The Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) held its inaugural conference on May 20-21 at the Australian National University in Canberra. It brought together more than 150 activists and representatives of 48 refugee advocacy and activist groups from around the country.
Participants included a large number of activists from Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) groups. RAR held its own national meeting over the conference, and elected a new leadership. The proposal to form ARAN came out of discussion at last year’s RAR conference.
Zaki Haidari, an Afghani refugee, welcomed activists to the conference and spoke about how important protests are to keeping up the pressure on the government and alleviating the desperation that many refugees and asylum seekers locked up in detention feel. “Every [protest] sign that says ‘Welcome refugees’ or ‘Bring them Here’ is giving them hope. When they see you on the streets, that gives them hope.”
Behrouz Boochani sent a moving message from Manus Island. Refugees and asylum seekers are facing an uncertain future with the imminent closure of Manus and the uncertainty of the US-Australia refugee swap deal. Boochani told the conference: “No matter where I end up, I feel a part of Australian society.”
With the situation so desperate for people in offshore detention and the government refusing to budge “after four years of protest”, Boochani talked about the need to “reassess” and for “civil society to coordinate better to have a much bigger effect”.
Long-time refugee advocate Pamela Curr gave a moving, personal account of the 25-year history of resistance to the government’s cruelty towards refugees, including: resistance to mandatory detention; the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas in 1999; protests against the “barbarous” Woomera Detention Centre; the Tampa tragedy; protests against the Baxter, Port Hedland and Christmas Island Detention Centres; and the introduction of Border Force under Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.
A range of workshops discussed protest and media strategy, creative actions, developing resources and starting new groups. Meetings of constituency groups including faith communities, Rural Australians for Refugees, artists, unionists, teachers, doctors, students and grandmothers and mums for refugees groups were also held.
Unionists discussed the shared goal of making refugee rights union business, how to build links and organise within unions around refugee rights and the importance of tackling racism on the job and in the union movement.
An all-in session focused on discussion around a common platform for ARAN. Panelist Ian Rintoul from Refugee Action Coalition Sydney said: “We are a political movement and we want to influence the political process. For 18 years we have been the political opposition on this issue.”
Rintoul also raised what he described as a “sticking point” on the question of boats, referring to the position advocated by Robert Manne, Frank Brennan and others for the movement to accept boat turn-backs in return for the closure of Manus Island and Nauru. While the session did not result in a vote being taken on the draft document (it will undergo further editing), there was a general consensus to reject boat turn-backs.
A snap protest was organised at Parliament House on May 21 in response to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s announcement that morning threatening up to 7500 asylum seekers living in Australia with deportation if they failed to lodge an application for a protection visa by October.
The conference culminated in a delegated session to elect a national steering committee. The new committee is made up of activists from a range of organisations across the movement, including RAC Sydney, RAC Canberra, RAR, People Just Like Us, Refugee Advocacy Network (Vic), RRAN (WA), Combined Refugee Advocacy Group (CRAG, Vic), Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP) and Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support (TASS).
[Susan Price is an activist in the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney.]