Home > Opinion > Journey asks Brian Procopis; What have you learned from asylum seekers?

Journey asks Brian Procopis; What have you learned from asylum seekers?

Fifteen years ago the phone was ringing as I walked past a desk in the Lifeline Community Services Unit on my way to the lunch room for my cheese and vegemite sandwich.

I could have left it but the ringing was persistent.

On the other end was a woman in her 30s, struggling to survive, accommodation unreliable, food intermittent.

Targeted by government authorities in her country as a result of speaking out against corruption, she had to escape.

There was no refugee camp, no queue to join.

Her family and friends pooled their assets and bought her a ticket to safety.

A tourist visa took less time to arrange than any other visa.

She was an asylum seeker – the first I’d ever spoken to.

Naively I asked when her next special benefit from Social Security was due to arrive. She told me that she wasn’t eligible for any assistance from the Australian Government. She told me that while she was waiting for her application for protection to be assessed (a process that can take years), she was not eligible for financial support, had no medicare access, no transport assistance and did not have work permission.

She was completely (and embarrassingly) reliant on charity.

I didn’t know any of this.

I felt ashamed of my country’s response.

It was an important realisation.

My distress took me onto the management committee of the Asylum Seeker Centre together with such agencies as Amnesty International, RAILS (Refugee and Immigration Legal Service), Red Cross, QPASTT (Queensland Program of Assistance for Survivors of Torture and Trauma) and others.

Lifeline has subsequently adopted the Refugee Claimant Support Service as a program providing advocacy, food, fares, employment assistance, socialising networks and links to other supportive agencies.

I’m still not sure what would have happened if I’d opted for that cheese and vegemite sandwich.

Brian Procopis is a community development officer for Lifeline Community Care Queensland and has done much work with refugees including a series of CDs with Sweet Freedom Inc featuring songs by refugees and asylum seekers helping them find their voice through creative expression.