Being 'un-Australian'
Saturday, September 9, 2017
Justinian in Humanity Headlines, Refugees

Refugee Advice and Casework Service ... Setbacks, survival, evolution ... Legal work for refugees in a shifting policy environment ... Handling Peter Dutton's deadline ... Senior RACS lawyer Alison Ryan talks to Subeta Vimalarajah 

Alison Ryan: the law, the arguments

IN a modest building on a corner block down from the Sydney Children's Hospital in Randwick is the headquarters of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service. 

In the last few years alone the service has provided advice to 5,800 people seeking asylum. We caught up with Alison Ryan, one of its senior lawyers, to find out more about RACS.

As a human rights and refugee lawyer Alison's work has taken her to East Timor, Cambodia, Greece, Jerusalem and Sri Lanka. Bookending these adventures is RACS, her first job as a freshly admitted ANU law graduate in 2000, and the place to which she returned in 2015.   

The RACS Alison first joined was very different from the one today. In 2000, she was one of four solicitors, and new clients' names were handwritten and recorded in a modest green notebook, now safely kept in RACS' archives.

Alison fondly remembers those early days. 

"It was an awesome, awesome place to work ... Everyone was quite young and worked way too much, but there was a great vibe in the office every night as everyone was working away. I really loved it."

Despite differences in the scale and size of the centre, the clients - people seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Iraq - and the work remain similar. 

"You have clients that are very vulnerable, but who have very good cases. They're fantastic cases to research - the law, the arguments." 

Alison estimates that in 2000, 80-90 percent of her cases were successful. Today the success rate is not as high.  

"A lot of people have left their countries a long time ago, and there have now been intervening events. But I still think it will be high. I hope it will be around 70-80 per cent per cent."

RACS and equivalent centres in Australia are still assisting those who arrived by boat between August 13, 2012 and December 31, 2013. During this period, overwhelmed by the number of people arrivals, the minister for immigration placed a bar on these asylum seekers lodging applications for protection visas.

The bar only began to be lifted in 2015, leaving many in a state of limbo as to their visa status. 

The government's rationale for this policy was that the country had been overwhelmed by people seeking asylum, something Alison finds unpersuasive. 

"Certainly when I consider my work overseas, and going to Greece last year and seeing numbers there, there is no basis. When you look at other countries - at Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey - there are millions of people being hosted. It seems very difficult for Australia to say that we are being overwhelmed." 

Overseas, Alison has been on the front line of human rights and refugee work. She worked in Jerusalem in the three years before she returned to Australia. 

"The Palestine context was really hard ... that highly politicised legal environment is constantly changing. Demolitions happen, evictions happen regularly to your clients. You are on 24-hour watch. You need to be alive to issues quickly and with that it's hard to release from the pressure. Here, you can go home."

Alison returned to Australia in 2015 and after a short break became a volunteer at RACS. Two years later she is part of the backbone of the service. 

On March 31, 2014, the minister for immigration, at the time Scott Morrison, announced that asylum seekers arriving by boat would no longer be given government funded legal assistance, with the exception of a very limited scheme for people deemed vulnerable by the department. 

For RACS, this translated to an 85 percent cut in funding.

To continue to provide clients with some legal assistance would cost, conservatively, about a million dollars a year. To make matters more difficult, the old Sydney Law School building on Phillip Street, where RACS had been given free accommodation, was being sold for development into apartments.

"You would expect that with a cut in staff and operations that it would scale down. I think the amazing thing, and this is before my time, that RACS did was expand operations despite that funding cut."

With a new rent-free building provided by UNSW, RACS re-focused its strategy to become a vocal advocacy body for people seeking asylum, effectively self-sustained by its own fundraising and corporate partnerships.

"Now we are a lot more outspoken, and you can see that with that outspokenness comes a base of people who are willing to lend assistance.

That changed in the time that I was gone. Back in the day RACS wasn't so outspoken, I think partially because we were really small, and because we had a lot of government funding for our work.

Coming back to RACS in 2015, the scale had completely changed. Now it would have about 25 lawyers, including a lawyer permanently based in Melbourne - that does include a number of seconded lawyers [from commercial law firms] - and I think there'd be over a 100 lawyers doing work on a pro bono basis and then hundreds of volunteers.

Back when RACS started we had some support, little bits of support. I remember that in 2000 we started developing a relationship with Gilbert + Tobin. Now, we had a meeting yesterday, and there would have been ten big firms around the table, all of which contribute significantly to RACS." 

Apart from Gilbert + Tobin, the other corporate firms engaged with RACS's refugee work include Allens, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons, Henry Davis York and Norton Rose Fulbright. 

Lawyers from Allens, Mallesons and Norton Rose do six month secondments at the service. 

Alison's team at RACS still relies on the unpredictable lifeline of fundraising to respond to government policy changes that regularly up-end the centre's operations.

Just this year, the government decided to impose final deadlines on lodging protection visa applications. In the aftermath of that announcement, a successful fundraising push to hire more lawyers allowed RACS to hold 1,900 appointments for clients between May and July this year. 

The October 1 deadline applies to those who arrived by boat between August 13, 2012 and December 31, 2013, who who did not have the opportunity to seek legal assistance for their protection visas until after 2015. 

The current chapter of RACS' work is coming to an end. With all applications due in three weeks time the service is starting to shift its focus to clients' interviews with the department, submissions to the Immigration Assessment Authority, which reviews adverse decisions made by the department, and judicial review for applicants refused by the IAA. 

This work remains unfunded by the government. 

For a case that is rejected a number of times, Alison estimates that only a third of the work is done at the point of lodging the application. 

RACS' focus for the next 18 months will be to provide assistance to applicants who are refused, depending on the merits of their case.

"The aim is to provide it to 600-700 clients."

RACS has already begun to provide assistance to those whose applications have been refused. With the help of pro bono barristers, over the last 12 months hundreds of clients have been given free legal opinions on the likelihood of their success in court. 

In 30 cases prospects of success were found, and in two cases, appeals to the Federal Court have been successful. 

Alison remains in equal parts jaded and optimistic. When asked about the government's persistent attacks on people seeking asylum she has "stopped being shocked", but when asked about the future of RACS she remains "really excited". 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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