Lisa Petheram. Listening to young people’s voices on Refugee and Asylum Seeker Policy

Aug 6, 2014

They are playing with our lives…every year I get older
…I want to start a family but I can’t

What are young people in Australia thinking about refugee and asylum seeker policy?
Two youth roundtables recently held by Australia21 have given some insight into the ways that young Australians think about these issues, and their visions for the future. The youth roundtables were held as part of a broader project Australia21 has been undertaking in collaboration with other groups – Asylum Seeker Policy: A fair, just and effective approach. As part of this project, a collection of short essays and a discussion paper on the options have been compiled. Also, on the 11th of July, Australia21 co-hosted an expert roundtable on this topic at Parliament House, with the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Law (UNSW) and the Centre for Policy Development.

The first youth roundtable was held in Canberra with support from the Crawford School at ANU, with 38 young people aged 18-30 from the public. The second youth roundtable was held with Settlement Services International (SSI) in Sydney with 35 young people of the same age group, specifically of refugee and asylum seeker background. In both workshops a rich picture diagramming approach was used—to understand participants preferred futures around refugee and asylum seeker policy. Discussions from both roundtables were remarkably wide- ranging and insightful and had much overlap in content and opinion, despite participants being from very different experiential and cultural backgrounds. Conversations reflected a strong desire for change in policy and practice in Australia, and a sense of disillusionment and disappointment about public perceptions and treatment of refugee and asylum seekers.

At the Sydney roundtable, the overarching message was that the refugee journey is long and difficult. “I thought when I got to Australia the hard part was over, but now I have to start again from nothing. It is hard in a different way. I can’t seem to get a start anywhere and it is hard to have hope until I can.” After arriving in the settlement country most people need a range of personally targeted supports to settle successfully, particularly in communities where refugee status carries stigma. Some of the current policy settings seem designed to frustrate that journey rather than support it, and to waste human potential. People appeared to be resilient and energetic but sorely tried.

Participants commonly expressed strong frustration at the inhumane ways refugee and asylum seekers are treated through restrictive policies, as well as the way they are often stigmatized in the media and by the general public. “We are not animals, we are human”. There was a strong yearning to be treated and to live like others. It was suggested there needs to be strong, empathetic leadership and programs to address stigma and encourage community engagement. “I want to live in an Australia where the Prime Minister has been a detainee and knows what it’s like”. Another participant used a picture of birds being fed, to communicate her hope that if Tony Abbott fed the birds he may develop empathy. One said he would say to the Government “Please make decisions like you are deciding about someone from your own family

There was much disappointment about new policies that create more uncertainty and fear.  Many were frustrated by being unable to plan or make any goals and being in “limbo land”, especially around study, work and family. “I don’t have anything good to tell myself in in the mirror in the morning. I want to build my life in Australia, but I can’t…How can I ever ask anyone for their daughter’s hand in marriage?”. In particular the inability to work while being processed is excruciating for many of the participants. They talked of having much passion, experience and qualifications and wanting to contribute in Australia by working, but losing resilience and hope. There was also frustration by those that were allowed to work, where time and energy put into gaining qualifications and experience were not recognized “I want to share my skills with Australia

At the Canberra roundtable sadness and anger was expressed about the treatment of refugee and asylum seekers. There was much concern particularly around mental health of people in detention and in communities. It was emphasised that policy makers and public should be strongly encouraged to reframe their current ways of thinking about refugee and asylum seekers, and be more open, sincere and unprejudiced in their discourse on the topic. Calls were also made for ‘grown up’ and progressive leadership, and for Australia as a nation to be more cognizant of equality under the law, and our moral and international obligations.

It was argued that refugee and asylum seekers are often dehumanised in these debates; they are generally not seen by the general public and policy makers as ‘real people’, but as statistics, or criminals who should be behind bars. It was suggested that greater attention needs to be placed on more appropriate and creative solutions to domestic processing, especially in terms of the location and speed of processing. In an ideal future, Christmas Island and Nauru would be closed, and the money saved could be directed towards supporting communities to be involved in the processing and resettlement of refugee and asylum seekers. There were also strong calls for policy modification to ensure that people can have opportunities to contribute more fully to society (e.g. allowing people working rights while being processed).

Young people have been engaged by Australia21 as part of this project as it is believed they can offer fresh thinking and innovative solutions that are valuable contributions to the policy making process. The outcome from the youth roundtables was reported on at the expert roundtable by a youth representative and will also be incorporated into a full report that will be released later in 2014.

For more information about Australia21’s project on refugee and asylum seekers and youth engagement, please see

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