Wednesday, July 18, 2012

West Australian citizens fighting for justice for asylum seekers and refugees

Western Australia has a long history of citizen led activism in support of the rights of people seeking asylum in Australian.

Since the introduction of the policy of mandatory detention by the Keating government in the early 1990's, WA citizens have been at the forefront of opposing mandatory detention and Australia's increasingly punitive policies toward people seeking asylum in this country.

Activism and collective action by ordinary citizens (what I call the citizen sector) has been instrumental in exposing the shocking and sorbid history of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. Mainstream NGOs, particularly those who receive public funding, or those who place a high value on partnerships with Governments tend to be cautious about directly and publicly opposing and challenging Government policy.

I have written before about the increasing importance of the "citizen sector", which is the sphere of collective activity involving the ongoing efforts of committed citizens to create positive social, environmental, economic and political change. The citizen sector is very different to the mainstream, funded NGO sector, although they often collaborate on various campaigns and issues and some citizen action occurs through and in partnership with mainstream NGOs and groups such as trade unions.

The citizen sector holds Governments and corporations to account and makes democracy and society work. It is the citizen sector that attempts to expose, challenge and limit the misuse and abuse of state, economic, corporate and political power. The citizen sector mobilises and acts to protect the rights of citizens, individuals and communities.

The citzen sector is increasingly the vehicle through which citizens fight for and pursue equity, civil rights, equality, social and economic justice and environmental stewardship.

The citizen sector is a fundamental plank in what is often referred to as "civil society". Citizen sector organizations and groups effectively mobilise and organise the voices and efforts of citizens to act for the common good. They take action to directly oppose and challenge the policies and actions of Governments and corporations, something mainstream NGOs are much less willing to do.

On Monday night I attended a forum organised by the WA based Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN), one such citizen led activist and campaigning group that has worked for over a decade to expose and oppose Australia's regressive and cruel asylum seeker policies, including the policy of mandatory detention.

The forum looked at the historical and political basis of Australia's policy of mandatory detention and explored the political landscape surrounding refugee and asylum seeker policy and the role of citizen activism in challenging the policy.

RRAN provides a vehicle for ordinary citizens and professionals and service providers who work in the field to take action against mandatory detention and asylum seeker polices. RRAN plays a key role in mobilising students and young people.

RRAN acknowledges the importance of humanitarian advocacy and support and service provision by mainstream NGOs, which plays a critical role in supporting and assisting asylum seekers in detention and in the communty, but which avoids direct political engagement or political action.

However, RRAN is avowedly an activist group who takes direct action against Australia's detention system and directly challenges the policies and institutions responsible for implementing the Australian Government policy, including DIAC and Serco.

This can involve:
  • educating and informing citizens about the harshness and impact of Australia's policies
  • organising rallies, protests and demonstrations in public places and outside detention centres
  • travelling to remote detention centres to visit and express solidarity with detainees
  • visiting asylum seekers and advocating on their behalf
  • ensuring media coverage of what goes on inside detention centres
  • directly exposing and challenging the practices of the Australian Government, DIAC and Serco
As part of its campaign RRAN is organizing a convergence to the Northam Detention centre on the 26th August. (more information here).

Coincidentally, this week another  West Australian refugee activist has played a key role in mobilising over 200 academics to sign a letter of protest at Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.

Anne Pederson, an academic at Murdoch University, has spent the last decade pursuing justice for refugees and asylum seekers and as an academic has researched and written about asylum seeker and refugee issues. Concerned by the increasing hostile and punitive policy environment and critical of the solutions proposed by both political parties, Pederson drafted a letter of protest and gathered support from 200 of her fellow academics.

The letter argues that sending asylum seekers to neighbouring countries “will undermine Australia’s efforts to develop a viable regional framework, as it reinforces regional perceptions that Australia is interested in exporting its refugee ‘problem’ rather than collaborating in a genuine multilateral process".

The letter calls for the Australian Government to:
  • increase its yearly humanitarian intake to 25,000
  • implement community-based detention
  • increase UNHCR funding so refugees have “viable alternatives to jumping on boats”
  • process asylum seekers in Indonesia “themselves” before transporting them to Australia.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The demise of small local communty run third sector agencies

What this piece describes in the UK is precisely what many of us see happening here in Western Australia- the demise of small locally run and locally driven not- for- profit organisations that have unparalleled local knowledge and expertise in their specialist field and that provide services to high-need individuals at the local level.

The evidence is growing that the current agenda of marketisation, corporatization and service reform being imposed across the human and communty services sector by both Federal and State Governments and increasingly supported and adopted by the bigger agencies threatens the existence of small locally run and locally focused agencies.

