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Struggling to soften the dividing line: Amnesty International

Many years ago when I still had enough idealism to believe I could change the world and had not yet realised I was far too emotionally unstable to do so, I took up a semester-long internship as a refugee caseworker at the Sydney office of Amnesty International. It turned out that the melancholy stories and crushing defeats were not my cup of tea – personally, I enjoy mine with milk and a little bit of honey – but the magical spirits of those who work there stayed with me, and I’m willing to bet that’s the case with anyone who comes into contact with them. Well, except of course maybe Amanda Vanstone.

Graham Thom (© Amnesty International)

Graham Thom is the Refugee Coordinator for the Australian arm of Amnesty International, so he devotes his entire career to lobbying the Australian Department of Immigration as well as international governments to grant rights to asylum seekers and refugees. He started his stint at Amnesty as a volunteer to put his theoretical framework to use while he was completing his PhD on immigration at Sydney University. I interned there in 2005 – believe me, not a fun time to be playing roulette with refugee status – and he says that while conditions have improved considerably for Amnesty’s cause in the past four years, there are still many issues integral to human rights that the organisation is battling.

“There have been major changes on policies that were out of step with Amnesty International, including the termination of Temporary Protection Visas and the Pacific Solution, but there are now 750 detainees on Christmas Island, which is like a medium-security prison – the detainees have no rights or freedom like they would on the mainland of Australia,” says Graham.

Fences surrounding Christmas Island's detention centre. (© A Just Australia)

The Australian Government’s newly built $400 million detention centre on Christmas Island, located 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth, opened in August last year and is the first-stop for all boat arrivals – of which Graham says there has been an increase in the past six months because of deteriorating world conditions.

“Guards control when people come and go, the access to services is minimal and it’s completely out of line with Australia’s international obligations to refugees,” says Graham.
“If a detainee is in somewhere like Villawood, there are excursions and visitors – but the remoteness of Christmas Island makes it impossible for detainees to interact with the wider community.”

A typical room in Christmas Island's detention centre. ( © A Just Australia)

Another problem is of course dealing with the opposition, who Graham says is once again turning the case of asylum seekers into a stubborn game of political football.
“Public opinion has shifted a lot, but there is still a lot of antagonism towards the term ‘refugee’,” he says.

“Sometimes when you try to convince people of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, it can be like banging your head against a brick wall.”

When he’s not talking to the media, doing casework or managing Amnesty’s internal refugee team, Graham is bridging the understanding between the cause and effect of displacement on the international scene through Australia’s offshore refugee and humanitarian program.
“We have started to engage where Australia is taking people from and how many in a push for the country to take more,” he says.
“While the migration program continues to grow, refugees numbers have remained relatively stable.”
His most recent expedition included a trip to Malaysia’s refugee camps, and he has Thailand and India next on the list. He then takes the information home, writes reports and lobbies for better conditions.

Inside Malaysia's refugee camps.

Opportunities to learn about and attempt to correct the refugee programs throughout the rest of the world have been afforded since the change in government, but Graham says casework is still a big component of what his team does, which essentially involves researching and reporting on behalf of the asylum seekers’ claims. Given that the majority will be rejected, it can be quite disheartening. I know it was for me, but then, I suppose it all depends on how you look at it.
“You get to know people and then they get rejected, and you have to learn,” says Graham.

“There are plenty of other cases and other people who need your help, so all you can do is keep a professional distance and try to change the system.”

To get involved, you can join Amnesty International, join them in a campaign for a cause, volunteer, or of course donate your spare (and not so spare) change.

words: Seema Duggal


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