Interview: Philomena Murray and Sara Dehm, Academics for Refugees
Philomena and Sara are part of the steering group for Academics for Refugees, who recently released an open letter to the Government regarding a more humane approach to refugees.
Liz Peak (LP): Can we start off with who you guys are and what you do academically?
Sara Dehm (SD): I’m a Senior Fellow and PhD candidate at the Institute for International Law and Humanities at Melbourne Law School. My research is in the area of international law and migration governance, and also refugee law. My PhD project at the moment is looking at how international institutions have administered labour migration at particular moments in the post-War period.
Philomena Murray (PM): At the university, I’m head of the Masters of International Relations, and I’m a specialist on the European Union, but I’m also interested in regional solutions to intractable problems. So I’m interested in comparing the European Union and the Asia-Pacific context for a particularly challenging issue and that is refugees and asylum seekers and people movements. I also work on European Union refugee policy and how the European Union is going through a crisis of values, and thewhole issue of values communities in terms of dealing with refugee issues.
LP: Can you tell me about the open letter from Academics for Refugees? What was the impetus behind it?
PM: There are several compelling reasons. One is that we’ve done open letters before and we found that there’s a huge amount of academic interest and concern about asylum seekers, and particularly about off-shore detention; a huge amount of people who want to feel that they’re part of an academic community. Lots of people think academics may be in competition — in fact, we’re working together on this. This is a national type of movement in this sense. It has got over 2,800 signatures. And particularly after the Nauru files, we knew that the timing was right for the release of our policy paper calling for a just and humane approach to refugees and for our new open letter supporting this policy paper.
We had actually been moving up towards this for several months, because we’d been working on a policy paper since early May.
SD: I think the open letter was an attempt to mark a new political moment, and a strong consensus in academia that there is a need for change, that the current refugee régime is harmful, and that there are alternatives that the government needs to take seriously.
LP: What’s the reason for focusing on academics? Do you think that’s the most powerful way to show the government that there’s options other than what they’re doing at the moment?
PM: Part of it is because academics work full time on different aspects of their expertise, and they brought their expertise together in this group. They’re people who take these issues seriously – they don’t automatically sign a letter just for the sake of signing — they reflect on it; they’ve approved the policy paper. They’re writing in support of the policy paper. It’s not simply an open letter, important as that is and important as that has been in the past for us.
SD: We recognised the limitations of an open letter, but for us the open letter was just the starting point of a further conversation, further action through university-based initiatives in order to push for a more humane and just approach for refugees.
LP: So if the open letter’s the start, what would be a successful end point of this process?
SD: We are calling for a policy summit, and again the policy summit does have a set objective, which is that it needs to mark a new critical moment where we move beyond the current damaging refugee policies. But it’s also a space for dialogue, an opportunity to listen to the voices and expertise of refugees and asylum seekers, who are the people most affected by the current policies, and also to hear the views of experts touch in the variety upon who of are this fields working policy. that So both really, consensus it’s a space but also of dialogue.
PM: So we see it as a discussion that would have a positive contribution to the debate, but also would have positive outcomes. We need recognition of the need for people to actually seek safety, the need for people to seek asylum, that that is actually a right, and that it’s actually a right under international law. We want to have recognition that refugees have contributed positively to Australian society, and we also want to look at it in terms of a national consensus, but also to look at regional approaches which are genuinely regional, with Australia even able to play a leading role in a constructive asylum system. And then we are also looking at an international context as well.
LP: I’m intrigued by this idea of making everyone aware that refugees have played an important part in Australian society, because I wonder whether trying to defend it on that angle takes away from the fact that it’s just a right [to seek asylum], and regardless of the result we have to fight for it.
PM: Yes, and that’s why we aren’t actually profiling individual, wonderful people who’ve been refugees, for instance people who have fled war zones, or who have fled the Holocaust or whatever. What we want to say is that everyone has that right — it’s not just those who we see as successful. It may be people with, for instance, disabilities; it may be people who are, for instance, bringing small children who have special needs.
We don’t want to just profile those who actually managed, despite terrible challenges and significant odds, to make a success of their lives and indeed be examples and templates to us. But we actually want to make sure that everyone is entitled to a humane approach.
LP: Wilson Security, which incidentally also provides security services for the University, recently announced they were not intending to seek to renew their contract for the Nauru and Manus Island detention centers. What role do you think corporations might play in stopping human rights abuses like this?
SD: I think it’s essential that public pressure needs to be placed upon organisations so that they don’t profit from human rights abuses. Organisations such as Get Up! and No Business In Abuse certainly drew a lot of attention to this, and they’ve asked organisations such as universities to sign on to a pledge whereby universities won’t do business with companies that are profiting from human rights abuses. And that’s certainly something that universities should take seriously. I think they do have an ethical obligation not to engage companies that perpetrate or profit from human rights abuses, and as a university community made up of academics, professionals and students I think we need to hold the university to that ethical responsibility.
PM: And we would be very keen on other companies and businesses also reviewing their relationships with any organisation which is involved in human rights abuses, particularly in relation to detention.
SD: Even though Wilson has now said they won’t renew their contract, we still need to note that that will only stop towards the end of next year, so that’s still a long time that the University will maintain a relationship with a company that’s profiting from human rights abuses. I think that needs to be scrutinised and put under pressure.
LP: Most of the people I come into contact with seem to clearly think that off-shore processing’s not okay and there needs to be a more humane response to refugees, and you guys have put out policy options that the government can undertake, showing that it’s possible. What do you think’s stopping it happening?
SD: That’s a big question. Over the last 25 years, since Labor’s introduction of mandatory detention, the Australian government has increasingly been moving towards a deterrence framework. Maybe there’s an element of acceptance of that within the general population, but there’s also an opportunity for leadership to change the narrative, because there was also amazing acceptance, say, in the 70’s and 80’s of Indochinese refugees being brought to Australian under large-scale resettlement schemes, just as there was acceptance of post-War migration in the 40’s and 50’s. People are open to more humane approaches, and indeed are increasingly calling for that. It’s been a failure of government.
PM: And this is talking about both governments. We’re not looking at one particular government — successive governments over the last 25 years have taken restrictive, exclusionist policies towards asylum seekers and refugees. There is a certain amount of consensus amongst some of the political leaders. We are aware that within each of the major political parties — and we’re aware of this even from the media — there are those who dissent, those who dissent quite strongly and want to have a change in policy. It isn’t as if it’s a totally united front from the two political parties.
The challenge is to illustrate to the political parties that you can actually win an election without being cruel. That’s been one of the challenges for us as academics and others, that we may be writing articles, we may have very good publications in the area (and I’m speaking about the group more broadly here) but they’re not necessarily being read by the politicians, or the politicians may not be willing to read reports. We need to educate the politicians more, and to keep putting the message across to them, that a change of narrative means less cruelty and a more humane approach.
LP: Why, specifically, this issue rather than any of the other issues facing humanity?
PM: I think it’s one of the greatest challenges of humanity at the moment. It is legally incomprehensible, what is happening in Australia. It is politically incomprehensible from a perspective of a humane society. A lot of people feel very passionately committed to having a humane society here in Australia, and to have a genuinely international humanitarian perspective.
This is about being a human being, and respecting a human being, and recognising rights.
You can read the open letter 2016 on the Academics for Refugees website.