And this trend is particularly bad news for the people who rely on the services provided by small agencies. This UK piece by Isobel Spender is spot on when it concludes that the demise and loss of small third sector agencies will  ultimatley damage our society and the vulnerable people within it.

In the piece in the Guardian about the situation in the UK Isobel Spencer writes:

The government wants a more efficient third sector: less dependent on state support, more involvement of volunteers, and better use of private finance. This may emerge in time, but it will not do so quickly enough for a small, vital group of local service-providing charities – where failure will be the norm.

The UK has more than 160,000 charities. Over half have annual incomes of less than £10,000; a few are national or international in scope and major brands in their own right. These will survive, either because their needs are small or because they have sophisticated fundraising machines.

But somewhere between them is a smaller group of charities, which are at risk of closing. They are perhaps fewer than 5,000 in number and typically have annual incomes over £100,000 and significantly less than £1m. They deliver social services into the community – and focus on the hardest-to-reach and most disadvantaged people. Moreover, their "service delivery" usually involves significant numbers of volunteers.

Unfortunately, they share another characteristic: they are overwhelmingly dependent on statutory funding, particularly local authority grants – the fastest-declining source of charity income. More than £2bn of funding will be lost from this area over the next three to four years, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

They have often developed unparalleled expertise in their specialist areas, but their focus on providing services to high-need individuals at the local level has made them uniquely suited to, and reliant on, statutory funding. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The power of citizen lead social action

Here here for Peter Burden writing on the Australian anti-nuclear movement and the power of citizen action over the last 30 years.

Burden writes about what is often referred to as the "citizen sector", which is the sphere of collective activity involving the ongoing efforts of committed citizens to create positive social, environmental, economic and political change.

The citizen sector holds Governments and corporations to account and makes democracy and society work. It is a fundamental plank in what is often referred to as "civil society". Citizen sector organizations effectively mobilise and organise the voices and efforts of citizens to act for the common good.

For over 30 years the citizen led anti nuclear movement has beeen a vital and vibrant political force in Australia.

Reflecting on the forthcoming Lizards Revenge protest at Roxby Downs from the 14-18 July Burden writes of the power imbalances between the citizen sector and the instiutions of state and corporate power:

Another pervasive theme that characterises the past forty years of activism is power imbalance. On one side of the struggle you have poor and sometimes dislocated indigenous people, students and concerned community members (greenies). On the other side there are billion dollar companies, the Government, State police and the media.

Such is this power imbalance that many campaigners will spend decades resisting without reward. Those who are fortunate to be involved in a campaign victory (or even a slight concession) have also seen promises betrayed and decisions reversed.

Yet, despite many crushing defeats, antinuclear activists continue to resist. They do so, not because they have nothing better to do, or because they are violent delinquents (the images commonly portrayed in the media), but because they are acting in accordance with their conscience. They are resisting environmental degradation, corporate dominance, and the continued dispossession of Aboriginal communities. They are also promoting things such as appropriate technology, de-growth economics, solidarity and antiquated notions such a citizen's right to participate in a democracy. Whatever one's political persuasion, these are all pressing moral and social issues and they deserve our most earnest engagement.

Burden reminds us that the institutions of state and corporate power use violence and force to intimidate and stiflle citizen dissent and protest. Burden reminds us of the political and legal fallout from a legal case bought by citizens arrested at an earlier 2000 demonstration at the Beverely Uranium mine which found that protestors had been treated in a himliating and degrading way by Police.:

Yet, at the end of the trial, Supreme Court Judge Timothy Anderson was left with little doubt over which parties had behaved as uncivilized "ferals". Judge Anderson awarded $700,000 in damages to the plaintiffs. He described their imprisonment in shipping crates, as "degrading, humiliating and frightening" and noted that the action constituted an "affront to the civil liberties of the protestors". He added, "The conditions were oppressive, degrading and dirty, there was a lack of air, there was the smell from capsicum spray and up to 30 persons were crammed into a very small space."

Following from these comments, Judge Anderson found instances of police force to be unnecessary: "Some of those arrested, some being plaintiffs, were mere passive observers, several of whom were taking video footage." Judge Anderson also criticised Kevin Foley and then Police Minister Michael Wright for their "unreasonable" and "antagonistic" withdrawal from attempts to resolve the case through mediation. In plain language, Judge Anderson said: "It is my view that both ministers, in making these statements, have acted with a high-handed and contumelious disregard of the plaintiffs as citizens of the state with a right to protest, and with the right to be treated according to law if they did protest."

Burden concludes with this:

As the protest camp at Lizard's Revenge is erected and the hundreds of citizens converge, we would do well to recall this event and the words of Judge Anderson. Certainly, the right to free speech and political protest is a basic human right and a hallmark of a functioning democracy. Political protest is also an important part of ensuring the accountability of those in power.