The University of New South Wales hosted the inaugural Refugee Alternatives Conference on 22 – 23 February 2017. The Refugee Council of NSW presented this 2-day event that focussed on improving policy, practice and support for refugees and asylum seeker issues.

Attended by over 800 people from all points of Australia, the event featured a variety of expert speakers covering topics such as advocacy, resilience, unity, protection, displacement and general wellbeing.

Professor Yiombi Thona, Chair of Asia Pacific Refugees Rights Network.

Following the Welcome to Country and Opening Session, Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, officially opened the proceedings. “Today is very special as we welcome so many people to this event who are involved in the ongoing challenge to help refugees and asylum seekers wanting to make Australia home” he said. “The task has been a difficult one but I believe we are moving forward and making progress.”

Paul then introduced the Keynote Speakers, Jennifer Hyndman, Director of Refugee Studies in York; Thomas Albrecht, Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canberra; and Professor Yiombi Thona, Chair of Asia Pacific Refugees Rights Network  –  Professor Thona’s background was most interesting: Coming from the Congo in Africa, he became a refugee in South Korea where he now resides.

Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

He related many amusing anecdotes of his time becoming established in his new home.

The days proceedings consisted of a number of presentations held separately in various lecture rooms  –  this made it difficult to choose with so many interesting topics. The writer chose ‘Asylum Seekers in the Community’ which included Tanya Jackson-Vaughan of RACS. Tanya explained the current financial difficulties in keeping this important service available to refugees seeking legal advice.

The afternoon session had Keynote Speaker Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, opening the proceedings. Covering such topics as to where human rights were and where it should be going, she focussed on the implementation of Australian law of the human rights treaties of which Australia is a party, to working with nations in the Asia Pacific region on practical approaches to human rights.

With a strong legal background and having been the author of many pertinent books and papers, Professor Triggs set the tone for an intriguing afternoon.

Another of the keynote speakers was Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis. Having refused a decree by Saddam Hussein to amputate the ears of Iraqi evaders, Professor Al Muderis wound up on a rickety boat to Australia. He is now a pioneering surgeon giving amputees the ability to walk. He is also an Ambassador for the Australian Red Cross, a humanitarian volunteer and a human rights activist.

Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia.

In his delivery, Munjed said: “Every single day Australian communities benefit from contributions by new refugees to find more humane solutions to issues facing refugees and asylum seekers through every aspect of their lives.”

The rest of the afternoon and following morning again consisted of a variety of choices from which to attend. The segment I attended was entitled ‘Wellbeing, Mental Health and Resilience’ and featured two members of the STARTTS organisation, viz Jasmina Bajraktarevic (Moderator) and Mohamed Dukuly.

It was with great pleasure that I was reacquainted with Mohamed, as it was he who conducted the STARTS course I completed a couple of years ago on Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma.

The final session of day-two drew me to the subject of ‘Achieving Unity in Diversity’. Once again there were excellent speakers moderated by Tim O’Connor of the Refugee Council of NSW. It was at that session that I was reminded of some interesting statistics:

  • 25% of the population already seek positive change to policy.
  • 50% of the population are persuadable and should be encouraged to change.
  • The last 25% will not budge. They are stuck in their negative approach

I was also taught a useful and pertinent idiom: It is not asylum seekers who seek asylum, it is people who seek asylum.

The day closed with huge applause for all speakers and organisers of the event.

We were all reminded of the upcoming Palm Sunday Rallies (9 April) in all capital cities where our presence will make a difference.

Click here for more details on the Music for Refugees Facebook page.