"The refugee crisis is a union issue, as well as a social justice issue," Australian Services Union (ASU) NSW and ACT deputy secretary Judith Wright told about 100 people on June 27 at the "Change the Rules for Refugees" forum organised by Unions for Refugees.
"The ASU has members in support services for refugees. They see first-hand the results of the oppression and violence suffered by asylum seekers," she said.
"Governments blame refugees and migrants for problems of unemployment and poverty in society. We need to use the Change the Rules campaign to educate workers and convince them to support the rights of refugees.”
Shawfikul Islam, a Rohingya refugee and National Union of Workers (NUW) organiser in Victoria, described his experience as an asylum seeker who came by boat in 2012. "I now feel Australia is my home," he said.
"Working as an NUW organiser, I see that many refugees are working on farms in the regional areas near Melbourne. They suffer extreme wage exploitation, intimidation and sexual harassment, among other problems.
"But solidarity is growing in the community. And we are working to try to fix the problems that the refugees are experiencing."
Shannen Potter from Young Labor Left told the forum: "We are fighting within the Labor Party for refugee rights. There is a close connection between refugee rights and broader social issues.
"We need to continue to push the ALP to change its policy on refugees. The challenge is to force the Labor leadership to take this issue up seriously at the forthcoming ALP National Conference in December.
"The way forward is to make the Labor Party more democratic internally. Then we can hope to see real change in Labor policy on refugees."
Mark Goudkamp, from Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), gave a summary of the successes and failures of the refugee rights campaign over the past two decades: "Despite some wins, we have not yet succeeded in fundamentally shifting the debate," he said.
"Since the coming of the [Tony] Abbott and [Malcolm] Turnbull Coalition governments, the refugee movement has had to escalate its activities. The ALP opposition has followed on behind the Liberal-National parties on refugees.
"We need to increase the pressure on Labor to change direction. This involves not only the crisis on Manus Island and Nauru, but mainland issues such as the government cutting support payments for refugees."
The forum also discussed ways of building the refugee movement and increasing pressure on the union and Labor leaderships to support of asylum-seeker rights. This includes raising the issue at the forthcoming ACTU Congress in Brisbane.