22 November, 2016. Tim O’Connor for the Refugee Council of Australia

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners and their elders past and present of the land on which we stand.

State Member for Canterbury Sophie Cotsis, Jacqui Thorburn from the office of the NSW Member for Strathfield Jodi McKay; Allianz Australia; multicultural community leaders; representatives from the Department of Social Services and from Family and Community Services.

Importantly, I’d also like to welcome the people here of refugee background- who of course are the real reason we are here today.

The Refugee Council is the peak body for over 180 organisations who work with and for refugees and people seeking asylum.

It’s always a difficult time to be a refugee of course – but now the difficulties have most certainly compounded.

2016 marks 65 years since the refugee convention was drafted – it was a landmark document that outlined the commitments of signatory states to respect and importantly, for those states to protect those who were enduring persecution. Of course this document was drafted following the great shock and shame of the holocaust – and when more than 50 million people in Europe alone were displaced.

In the 65th anniversary of the Refugee Convention we also have the dubious synchronicity of facing the global challenge of 65 million people being displaced – one in every 113 people on the planet is now displaced from their home.

Of these 65 million people, more than 1 in 3 or a total of 24 million people, are today recognised as refugees. 24 million people – almost the population of Australia – recognised as needing special protection due to conflict and/or persecution.

And how many of these 24 million people received permanent protection last year – just 107,000, less than half of one percent. If there was a queue, which having worked in many refugee camps and with refugee communities across the globe for the past 15 years – I can tell you unequivocally, there clearly is no queue. But if there was a mythical queue, at those rates people would be waiting for 200 years to be resettled.

So to be resettled as a refugee, you need enormous luck to be picked from amongst this group.

If you arrive in Australia as a refugee, you will receive the best settlement services of anywhere in the world – I congratulate SSI on their wonderful achievements in successfully resettling so many people into Sydney and NSW. Giving people the opportunity to rebuild their lives is an enormous privilege and also an enormous responsibility.

Many of you of course will have heard, and perhaps like me, been deeply shocked by the Immigration Minister’s comments on Friday and again in Parliament yesterday, criticizing the Fraser Government for what the media has since termed ‘undesirables’.

Putting aside the fact the Minister is referring to the grandchildren of refugees and migrants – and surely if there was some evidence provided to illustrate these extraordinary claims – which I should note, there was not, and also perhaps if there was such evidence of the grandchildren of refugees being involved in such alleged issues, it may just suggest some responsibility for these failings may rest with Australia and the Australian Government, having birthed and grown two generations of these families. It is simply extraordinary that such outrageous allegations, made by a Minister who is charged with advocating with and for our refugee communities – at the very least, such comments highlight the extreme politicization of the refugee issue in our country today.

When the Minister made his initial comments I was attending a conference with Mr Ian MacPhee, the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Fraser Government, 1979-82 – he sent me this statement, which will be released to the media later today:

“The attack by Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, on Malcolm Fraser’s refugee policies is outrageous. We have had a succession of inadequate immigration ministers in recent years but Dutton is setting the standards even lower. Yet, Turnbull recently declared him to be “an outstanding immigration minister”. The Liberal Party has long ceased to be liberal. Dutton’s attack on Fraser’s refugee policies grabbed headlines he had hoped for. The SMH headline was “Peter Dutton attacks Malcolm Fraser’s refugee legacy”. The Australian’s was: “Peter Dutton says Malcolm Fraser’s immigration policy to blame for crime gangs.”

These were the headlines that Dutton must have wished for after his interview with the extremist Andrew Bolt on Sky News.

Mr MacPhee continues, “Yet it outraged many community organisations led by former refugees and their children with whom I have remained in contact. Their anger is justified. For Dutton’s words offended them, especially as they attacked Malcolm Fraser for whom they have profound respect and whose policies enabled them to integrate with and expand the understanding of other Australians of the rich, diversified culture that Australia has due to the contribution of migrants and refugees. When Dutton’s remarks were reported I was at a conference on refugee law and policy at the Kaldor Centre at the University of New South Wales. All present were experts on aspects of refugee settlement and were astonished by Dutton’s ignorance. A Parliamentary enquiry has been established to consider resettlement outcomes for migrants to Australia. I hope that some of the experts at the conference will be allowed to participate and defuse ignorant, alarmist voices such as those of Dutton, Bolt and Hanson.

