CAPSA’s National Week of Prayer and Action 2023 – Taking Advocacy and Action

By Dr. Rebecca Field

I don’t feel like I’m an advocate. In fact, I’m more often called an academic than an advocate. It’s a role often seen as elitist and detached, far removed from the frontline of action. I confess that I’ve sometimes succumbed to this perception myself.

As I look out at the world, I see these incredible, tireless advocates who are out there every day, changing lives, marching on the streets, standing in courtrooms, shoulder to shoulder with people seeking asylum. And what about me? Well, I’m usually just sitting here, spending time with my computer.

But more than an academic, I’m a follower of Jesus. My faith motivates me to pursue social justice and advocate for the marginalized. Jesus, himself a refugee as a baby, exemplified compassion and championed the cause of the “least of these.”

So, how do I advocate as an academic? This year I wrapped up a seven-year exploration into how policy influences social work practices with people seeking asylum in both Australia and Germany. This endeavour was not intended to be an academic exercise; it was my way of being part of the solution.

My journey started off as a graduate social worker providing case management to people in the Perth community. Naively, I never considered citizenship a crucial factor in my work until a young person who had arrived by boat to seek asylum in Australia was allocated to my caseload. Suddenly, my practice became restricted. It was as if every door was closed to us. My practice options were limited because of policies affecting people on his specific visa. I remember feeling powerless and frustrated. I could not do my job effectively and provide sufficient support to this young person under these policies.

My response to this was to start studying human rights. I wanted to understand the system, to unravel its complexities. When I began to grasp the extent to which Australia was blatantly violating international law in its treatment of people seeking asylum, I sat down with Associate Professor Caroline Fleay of the Curtin University Centre for Human Rights and said, “I just want to do something that helps.”

At the same time Germany entered the global spotlight. In response to the ‘European Refugee Crisis’ in 2015, Germany adopted a ‘Welcome Politics’ (‘Willkommenspolitik’). Germany permitted almost one million people seeking asylum to enter between 2015 and 2016. Chancellor Merkel famously declared “Wir schaffen das” (“We will manage”). Internationally, this was lauded as generous, compassionate, and welcoming, a stark contrast with my experiences in Australia. It seemed clear that the country in which people were seeking safety determined what kind of supports, opportunities, and quality of life they would have as federal policies enabled or constrained reception experiences.

My research sought to delve into this differential treatment in more depth, so I conducted interviews with over fifty people in Bavaria and Western Australia, a combination of people seeking asylum and people providing social work services to them. Some of these individuals were connected to faith organizations like Caritas, Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany, and Riverview Church in Perth. These conversations provided invaluable insights into the lives and challenges faced by those seeking asylum and those providing services to them. It revealed the depths of discrimination people seeking asylum are experiencing on a daily basis. Yes, it was far worse in Australia than Germany. This seemed to be a result of our unique historical and cultural context. Germans are living in a country from which many were forced to flee. Someone I interviewed said that it was important to welcome people seeking asylum because we might one day need to seek safety elsewhere. Another German social worker was disgusted by the fenced reception centres that people seeking asylum were being housed in while they were being processed, comparing them to concentration camps. I have never heard Australians discuss our government policies and practices towards people seeking asylum in a similar way.

The theme of this year’s National Week of Prayer and Action, ‘freedom to live for refugees and people seeking asylum,’ strikes a chord with me. It signifies the very essence of human rights – the right to live without fear, without prejudice, and without unjust restrictions. It’s about people having equal opportunities and freedoms even when they are compelled to leave their country of origin. However, as my study found, numerous barriers stand in their way, from oppressive immigration policies to societal biases and systemic inequalities. My research findings played a small part in illuminating this issue through representing the stories of people seeking asylum and social practitioners.

The interviews also captured some of the remarkable everyday practices of social workers on both sides of the globe. Most significantly, I found that in both contexts, social workers responded to restrictions on their practice by focusing on the relationships they were establishing with people seeking asylum. When practitioners had little control over the policies, they focused on what they had in their control: how they made people feel. In both Australia and Germany, social workers were creating spaces in their interactions with people seeking asylum that were a refuge from rhetoric: a cooking group, a women’s group, a drop-in centre for youth, or even just in their one-on-one conversations. In these spaces, individuals had an opportunity to be seen for who they truly are. They weren’t just “asylum seekers” or “boat people”; they are a singer, a great cook, or an awesome table tennis player. These counterspaces, whether big or small, offered a sense of belonging, dignity, and respect to a group of people experiencing discrimination and deterrence.

Building meaningful connections can make a world of difference for individuals seeking asylum. This is something we can all do. In your everyday life, you can make an impact by treating everyone, especially those seeking safety on our shores, with respect and dignity, being a part of opportunities for people seeking asylum to share their stories and talents. Join a community lunch, volunteer at your local “asylum seeker” hub or resource centre. If there isn’t one, start one! In a context like Australia, where people seeking asylum are often wrongly viewed as deviant “illegals,” creating a space in which they can exercise their agency and experience dignity is an act of resistance.

I remember meeting with interviewees and feeling almost apologetic – I was so grateful that they would share their story with me, but I knew it was very unlikely that this project would do anything to improve their personal position, whether it be supporting them to have permanent visas or getting their program better funding. To me, that was the downside of advocacy through research – it takes a long time for research to be out there in the world. It takes a long time until there are enough researchers saying the same thing and then even longer for people with influence to listen to it and do something about it.

My small contribution to the knowledge base did not feel like enough.

However, in my experience, the interview process itself had value. I used my social work skills in that space. I connected with people. I listened intently. I allowed them to share their experiences without judgment. In that space, I treated them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

I may never feel like I’m doing enough, but I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do this. I will never forget the people I met in Germany, the people I shared a meal with, learned German with, and laughed with.

My advice to those seeking to take action is to utilise your unique skills and resources in your advocacy. Do what only you can do; don’t try to be like someone else. And do not discount the contribution you make, no matter how big or small it may be. I’ve come to realise that research is my form of advocacy. Stemming from my faith, it encompasses my desire to study society in-depth, my social work knowledge and skills.

Research is a powerful tool – one of many – for advocating change. It is listening to stories, making meaning, and contributing new knowledge that pushes for change. It is striving for a world where every person, regardless of their immigration status or where they were born, can live in freedom and dignity. So, I’ll keep hanging out with my computer, grateful to God for this opportunity.

Dr. Rebecca Soraya Field is a lecturer at Curtin University’s School of Allied Health. She specialises in teaching sociology, social theory and community development to aspiring social workers. Rebecca has completed a Doctor of Philosophy at Curtin University, on ‘social work responses to differential inclusion: a comparison of how policy influences practice with people seeking asylum in Germany and Australia’. Beyond the classroom, Rebecca’s research focuses on critical social policy analysis and the experiences of migrants.