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Strengthening the role of refugee communities in policy development

It’s time for advocates to stop hogging the microphone

Paul Power, CEO of Refugee Council of Australia, and Om Dhungel, Working Group Member of the NSW Refugee Communities Advocacy Network, 2nd Advancing Community Cohesion Conference at the University of Western Sydney, 21 November 2017.

One critique of the refugee policy debate in Australia is that it is too heavily dominated by Australian- born white guys in suits. As an Australian-born white guy who is often seen in a suit, I recognise that this critique is valid and that the organisation of which I am CEO, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), has a responsibility to change this situation.

I am not suggesting that Australian-born people have no role in refugee policy reform. Much-needed reform cannot occur without strong political pressure from citizens with the power to vote. However, I have lost count of the number of meetings about refugee issues I have participated in without anyone present who has personal experience of forced displacement. In a country with more than 500,000 living Australians who have been refugees at some stage in their lives, that is not acceptable.

I have observed that, when people who have been refugees are present in meetings with government or United Nations officials, the discussion is different. It is more respectful, there is a greater focus on the human impacts of policies and bureaucratic obfuscation is a little harder to pull off when it can be challenged by personal and community experience.

Unfortunately, Australia is far from alone in creating too few opportunities for people who have been refugees to get involved in policy discussions. It’s a global problem, which leads all too easily to refugees being seen as passive recipients of others’ charity rather than people whose have skills, capacity and a strong motivation to be agents of change, if given half an opportunity.

Creating opportunities for refugee leaders

Over the past decade, we at RCOA have been working hard to create worthwhile opportunities for people who have been refugees to play a strong role in national and international advocacy and public discussion of refugee issues.

Since 2007, we have been working with other Australian NGOs to support refugee community representatives from Australia to attend UNHCR’s global NGO Consultations. In 11 years, 31 refugee delegates from Australia have participated in these consultations and meetings with senior UN officials and embassy representatives in Geneva, raising concerns about refugee protection in various parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

When RCOA co-chaired the global resettlement dialogue with Australia’s Department of Immigration in 2012, we were successful in getting up to five places set aside at each year’s Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement for refugee representatives from different countries, bringing the perspective of resettled refugees into the peak annual meeting between UNHCR and governments and NGOs of resettlement states.

Over the past seven years, we have nominated former refugees as Ambassadors for Refugee Week, Australia’s annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to national life, giving them a public platform to talk about their life experiences and their policy ideas.

In 2014, we launched a program to get refugee speakers into schools in Sydney and Melbourne, insisting that the speakers be paid in recognition of the unique and valuable insights they have to share. We have worked with organisations in Shepparton, Wollongong and Cairns to support the development of similar local programs in those cities.

Internally, we have reassessed how we value personal knowledge of the refugee experience, refugee community connections and language skills in our merits-based recruitment for board and staff positions. As a result, the number of people on our board who have lived refugee experience has increased to six and, of the six most recent staff appointments, four have been former refugees.

As opportunities arise, we take opportunities to put media organisations in touch with people who can speak from a refugee community perspective on relevant issues and work with refugee community representatives on Parliamentary advocacy and different forms of public campaigning.

We have brought representatives from different refugee communities together to discuss options for joint advocacy on issues of common concern, leading to the formation in 2016 of Refugee Communities Advocacy Networks in NSW and Victoria. We are working on similar plans with community representatives in Queensland and South Australia.

For some years, we have been trying to convince the Department of Immigration that refugee-led networks should be included in its half-yearly formal dialogue with national NGO networks. On 16 November, Tenneh Kpaka of the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) and Parsu Sharma-Luital of the Victorian Refugee Communities Advocacy Network participated in the dialogue for the first time, after the Department agreed to our request.

Following up a successful meeting we co-hosted in Geneva in June on refugee self-representation, we are now working with ANCORW and the Europe-based Network of Refugee Voices on plans for the first meeting of an international network of refugee-led organisations in Geneva in June 2018. Our hope is that this network may help to change how UNHCR engages refugee-led networks in its planning, as it works with UN member states and others on finalising the new Global Compact on Refugees.

Key messages to NGOs

Our learning at RCOA has been step by step, knowing that there is always room for improvement. We have five key messages we want to share with NGOs which work with refugees, acknowledging that these messages apply to our organisation as much as any:

  • The 500,000 or more living Australians of refugee background can no longer be excluded from the refugee policy debate. While the majority of them are getting on with their lives and probably don’t want to be drawn into policy discussions, there are many thousands who are concerned about how Australia responds to refugees and want the opportunity to contribute their ideas.
  • Advocacy which includes refugee representatives is smarter, more engaging, more credible and more effective. Well-planned advocacy backed up by personal experience is harder to dismiss or ignore.
  • NGOs and campaigners cannot assume that their priorities are the same as those of refugee communities. Constant consultation is very important but sharing public platforms is essential.
  • All too often, a discussion about the inclusion of refugees in advocacy moves quickly to talk of capacity building and training programs. Good training is important but most of us learned nearly all that we know about advocacy through experience, not in a classroom. Don’t get side-tracked by a potentially patronising discussion about capacity building but instead focus on real opportunities for advocacy and leadership.
  • While Australian-born advocates like me have a useful contribution to make in the development of refugee policy, we shouldn’t make the mistake of over-estimating our own importance.