The Fraser Government honoured international law and morality. From the Howard Government onwards these have been increasingly discarded” concludes the statement by Mr Ian Macphee, Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Fraser Government, 1979-82.

Our current Minister of immigration made these statements in the midst of announcement that has been largely overlooked – he was announcing a parliamentary inquiry into “Settlement outcomes and youth gangs” note the linking of youth gangs to settlement outcomes – and settlement outcomes of a group resettled two generations ago. In my view, the link is nefarious and highly inflammatory.

Although shocking- the move is not entirely unexpected.

Over the last 15 years we have seen a particular demonization of people seeking asylum – particularly those who have arrived by boat.

On Friday a young Rohingya man threw an incendiary device into a bank in Springvale. More than 20 people were injured in a tragic incident, that similarly was shocking but also not unexpected.

The thousands of people sent to Manus and Nauru capture the majority of the media attention – the abuse, including physical attacks, sexual abuse, rape, even murder have occurred to the people who came to us seeking safety and protection. Their plight is well known to us, but it remains shocking in its depravity.

The announcement of a plan to send some of these people to the US to be permanently resettled, is welcome, but in a world where less than 1 per cent of the worlds 24 million refugees were resettled last year – it too is extraordinary to think that the US is being asked to resettle people not from Sudan where the millionth person recently fled, nor Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey where the majority of the four million people who have fled that country are now living with limited access to accommodation, food, water, education, health care and work – bu tthe US is being asked to resetle people from one of the world’s richest countries – Australia.

The horrors of Manus and Nauru have diverted the media attention away from the plight of 30,000 people living in our communities without the rights to work, health care, family reunion, living on just 89% of the centrelink benefit. The young man who set himself alight in Springvale on Friday was one of this group – and we are very concerned that like Khodayar Amini who set himself alight , Fazal Cehgani who hanged himself, Mohammed Nazari, Omid Masoumali, Mohammad Hadi – and tragically the list goes on – at least seven people in this cgroup we are aware of have taken their own ives. There must be urgent action to give these people security or we fear, there will be many more such needless deaths.

Last week, we at the refugee council released new research https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/fairgo/ Fair Go for Families which detailed the pain caused by the policy of our Government which denies this group, including many recognised as refugees, from re-uniting with their families.

Imagine the anxiety and suffering one would endure from never being able to kiss your children good night. Not to be able to wake up to the warmth of your partner beside you. To not be able to come to the aid of an ailing mother or father.

This pain is real and it is growing for these 30,000 people.

We have had a strange duality at the foundation of our approach to refugees and asylum seekers in this country in recent years. Refugees, as my colleague Shukufa Tahiri has spoken of – herself a refugee from Afghanistan who followed her father after he arrived on a boat – refugees today are stereotyped as ‘good’, and those who come here seeking asylum, particularly if they arrive by boat are seen as ‘bad’.

Yet in this highly politicised environment, as we have seen with the Minister announcing this new parliamentary inquiry –the very real danger is that instead of our brutal asylum policy starting to line up with our much more humanitarian refugee policy – there is a growing risk that our approach towards refugees and refugee policy may be shifting to line up with our brutal approach to asylum seekers.

Settlement organisations like SSI have a vital role to play here. Similarly all you in this room have to work together to prove the great value that our refugee and humanitarian program has delivered to Australia. It is only by standing and working together that we can do this – and I implore you to join with us and celebrate the great victories of our work and the contribution refugees have made to our country. Now more than ever we need your voices and your actions to stand for what is right and what is just and to prove what it really is to be Australian.

For as Immanuel Kant said in the 17th century:

‘Human beings are never a means to an end. They are an end in themselves’.

We are all human beings – and we need to stand together to prove what it really means to be human – and humanitarian.

Thank you.