People seeking asylum are amongst the most vulnerable within Australia’s legal system. To provide them with a better chance of staying legally in Australia, the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) started its mission in 1987 to provide people seeking asylum with critical free legal advice, assistance, and representation. This year, RACS is celebrating its 35th anniversary and has supported more than 70,000 people seeking asylum and refugees from over 90 different countries and worked with more than 7000 volunteers to date.  

UNSW Law & Justice spoke to Sarah Dale, Centre Director and Principal Solicitor for RACS about how the organisation has grown to become a leader in refugee rights and its priorities for the future.

Tell us how RACS became part of the UNSW family

In 2016, RACS became an official member of the UNSW family, after the university kindly afforded RACS a home at Eurimbla Ave, Randwick. Having since moved to Botany St, RACS has continued to work with many students and university programs in support of its work.

RACS has welcomed more than 140 UNSW students as interns, volunteers, or as Practical Legal Trainees, and remains enormously proud of the continued working relationship with the Kaldor Centre. Such partnership is reflected in the success of the award-winning Temporary podcast series.

Over the last 35 years, what has been one of RACS’ major accomplishments?

For more than 35 years, we've seen multiple governments and policies come and go. We've been here through the many ups and downs of temporary protection, permanent protection, offshore processing being abolished and returning – just to name a few.

Seeing people commence a new life in Australia is certainly a key accomplishment. We've been able to see many people go through the process and commence a new life safely in Australia.

We've spoken out constantly for people seeking asylum and refugees. We've been a part of many different campaigns. And I think one of our biggest accomplishments is that we have remained here to support the voices of those with lived experience and those who were directly impacted.

Can you tell us a bit more about the ‘Action for Afghanistan’ petition?

RACS’ ‘Action for Afghanistan’ petition runs alongside a letter led by the Afghanistan Australian Advocacy Network and calls for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to take urgent steps to support the people of Afghanistan.

Continuing to seek action for Afghanistan is something that RACS cares very deeply about. We have seen a humanitarian crisis unfold in Afghanistan, one like never before. Australia was engaged in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, so we have a very long history with the conflict in Afghanistan, and we've made many promises to the people of Afghanistan.

So, for Australia to walk away now, without continuing to provide significant support to the people we've made promises to, is just unconscionable. The withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan is obviously very loaded. But why we're not seeing any action in terms of what Australia can do now, comes down to a lack of political will.

Australia could easily afford permanent protection to those who are onshore, Australia could easily expedite family reunion for those who have applied to be reunited with their families from Afghanistan.

But the only impediment to this is the government itself. The only reason we are not affording 20,000 additional humanitarian places is because the government chose not to. These are very easy things that Australia could facilitate if only we had the political leadership to do so.

In what ways have Australia’s refugee services improved?

I think the involvement and recognition of expertise in experience is a particular area of improvement in the refugee space. There is a significantly greater recognition of the mental health implications for people seeking asylum and the protections that need to be in place to ensure cultural sensitivity when working with a vulnerable community.

In comparison, that's probably something that we were not necessarily thinking about to the same extent in the early 90s. However, what’s left to be improved is that we as a sector need to be more inclusive and reflective. We can also learn from those who have been through the process and find out what support is more beneficial and respond more adequately to those needs. I’m proud to say this is something RACS is striving towards. 

Ultimately, we need to see Australia's refugee policy improved, and see that people seeking asylum have access to a fair process. We need all people being able to access permanent resettlement in Australia, and we need to abolish offshore processing and indefinite detention. We need to change our refugee policy as a whole.

Why are organisations like RACS so important for the refugee community?

When you apply for protection in Australia, the odds against people seeking asylum are stacked really high.

You have individuals who may not speak the language, who don't have law degrees and yet are expected to navigate a politically and legally complex process to be granted protection in Australia.

Given the complexity of the process, organisations like RACS are therefore very important to help people navigate the process. 

We're there to level the playing field just a little bit and interpret the legal process into a human experience and vice versa. That's why it is important for organisations like RACS to operate, so we can help those seeking asylum have a better chance of accessing justice.

It’s also important to remember that once being granted refugee status, it’s not over. For some, they are only afforded temporary protection and so will need to re-engage in the process time and time again. Many are here in Australia without their families – and so are left to navigate another legally complex process so their families can join them in safety, if eligible. It’s for this reason RACS is working on this campaign to ensure that we are there to support refugees in the dignity of sharing their safety with their families – and so we can continue to call on the Government to ensure family reunion is a right enjoyed by all.

How can we help?

The first thing you can do is support organisations that are working with refugees and people seeking asylum. The extent of what organisations like RACS can do is heavily reliant on donations and philanthropic support. 

You can support organisations that are providing direct services to people seeking asylum and refugees and know it’s making a difference. If you're not able to donate, then what you can do is share our posts, our media releases, give us a like on social media. All of this has an impact. It is people’s hearts and minds that can influence Australia’s policies and our political will. So, it is important that you continue to support people seeking asylum and refugees in whatever way you can so that one day, our collective support can translate into a change of government policy.

To commemorate its 35th anniversary, RACS has launched a campaign to help raise funds for its family reunion program – a program dedicated to reuniting refugees to their families in Australia.