Please note, the views and opinions expressed in this scholarship entry (and all other scholarship entries) are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Global Mobility Immigration Lawyers.
Immigration lawyers acting for asylum seekers is “unAustralian”. Respond.
In August 2017, I was fortunate to spend a month in Boston, USA, undertaking an internship at the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinic.
What was apparent and inspiring to me in my too-short time at Harvard, was that the lawyers and academics, as well as my fellow interns who worked there, were passionate and tireless advocates for those desperate and vulnerable people who were seeking protection in the United States.
I met a number of clients as part of this internship, but one remains in the forefront of my mind. I met an undocumented worker who wanted to lodge an asylum application, having survived torture and persecution in his home country. I recall the day – it was a sweltering Massachusetts summer – I was sweating as I scribbled notes, listening to this man’s harrowing story about the gangs that afflicted his home country and had threatened and attacked him and his family.
We talked with him in a basement for three hours. He had left behind everything, including his family and was terrified of being returned to his country, where he would no doubt face further persecution and possibly more violence.
And those people at Harvard do this pro-bono advocacy work every single day – to ensure access to justice for everyone – and not just for those who can afford legal representation.
Closer to home, people seeking asylum in Australia who have been held in off-shore detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru are quite often sent to Australia for medical treatment. These people have found themselves at the centre of legal proceedings when the Government seeks to return them to detention. The cause of these desperate individuals and families being taken up by lawyers, most of the time working pro bono, is something that the Government would expect.
Pro bono legal work being undertaken by the Australian lawyers working on these matters – like the advocates at Harvard – should be applauded and championed. Lawyers acting pro bono are giving legal assistance for free or a reduced fee to these vulnerable people – to people who are desperate for legal representation, but have no way to afford it.
In August 2017, at the same time that I was interning at Harvard, the then Australian Minister for Immigration, the Hon Peter Dutton MP, admitted there were constitutional issues involved in passing laws forcing asylum seeker medical evacuees to leave Australia, and that those constitutional issues were generally the cornerstone of a lawyer’s defence.
In a conversation with a conservative radio commentator, Mr Dutton claimed the foundation for lawyers acting pro-bono was due to the ‘political correctness’ of lawyers and law firms, rather than the lawyers trying to ensure that all people had access to justice and legal representation.
Mr Dutton said, “It goes back to your earlier remarks Alan about all the political correctness out there and the feel-good events that are taking place around statues and all this nonsense…. It extends into some of our major law firms, where part of their social justice agenda is for pro bono work to be provided.”
Mr Jones then asked Mr Dutton whether this was unAustralian, Mr Dutton replied “Of course it is, and it’s gone on for too long.”
Taking a step back from the insinuations made by Mr Dutton in this conversation– and the clear ignorance this statement has regarding the separation of executive and judicial powers – what does it actually mean to be unAustralian?
There is no actual singular definition.
Taken in its literal, unAustralian refers to someone that is not an Australian.
But rather than being taken literally, unAustralian is simply a lazy term – a fantastical term – fantastical in that its implications are imagined, generally used by one Australian looking to target another with contempt for having opinions or taking actions different from their own. Stating something is unAustralian is the epitome of virtue signalling – publicly expressing an opinion or sentiment in attempt to, somewhat surreptitiously, demonstrate a person’s own character and position, while at the same time suggesting those that disagree are not of such sound character.
If either used in the literal or fantastical, the term is divisive. So the speaker of this term is seeking to incite others to side with them in their division. Because it is apparently inconvenient for his policy position, in this interview Mr Dutton labelled lawyers who act pro bono for asylum seekers as unAustralian – with the intended result that other like-minded people will nod their heads in agreement and rally with him.
But this sort of virtue signalling gives no mind to the enormous hardships that people seeking asylum have experienced. Aside from its flagrant disregard for the rule of law, this is putting policy above people is indicative that people who have such a belief have no comprehension of the hardships faced by the people that the lawyers are acting for.
Last year when I was away from home, sitting in Boston and listening to the Former Immigration Minister saying this about pro bono lawyers, I could only think of the man I had just interviewed in that sweltering basement. The torture that this man was escaping from. The threats that this man and his family faced. I thought of the fact that people like him, all over the world are fleeing areas of violence, persecution and terror – that people like him are making the agonising decision to leaving their families behind to earn minimum wage for them in another country – that people like him are enduring long and arduous journeys, risking death on rickety boats and crossing dangerous borders to escape – and that people like him are living in inhospitable conditions in detention, and facing persecution and discrimination at every stage of their asylum journey.
Was there really a need for Mr Dutton to try and create a public division against lawyers who are helping these people pro bono? Are those lawyers the fantastical ‘unAustralian’? No. That concept doesn’t exist.
What does exist is the need for social cohesion, for fairness and the need for everyone to have access to justice. These lawyers are tireless, passionate advocates for vulnerable and desperate people who need – and have the right – to this representation. Rather than being vilified by people who cannot possibly comprehend the hardships that these people have faced, these lawyers should be championed for taking these cases, for helping these people and for trying to ease their continued suffering, especially given their journey has already been unimaginably painful.