Seminar – Turning our backs: responding to ‘the boats’

Just days before the recent Federal election, the UNSW UN Society and the Australian Human Rights Centre co-hosted a seminar on Australia’s response to the global refugee crisis in the Law Faculty. With neither major political party offering an acceptable policy for processing asylum seekers, the event offered a chance for students, staff and guests to discuss the situation and possible options in response. Speakers were Elaine Pearson, Australia Director, Human Rights Watch, former Deputy Director of HRW in New York and human trafficking and migration expert; Gregory Lake, former Immigration Department official and operations manager, Nauru Detention Centre; and Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesperson on Sri Lanka, author of The Cage and founding advisor of the International Crimes Evidence Project investigating war crimes. The event was moderated by UN Society’s Emma Watt, with concluding observations by AHRCentre Director, Andrea Durbach.

Speaking to a packed theatre, Elaine Pearson stated that in her new role she will endeavour to encourage the Australian government to adopt a more human rights based approach to an immense and complex issue.  She highlighted Australia’s relatively low rate of reception of the world’s asylum seekers, just 2.4% in 2012 and 3% of the world’s refugees. Elaine explained that asylum seekers often aim for Australia, despite being able to reach countries such as Malaysia much faster, because these alternate destinations are often not signatories to the Refugee Convention, and conditions were uncertain, with frequent reports of serious abuses by officials. In advocating offshore processing in countries such as Indonesia or PNG, Pearson suggested Australia was at risk of sending asylum seekers and refugees to countries where they might be exoposed to grave human rights violations.

Gregory Lake provided a troubling insight into the ‘behind the scenes’ of Australian detention centres. He spoke of the appalling and often inhumane responses to refugees in Australian controlled detention centres, which resulted in his resignation from the Department of Immigration when it became clear that he could no longer reconcile his workplace obligations with his individual responses to the needs of fellow human beings. While recognising the excellent work and genuine effort of certain colleagues within the Department, he regarded it as highly ‘dysfunctional’ overall and given current political approaches to the issue, he predicted that a future  Australian Prime Minister would be called upon to apologise for Australia’s mismanagement and human rights violations in relation to asylum seekers and refugees.

Gordon Weiss offered an insight into the situation of Sri Lankan asylum seekers -  the realities faced in their country of origin, compounded by the disastrous responses to these people by the Australian government. He believed that the ‘serious absence of moral and political leadership in Australia’, exacerbated by politicians and the media, meant that Australians lack any real understanding of why people are coming to Australia, what they are fleeing from, or how they are being treated on arrival. Gordon is currently trying to tackle the concerning ability of ASIO to issue non-reviewable adverse findings against asylum seekers resulting in their  immediate rejection.

Following Q&A and discussion – with Elaine Pearson calling for monitoring and transparency of detention centres, AHRCentre Director, Andrea Durbach, spoke of the  growing danger of Australians becoming a ‘damaged’ people, as our unfounded but fuelled fear of asylum seekers and refugees led to our condonation of inhumane and ineffective policies, ‘turning our backs’ on our our civil responsibility towards those fleeing desperate situations.

Read Andrea Durbach’s concluding observations by clicking here.

Watch the video

Part 1 - Elaine Pearson (13 minutes)

Part 2 - Greg Lakes (13 minutes)

Part 3 - Gordon Weiss (13 minutes)

Part 4 - Q & A with the panelists (13 minutes)


Seminar – Turning our backs: responding to ‘the boats’ was held on Thursday, 5 September 2013.

andrea durbach speaking  students listening   elaine pearson speaking