Champions for the voiceless

When legal academics speak up for asylum seekers and refugees, their public advocacy is underpinned by powerful personal experience.
By Sally Sitou
Child looking through wire fence

They are either former or current academics from the Sydney Law School and they all have a strong interest in human rights. However, the strongest connection Professors Mary Crock, Gillian Triggs and Ben Saul have are their personal experiences meeting refugees and asylum seekers.

It’s a common bond that enthuses and drives their work, as lawyers, public advocates and researchers. They have spoken out publicly on Australia’s asylum seeker policies. As lawyers, they all have sound arguments for why the current and former government policies on asylum seekers fails to meet basic human rights. But perhaps their more persuasive arguments lie in the personal stories, photos and conversation snippets that they share.

The story that moved Triggs, former Dean of the Sydney Law School (2007-12) and current President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, was that of an 11-year-old Afghani girl who was detained on Christmas Island.

“She came up to me as happy and bright as my own daughter,” says Triggs. “In her short life time she had witnessed incredible tragedy. She’d seen members of her family killed, experienced incredible deprivation and stress. She also had these big infected sores on her arms that weren’t healing because of the tropical conditions on Christmas Island.”

“Despite all she had been through, she was very calm. The only time she became upset was when she was telling me that she had not been to school in eight months. This really affected her because she knew that education was going to give her an opportunity for a better life.

“It was at this point that I nearly lost my professional cool. She had put up with so much without complaining. What she wanted most was an education and she just wasn’t getting that on Christmas Island.”

Ben Saul

Ben Saul

For Saul, Professor of International Law, it was a three-month stint working as a student for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Nepal that opened his eyes. “I was able to see the importance of international law in action, after a people’s own government has persecuted them,” Saul says.

“Without it, around 100,000 people would have been stranded in a foreign country without basic survival rights (such as food, water, shelter and health care), education for thousands of children, or the legal protections we take for granted as citizens of a stable country.”

Saul is now working in the Sydney Law School alongside Professor of Public Law, Mary Crock, his lecturer in refugee law when he was a university student himself. They are collaborating on an AusAID-funded research project into refugees with disability that has seen them visit refugees in Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Uganda.

Mary Crock

Mary Crock

“Refugees with disability are the forgotten refugees,” Crock says.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that 10 to 15 percent of people in the general population have a disability, yet in refugee populations it is only one percent.”

“When they are being processed they aren’t being asked the right questions. Instead assessors are relying on visual cues or self-identification to identify if a refugee has a disability. They need to ask functionality questions. So instead of asking someone: ‘can you hear?’ they should instead change the question to ‘how well can you hear?’

“When we went to the camp in Uganda to conduct interviews, we knew it would be very basic, so we photocopied 300 of the questionnaires to take with us. By the time we got to the camp and people started to find out about our research, we were inundated.

“Somehow in this basic camp with very few facilities they had managed to make more copies of the questionnaire. By the time we left we had over 1000 responses. It just goes to show that there are many more people with disability than is being recorded by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.”

The professors all categorically reject the government’s policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing. During a radio interview in February Crock called the policies a ‘grotesque breach of human rights law’. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times this year, Saul compared Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees to human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay.

Public opinion is with the government. A nationwide opinion poll published in January and conducted by UMR Research shows that 60 per cent of Australians wanted the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers”.

As an academic we have two important functions. The most important is to teach the next generation, the other is to engage with public policy through our research.

So when public opinion is against them, how do these public advocates maintain the rage? They give the proverbial heart strings a strategic tug. Triggs focuses on the harsh treatment of children in detention. As the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, this year she initiated, and is leading, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014.

“It will be a challenge to shift public opinion, but I’m up for it,” Triggs says. “With my presidential power, I deliberately decided to hold an inquiry into the plight of the children in detention. It will give us a better chance to shift public opinion.”

Her argument is reinforced by the conditions of children in detention, especially on Christmas Island, which she has visited a number of times. In an interview with Fairfax media in March, Triggs said: ‘’if we saw these children in Australia, we would be reporting them to Department of Community Services.”

But by taking such public stances against the government and in speaking out so strongly in support of human rights, the trio has attracted criticism.

