Summer 2017-18

Vincentian travels to the UN to advocate for asylum seekers

‘You save me from drowning and punish me for surviving with prolonged detention and uncertainty.’

This is a quote from a person I assisted in preparing his application for protection. He sought asylum from Australia. He came by boat because there were no safer pathways for him to seek Australia’s protection. He speaks for many people who have sought Australia’s protection. What is it like to be held in indefinite mandatory detention, especially when you have not committed any criminal offence or broken any laws by seeking protection? What is it like to be demonised by a government who keeps referring to you as an illegal maritime arrival (IMA) or by your boat ID if you have been forcibly transferred to one of two offshore detention camps on the Pacific Island of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea?

Australian’s indefinite mandatory detention laws for people who arrive by sea is punitive and began in 1992.

Some people are held longer than others. Post 13 August 2012, people were stripped of their right to work and granted bridging visas or were in community detention. The right to work was re-instated many, many months later but long delays in processing and staff cutbacks meant applications for protection were not processed and bridging visas were not renewed in a timely manner. This often led to people losing jobs. A web of uncertainty and stress was exacerbated by people being subject to a Code of Behaviour, a set of rules over and above laws of the land that require no charges to be laid.

A group of 100 or more men seen from the back, kneeling or sitting on the ground in a large cage with their hands raised above their heads.
This photo of detainees on Manus Island was taken by Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and an Iranian refugee currently held on Manus Island. His work is published by The Guardian.

I am a migration practitioner and volunteer community engagement/ educator. I am a former Immigration Officer with the Brisbane office of the Department of Immigration. I am a Vincentian with St Mark’s Inala Conference and have links with Vinnies’ Migration Advice Service.

My tenure in community engagement for the Romero Centre run by Mercy Community Services in Brisbane was meaningful yet it took a toll. It was a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness about refugee policies, engage with community organisations, schools, universities, individuals, and print and e-media, and to organise support groups and art exhibitions as an advocacy tool. There is a lot of goodwill in the community.

My tenure working in onshore detention centres, including Christmas Island, Darwin and Scherger, and offshore on Manus Island, was meaningful yet it has also taken a toll. The stories of sexual torture and other forms of persecution never go away.

In the last two years, I have begun to specialise in Sri Lankan refugees, the majority of whom are of Tamil ethnicity. There is merit in specialising, as you learn about the political, social and environmental context and human rights challenges. Sri Lankan refugees who have sought Australia’s protection have been subject to an enhanced screening process. My anger about this discrimination and the close geo-political relationship shared between Australia and Sri Lanka was the motivation to specialise. I was also inspired by the strong social justice focus and compassion of my friend, Brisbane-based Fr Pan Jordan, a Dominican Sri Lankan Tamil priest.

I decided to visit Sri Lanka in March 2015 after the presidential elections and my report is published in Groundviews. [1]

So what is it like to flee your country, your motherland? It is a difficult decision to leave family members including your parents, wife and children if you are married, siblings, friends, culture, profession or job, sense of community and all that is familiar to you. It is a difficult decision to risk taking that dangerous sea journey, either alone or with your wife and children, knowing that you [all] could drown. However, you make that rational choice because most often, your life is in danger and you seek safety because you are unable to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or perhaps because you have waited patiently for many years in a transit country to be resettled.

What is it like on Manus? It has been more than four years for many men who were forcibly transferred to Manus from Christmas Island from July 2013. Poor camp conditions and violence have been widely reported. It is particularly concerning that there is no access to Australian-funded judicial review on Manus Island for the men who have not received a positive outcome on their protection claims. Some men have been deported while many others have ‘voluntarily’ agreed to return to their home country, with a financial incentive to avoid deportation.

While I am encouraged that just over 50 men, women and children from Nauru and Manus have made their way to the US, I am concerned about the other refugees. Thomas Albrecht, the Canberra-based regional representative of the UNHCR, said he was confident the US will take many more refugees. We wait in hope. My view is that no-one is to be left behind.

The process for the US is slow and the men have become increasingly anxious and unwell. It is both worrying and scandalous that there have been two deaths in the last three months and that there are men in the transit centre who need urgent psychiatric treatment, care and around-the-clock monitoring but are not getting that level of care.

With the closure of the camp on 31 October 2017, the men had wellfounded fears of being abandoned by Australia and not having access to proper medical care and protection while they live in the community, waiting to be resettled. The Manus community has been welcoming and increasingly concerned about the welfare of the refugees. The Manus community are as much the victims as the refugees. Australia has stated it is no longer responsible for the care, welfare and resettlement of refugees post 31 October 2017.

The UNHCR has previously stated that PNG is not a durable resettlement option and reminds us of the escalating crisis on Manus Island. [2]

Australia has abandoned the refugees and PNG.

From 12 to 29 September this year, I attended the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil community with whom I work in Australia and the global diaspora. My focus was to raise awareness of how hostile Australia’s policies are towards Sri Lankan refugees, while other participants were more qualified to speak about the current human rights challenges in post-conflict Sri Lanka and transitional justice mechanisms.

We all worked very hard every single day to polish the statements we delivered in the general debate sessions where countries around the world listened quietly. We proactively participated in side events to learn about the human rights challenges in various countries around the world who struggle with their demons. We facilitated our own side events, sharing case studies of the daily struggles on the ground for Tamils in Sri Lanka, Tamil refugees stranded on Manus Island and in Nauru, and in the transit countries of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

I met brave human rights activists and survivors of rape, war, torture, physical assaults and abductions, to name a few horrific experiences. I learned about what is happening in Yemen, Pakistan and Kashmir, and about the successful referendum for self-determination for Iraqi Kurdistan. I am humbled and inspired. Though the wheels of the United Nations and its agencies turn slowly, it offers an international platform to raise human rights issues and to challenge policies that are inherently unjust and breach people’s human rights.

Rebecca Lim is a migration practitioner and volunteer community engagement/educator. Rebecca is a member of St Mark’s Inala Conference in Brisbane and she has ongoing links with the Migration Advice Service run by the St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland.


[1] Rebecca Lim (2015), ‘Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: reflections from visit to Sri Lanka’, Groundviews journalism for citizens, 20 April 2015,

[2] United National High Commissioner for Refugees (2017), ‘UNHCR warns of escalating crisis on Manus Island’, By UNHCR Regional Representation in Canberra, 8 August 2017,

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button