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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.

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