The days of hogging the microphone are over.

A ‘strengths-based’ approach to refugee settlement

Om Dhungel, Working Group Member, Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN)

As a former refugee, it is a privilege for me to stand here today to introduce the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network or RCAN in short and share my experience as a practitioner of ‘Strengths-Based Approach’ to Refugee Settlement and Community Development. I will briefly touch on the global scenario and the current resettlement approach and share key learnings from an international study as part of my Westpac Social Change Fellowship which highlights and need to redefine refugees by their strengths and assets and the role of people with lived refugee experience in strengthening the role of refugee communities in policy development.

What is RCAN?

Those of us who had the opportunity to be resettled in countries such as Australia are the lucky ones. With it we have a huge responsibility. Recognising this, people from refugee background with support from the Refugee Council of Australia and STARTTS have come together to form the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN), which has been initiated on a foundation of strength.

With the inaugural conference held on 21 May 2016, RCAN was officially launched on 21 February 2017 at the Refugee Alternatives Conference held at the University of NSW.

It is a network led by and representing people from refugee and asylum seeker background. The network provides a platform where the refugee communities come together and build an enduring relationship with each other as new Australians. It is also a platform for learning, capacity building and knowledge sharing.

RCAN operates on the principles of inclusiveness; engaging the grass-root; accountability; empowering communities and individuals; leadership and collaboration with the sector and beyond.

RCAN in its short period of existence has already made significant contribution to refugee policy debate and as well as more broadly how we approach refugee settlement. For instance the network has made submission to a number of parliamentary inquiries and was also represented at the recent Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP)-NGO dialogue.

Global refugee scenario

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 to help about a million people displaced after World War II. It started with a budget of around three hundred thousand US dollars and was given three years to complete its work and then disband. Now, sixty six years later, there are close to sixty six million people forcibly displaced from their homes and over twenty two million refugees under the mandate of UNHCR. Its budget is getting closer to eight billion US dollars. While we pride in economic growth, this reflects a growth in atrocities and human sufferings. This is clearly not acceptable and needs an alternative approach.

Key players and potential solutions

Key players dealing with global refugee issue include the origin countries, hosting countries and the resettlement countries in addition to the UNHCR.

Countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Bhutan figure among the highest per capita refugee generators in the world while we are truly indebted to top hosting countries which include Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan. With regards to resettlement, working closely with UNHCR, the United States, Canada and Australia have always figured among the top.

The world has changed significantly since UNHCR was first established. We have seen the emergence of newly industrialised nations and economic powerhouses including oil-rich nations but haven’t seen their corresponding level of involvement in sharing refugee protection responsibilities. So how do we involve such nations more actively?

In terms of finding solutions, do we need a more proactive response, including helping address the root cause and stop the displacement in the first place?

Key learnings from an international study as part of Westpac Social Change Fellow

As a 2016 Westpac Social Change Fellow, I had the opportunity to visit and study refugee settlement in a number of countries including Canada, USA, Norway and New Zealand. I initially set out to find best practice in refugee settlement, however, I found that it was about ‘valuing the local’ and finding solutions by tapping into the strengths and assets locally. Instead, I came back with the following guiding principles:

Redefining refugees by their strengths and assets

Universally, the word ‘refugee’ evokes a level of sympathy. While this helps to draw attention for necessary assistance in the initial survival phase, this often forms a barrier to better understanding the strengths and assets refugees bring to the settlement countries as well as their socio-economic and other contribution after they settle. Defining refugees by their strengths and assets would be future-oriented and inspiring while defining by their struggle is dwelling on the past and disempowering.

Strength-based, holistic approach to refugee settlement

Currently, it is predominantly a need-based approach where we identify the needs and try to meet the needs. As needs keep growing, this is clearly not sustainable. Often, it also has the unintended consequences of creating dependency.

In addition to resilience and perseverance, refugees bring with them a wide range of skills and strengths which should be utilised and form the basis of the settlement approach.

Utilisation of lived refugee experience

The lived refugee experience is clearly underutilised at present and this is one of the missing pieces in the refugee debate more broadly. By defining refugees through their strengths, people who have gone through the experience have the capacity to provide input to refugee policy development, research and service delivery.

Working collaboratively and driving community engagement

Local service providers could enhance the outcomes and successes of programs as well as strengthen their role by working more collaboratively with key stakeholders including the new arrivals and their respective community organisations as well as other volunteers.

Working together across sectors and with active involvement of people with lived experience, I believe Australia can lead in moving from a Need-based approach to Strength-based approach to refugee settlement and help drive a paradigm shift in changing the debate on refugees from Sharing the burden to Sharing the opportunity.

About Om Dhungel, FAICD, MBA, B.Sc. Engg.

Om Dhungel is a consultant and a practitioner of Strength-Based Approach to refugee settlement and community development. He also operates as a Strategic Connector focussed on cross sectoral collaboration. Formerly a refugee from Bhutan, Om is a Working Group Member of the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN) NSW and a senior Advisor of the Association of Bhutanese in Australia (ABA) Sydney. A Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), he is currently a Director on the Board of Asylum Seeker Centre and has served as a Director on a number of Boards including Settlement Services International (SSI), SydWest Multicultural Services and MTC Australia.

Read more about Om here.

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