In conversation with an un-Australian lawyer

Sarah Dale, principal solicitor at Refugee Advice and Casework Service, is fighting the good fight

sketch of a lawyer's notice-board with RACS logo, refugees welcome sticker and planner Art: Stephanie Barahona

Sarah Dale is un-Australian. Or rather, that seems to be how Immigration Minister Peter Dutton would describe her. In August this year, Dutton claimed that lawyers assisting refugees were “playing games” and “taking Australians for a ride”. The Immigration Minister was frustrated by their work  fighting legal battles against a government that was (and still is) seeking to dispel claims of asylum and leave refugees  languishing indefinitely in offshore prison camps. Given the Immigration Minister’s nationalistic grief, I decided to investigate the source of his frustrations by having a conversation with the principal solicitor of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), Sarah Dale.

Dale has an impressive record of working with asylum seekers and refugees. She has developed an outreach legal service for unaccompanied minors and worked extensively with children who were detained on Christmas Island. Her passion for refugee rights resonates in her voice as she describes the overwhelming joy of one of her clients who graduated from high school this year. For Dale, working with the children who have gone through the process alone — by far the most vulnerable victims of Australia’s Kafkaesque refugee policies — has been a particular highlight of her work.

Dale was never interested in the corporate career paths that entice so many law students after university. Although RACS currently employs almost 50 volunteers each week, Dale recalls the attitudes of law students during her university days, who considered working in social justice to be an almost second-rate ‘alternative’ career path. For her, placements in community legal centres proved “to be the most exciting”, with the work being “just as legal, if not more legal, than any other placements”. As Australia “hit a time in our political history where asylum seekers … were treated so poorly”, she says there’s nowhere else she would rather be “than fighting for people seeking asylum”.

Beyond the expected linguistic and cultural barriers of working with clients from diverse backgrounds, the biggest challenge faced by RACS is political, created by a climate where asylum seekers are constantly demonised by politicians and the media, and where the work of such organisations is denounced as ‘un-Australian’.

The antipathy towards refugees’ defenders sparked  significant funding cuts to RACS in 2014, which have put considerable strain on the organisation. Before the cuts, “anyone who arrived in Australia was able to receive funded legal assistance under the IAAA (Immigration Advice and Application Assistance) scheme”, says Dale. But in 2014, the government decided to discontinue the funding, leaving 27,000 people stuck without funded legal assistance.

Subsequently, RACS has had to change its approach to assisting clients. Determined not to turn people away, Dale describes the arduous process of “fundraising and applying for grants”, while also needing to prioritise “ who we were going to help and how we were going to do it”.  Ultimately, despite these challenges, the clinic set up by RACS “ended up seeing nearly 4000 people and lodging 2000 applications”, from 2014 onwards .

Yet despite bipartisan support for offshore processing, Dale believes that “The Australian community that I know and work with are incredibly welcoming and incredibly compassionate”. The sense of apathy  amongst the “centre-left” about the fate of asylum seekers is largely driven by hackneyed lines of rhetoric by career politicians. As attitudes towards asylum seekers coalesce around binary political ideologies, Dale believes that those in the middle start to view the issue as yet another arbitrary political battleground that is not “significant enough to sway their vote”. When refugees are used as “political hand-ball”, Dale suggests the issue of asylum seekers becomes polarising with “people becoming more aggressively opposed to refugees or staunchly in support”.

Yet Dale maintains that treating refugees with respect and fairness should not be a question of politics. “For us, it absolutely isn’t political … we have people who are incredibly vulnerable who have come to our country and asked for our help, and they can do that under International law”. Optimistically perhaps, Dale believes that “if we took a poll of the country about whether we should be locking people in camps tantamount to torture, whether we should leave children in detention for an indefinite period … the community would absolutely say no”. She believes that part of the problem is people “not receiving the full picture” on who asylum seekers truly are and constructing unrealistic or dehumanising images of refugees. Dale is adamant that a fully informed community simply could not accept the way our government currently treats people seeking asylum.

In a context of a seemingly uninformed or willfully ignorant population, Dale believes that the most powerful asset activists have are the stories of refugees, which allow Australian citizens to “relate to people”. She gives the example of Syria, “a thriving place” stricken by crisis, where stories of “doctors, nurses and academics … wonderful, capable human beings”, have the ability to challenge the hegemonic narrative surrounding asylum seekers. As people begin to understand that asylum seekers “are absolutely just us who were dealt horrible, horrible cards in life… I think we will get there”.

To achieve this, RACS facilitates community engagement programs, hosting legal sessions and publishing fact-sheets to spread information. Although their role is primarily legal, Dale talks of numerous events, such as movie screenings, that  disseminate  the stories of people seeking asylum. However, she believes more can be done, particularly among younger generations. The first step is supporting community legal services by following them on social media and assisting in any way possible. “If our legal team could just entirely focus on providing services and not worry about fundraising, then we could be assisting more people.” Additionally, by keeping informed and engaging in community programs, organisations assisting refugees are empowered with the necessary social capital to make a change.

Lobbying for refugee rights in the current Australian climate can seem futile. With members of government and large media organisations taking callous stances against people seeking asylum, it is easy to believe those engaging in refugee activism are fighting a losing battle.

However, after hearing the inspirational determination of lawyers like Dale and organisations like RACS, in the face of significant socio-political adversity, change does seem possible. Hopefully one day, members of parliament consider offshore processing, rather than the lawyers fighting it, to be un-Australian.