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Speaking on Freedom

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As part of the 2016 refugee week, The Asylum Seekers Centre and the City of Sydney conducted an evening event featuring a number of speakers including Dr. Peter Young, lawyer Deng Thiak Adut, CEO  of the Asylum Seekers Centre, Frances Rush, Sarah Coleman from St Vincent’s Private Hospital and the former government secretary John Menadue AO.

The “Speaking for Freedom”  event was hosted by ABC journalist Julia Baird.  The following is a quick summary of points raised by the speakers on the night:

20160622_182720Julia Baird spoke about the media’s experience of refugees and asylum seekers, noting that the media tend to focus on  perils, plight, polling, policies, intransigence, frustration while underreporting the triumphs and daily work.

Frances Rush, CEO of the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC), gave details on Sydney’s refugee and asylum seeker situation. Highlighting there are about 11,000 refugees and asylum seekers in NSW with the Centre servicing over 1,600 people in Sydney alone.  Last year the Centre found jobs for over 172 people; so far this year, they’ve already placed more than 200 people into employment.

Sarah Coleman, workforce manager at St Vincent’s Private Hospital said the people she has employed have represented over 65 nationalities; they brought a diverse range of experiences from their own countries, they were eager to work, flexible with their hours, ready to start immediately and received on-going support from the ASC.   She notes that new employees always bring new viewpoints, innovation, new questions and new ideas. Refugees and asylum seekers are no different.

Dr. Peter Young was responsible for the mental health of people in Australia’s onshore and offshore detention centres from 2011 to 2013.  Dr. Young, noted that there is a fundamental conflict of interest for healthcare professionals working in the detention system between professional and ethical obligations, especially on the front-line.

John Menadue AO sat in conversation with Steven Glass from the Asylum Seekers Centre. They spoke about his time as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (1980 – 1983). Malcolm Fraser lured Mr. Menadue back to Australia after a successful stint as the ambassador to Japan by promising Mr. Menadue he could “come back and bury the White Australia Policy”. During Mr. Fraser’s prime ministership, Australia welcomed more than 70,000 refugees under an Indochina refugee crisis relief program – eventually 250,000, with future family reunions. Australia became the better for it.

The final speaker of the night was the charismatic Deng Thiak Adut, who gave this year’s Australia Day Address. Between practicing law, liaising with the Sudanese communities for Blacktown and Parramatta courts, and spending hours each week mentoring, Mr. Adut wondered why he had been asked to speak: because of his work, or because he was still a refugee?

The speakers for “Speaking of Freedom” were a testament to the contribution refugees and asylum seekers can and do make to our communities, if they are given the respect and dignity needed to restore their sense of humanity.

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