Saul has been accused of “legal bitchiness” by The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen for his comments questioning the human rights credentials of Tim Wilson, the newly appointed HRC Freedom Commissioner.

Triggs has been publicly criticised by conservative columnist Andrew Bolt and Attorney-General George Brandis for her opposition to the government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Gillian Triggs

Gillian Triggs

So is being a public advocate worth it? Triggs replies: “I am encouraged by the changes I have seen the government make on their views of the Racial Discrimination Act. They’ve released an exposure draft which I think will give them some wriggle room. I think in the end they will compromise.

“My role and the role of the commission is to help moderate government policy and add our voice to the many others. We’re not an ideological body, we use evidence-based research to support our arguments. That’s what gives our arguments credibility.”

Saul argues that it is not only worth the effort, it is also incumbent on experts in the field to speak up, especially if the government is failing.
“Australia has repeatedly and seriously breached the international law obligations it voluntarily committed itself to by ratifying international human rights and refugee law treaties,” Saul says. “There is a role for academics with expertise in these areas to hold the government to account.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Crock. “Bad things happen when we say nothing,” she says. “I want to stand up for future generations. As an academic we have two important functions. The most important is to teach the next generation, the other is to engage with public policy through our research.”

Asked about her biggest professional wins, Crock provides a humble and simple answer: her students. She points to the efforts of former student Professor Jane McAdam in spearheading a campaign for “complementary protection” laws as a big win for human rights. The laws enacted less than two years ago prevent the Australian Government from deporting people back to places where they may be at risk of being tortured or killed.

On the flipside, one of the biggest disappointments Triggs has faced in her new role is the apathy Australians show towards human rights. “I have been disappointed by the little understanding the Australian public has about human rights and what the Australian Human Rights Commission does. I think it is because we don’t have a bill of rights.

I deliberately decided to hold an inquiry into the plight of the children in detention. It will give us a better chance to shift public opinion.

“Human rights is part and parcel of everyday life, we need to view our laws through the human rights prism. Because the public doesn’t understand what human rights are, they tolerate things they wouldn’t otherwise. They allow the detention of children, they tolerate changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. They tolerate reductions in social benefits. That’s why education about human rights is so important.”

Saul believes that academics can be the key to bridging this gap in understanding by utilising the media. “We have little political power and we don’t have advertising budgets, but we enjoy the goodwill of the media,” he says. “We can also help to give a voice to invisible people, such as the eight-year old Congolese girl I met in a refugee camp in Uganda, who was nearly burnt alive when rebels torched her family’s hut; or the many refugee boys from Congo who were sexually abused by government soldiers.

For Crock, Triggs and Saul, public comments only scratch the surface of their commitment to human rights. Their fight for the protection of human rights is also about individual cases. Saul and Crock have both represented asylum seekers in their fights to stay in Australia.

Saul is currently representing 51 refugees who are being held indefinitely because they failed security checks. They all come from ethnic minorities who fled to escape persecution in their homelands of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kuwait and Afghanistan and they’ve been found to be genuine refugees. Yet according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission they are now being illegally held by the Australian Government in cruel and inhuman conditions.

Crock recounts the story of a woman from Ethiopia whose case failed in the High Court. Crock took up her fight and made representations to the Minister for Immigration. When the Minister intervened and granted the woman permanent residency, Crock says the sense of relief was palpable. “These cases restore my faith in humanity. It reminds me of what people can endure and achieve.”

In the short time Triggs has been at the Human Rights Commission, it has brought the cases of 200 individuals to the attention of the Department of Immigration. The commission has worked collaboratively with the department and the Minister for Immigration to help these individuals, from getting them glasses to medical treatment.

Crock’s connection to refugees is also deeply personal. She informally adopted two children who came to Australia seeking asylum. Now adults, Pheap was a refugee from Cambodia and Riz was from Afghanistan. “They’ve made me more connected to the refugee communities, they’re my eyes and ears,” Crock says. “Seeing what they’ve been able to achieve is phenomenal.”

Having spent the past two decades fighting Australia’s mandatory immigration detention laws, is Crock still hopeful of a change?

She is defiantly optimistic: “If the Berlin Wall can fall, we can stop this nonsense.”