature of this collective action - from political activism to lobbying; to public advocacy in the form of community education; to practical, financial, social and emotional support for asylum seekers and refugees affected by the Australian onshore refugee policy. Though some people may do only one of these activities, the majority of people involved will do a number of them or all of them. Thus the activism that ensues is usually informed by the personal relationships with asylum seekers and refugees, and the public advocacy that is undertaken is impassioned into activism by the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

[3] Dodson 2005 reports of the Australian Election Study 2004 that 54.4% of those polled strongly agreed or agreed with the government policy of turning back all boats carrying asylum seekers, while 28% strongly disagreed or disagreed with this policy. This can be contrasted to polling on a similar question in ACNielsen polls in 2001 (31 August-2 Sept. and 9-10 October) indicating a 77% strong agreement or agreement with the government's policy of preventing boats carrying asylum seekers from entering Australian waters and a 18-20% strong disagreement or disagreement with the policy (Goot 2002, 72).

[4] Although the majority of the 'new' groups began from late 2001 onwards, public awareness of the harshness of the policy had been growing in the preceding period. In this sense, The Tampa and other events crystallised an already disturbed element of public opinion. Mares (2002, 3-34) details events in 2000 such as the hunger strike by people detained at Curtin detention centre; the mass break-out and riot at Woomera detention centre, the ABC TV 4 Corners program about the use of sedatives in deportation proceedings, and public allegations of sexual abuse in Woomera detention centre.

For 2001, Crock and Saul note that 'the groundswell of public support for the 50 or so asylum seekers who escaped from Villawood detention centre in July 2001 signalled a new direction in the refugee debate - towards subversion and civil disobedience of laws which are unbearably harsh' (2002, 5). National television footage of a traumatised child inside the Villawood detention centre brought another dimension to that public awareness, and the group Chilout (Children Out Of Detention) was formed in August 2001 in response. In addition, the period following the Tampa incident and legislation for 'The Pacific Solution' and 'Border Protection', was one in which the Australian public was exposed to the 'Children Overboard' affair, and learnt of the drowning of 353 people (seeking asylum) onboard the SIEV X.

In the year 2002, hunger strikes and self-harm including 'lip-sewing' continued within Australian detention centres, as did escapes from Woomera detention centre. By this time, thousands of Australians who had written to columnist and commentator Phillip Adams signing up for a 'civil disobedience register', had provided funds for a national organisation of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, otherwise known as A Just Australia (Mares 2002, 257).

[5] Unless otherwise attributed, quotations in this paper are from Reynolds, M. 2004.

[6] For some, there was a sense of déja vu, in remembering the lack of knowledge which many Australians had about atrocities done to Indigenous Australians. See Reynolds, H., 1999, for an exploration of this history.

[7] See also Benhabib's 2004 discussion of this.

[8] Burgman has noted that 'other regarding' social movements often also contain 'self regarding' components (1993, 17-18). This is true of the asylum seeker and refugee advocacy movement in Australia. There is a concern for the defence of humanitarian values as a central component of Australian national identity. This can be seen as 'self regarding' in terms of a vested interest in the future direction and values of Australian society.

[9] See Clausen 2005, for details of some of the 'legal work' done by volunteers.

[10] See Stubbs 2004 and Coombs 2004 for an illustration of the range of activities undertaken by groups such as Chilout and RAR.

[11] Comments from Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Coalition, 22nd April 2005.

[12] For literature in which the voices of asylum seekers and refugees can be heard see Tyler 2003; Leach and Mansouri 2003; the Lonely Planet (ed.) 2003; and R. Scott (ed.), 2004. For an account of work inside an immigration detention centre, see Mann 2003. For the voices of young Australians on this issue, see S. Dechian, H. Millar and E. Sallis (eds.) 2004 and Sallis, E. and Millar, H. (eds.) 2004.

[13] Available: (accessed 13th April 2005).

[14] The 2005 discovery of an Australian citizen detained in Baxter immigration detention centre, was sparked by asylum seekers' pleas to advocates on her behalf, and the subsequent media article on this by Andra Jackson in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (as quoted in Marr et al. 2005).

[15] The members of these groups are volunteers in the sense that they are unpaid, and indeed spend much of their own money on their support of asylum seekers and refugees. However, the word 'volunteer' does not capture the degree of passionate advocacy and activism of their social action. The numbers of people involved in a range of social action of advocacy and activism is difficult to estimate since individuals may belong to more than one group. However as an example, groups such as Rural Australian for Refugees RAR count an email member list of approximately 15,000 people: A Just Australia AJA of approximately 8,000 people; and the communications group Project SafeCom lists as supporters 5000 database contacts and 10,000 general other e-list readers (Project SafeCom Inc. 2004).

[16] Some examples are the Asylum Seeker Support Networks associated with Hotham Mission, Melbourne; the Circle of Friends network associated with the Australian Refugee Association, Adelaide; and Amnesty International Australia's NSW Refugee Network.

[17] The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne is an example of an agency which began as a volunteer organisation, and now functions with paid and volunteer staff providing asylum seekers with a wide range of wholistic care.

[18] See Stubbs 2004 on the utilisation of web and email by the group CHILOUT (Children Out Of Detention).

[19] Interview with James Thomson, National Council of Churches of Australia, 6th December 2004.

[20] As above.

[21] Interview with Junie Ong, Chilout (Children Out Of Detention), 25th February 2005.

[22] Groups such as Rural Australians for Refugees RAR have engaged in capacity building in the form of annual conferences which have provided a meeting point not only for RAR members but for people from different groups across the nation. However more generally, capacity building will occur through joint campaigns and projects, meetings with fellow advocates at events, rallies, and while visiting Immigration Detention Centres, ie. 'on the job'.


Editors note: some references, although pointing to external sources, are also located, discussed or summarized on this, the Project SafeCom website. These are marked with hyperlinks in square brackets, like this: [this site]

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  • Project SafeCom Annual Report 2004 - From the storming of Tampa by SAS troops to the kids overboard photos we were not allowed to see: three years of development for a punchy and growing NGO (PDF File 494 Kb)

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