Melbourne, Australia – A portrait of a thoughtful Malcolm X overlooks the chaotic office space in the heart of the city. It is home to a refugee-run organisation fighting to reframe Australia’s asylum seeker debate.
At a desk amid the stacked boxes and clutter sits Ramesh Fernandez, the founder of RISE: Refugees Survivors and Ex-Detainees, an organisation that provides services to refugees and advocates for policy change.
Fernandez is a passionate man who talks slowly but with purpose. He fled Sri Lanka as a political refugee in 2001. After a harrowing 15-day boat journey to Australia, he spent three years in some of the country’s most infamous immigration detention centres on remote islands and on the mainland.
He told Al Jazeera he felt there was a strong need for an organisation such as RISE. “We wanted to build an organisation from the community, for the community. It’s about the self-determination process,” Fernandez said.
The organisation, which started in 2009 with a small group of ex-detainees meeting at a nearby university library, has now grown with more than 200 volunteer staff and about 2,500 members accessing services.
Fernandez said as former refugees, they bring a unique perspective to the work providing services such as housing, material needs, and language support to those who have recently arrived.
“We have been through the settlement process, been through crossing borders. We know what sort of projects are needed and how they are going to impact the community. We don’t have focus groups because this is our lived experience,” he said.
For the last decade and a half an intense focus on refugees and asylum seekers coming to the country by boat from neighbouring Indonesia has gripped Australian politics. Most arriving in Australia are from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Middle East, and parts of East Africa.
While policies of successive governments have changed over the last 15 years, long stints in remote immigration detention centres for those coming by boat, which often include children, have been a regular feature.
In February, the Australian Human Rights Commission released the results of an inquiry into the well-being of children in detention centres in Australia and offshore. The report found widespread accounts of self-harm and more than 30 reports of sexual assault in detention centres.
The government rejected the findings of the inquiry and labelled it a “politicised exercise”, while calling on the commission’s president to stand down.
In March, a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said Australia’s policies of detaining children breached the International Convention Against Torture. Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded by saying Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations” and rejected the report.
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Like a family
Fernandez said it is difficult for those coming out of detention as there is no rehabilitation or support process.
“We provide a support group run by ex-detainees. We sit down and talk about the experience in detention centres, crossing borders. When people come out of the detention centres they feel like they are a part of a community that is like a family,” Fernandez said.
“RISE is a family for the people who come from refugee backgrounds. We have people from 30 refugee community groups… We feel the strength that we can share and what we can build within our community,” he said.
Despite a raft of tough policies targeting asylum seekers, boats are still leaving Indonesia, though the government does not reveal just how many.
The Australian navy is being used to forcibly turn back boats, and reports have emerged alleging authorities paid crews carrying asylum seekers $31,000 to turn back .
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton denied the claims.
Voice of the refugee
After finishing high school, RISE’s Fadak Alfayadh, from Iraq, wanted to volunteer and worked assisting recently arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar settle in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.
“When people first get to Australia it’s really tough, but seeing us from a similar background as a refugee, seeing that we’ve been through this, people think ‘I’m going to be ok,'” she told Al Jazeera.
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, at the age of 11, Alfayadh and her family fled to Jordan, and later settled in Australia. Now as a law student, she said joining RISE changed her way of thinking about her experiences, and made her want to get into refugee-based legal work.
“Growing up, there weren’t many people there that I could talk to. I can’t say I had friends who could relate. In the Iraqi community, those who didn’t come as refugees look down upon those who did, so my family never really vocally said how we came here because it is really stigmatised,” she said.
“When I got involved in RISE, I had never really mixed with people so political. I never thought about concepts such as white supremacy or anything like that. Of course it was always something, but there wasn’t a name for it.”
Being uncompromising about its politics as an organisation is something Fernandez prides himself on. RISE doesn’t accept government funding and despite it often coming at the cost of philanthropic donations, he said it’s important the group remains vocal.
“We don’t get the same amount of money as other refugee organisations, but if we are going to talk about structural racism and institutionalised oppression to people coming on boats, we need to talk about white Australia policy, we need to talk about indigenous Australians, how they were brutally murdered and this land occupied. No one wants to hear that,” said Fernandez.
“It’s important for us to be part of the refugee debate, to lead it.”
Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @jarniblakkarly