How Working with Asylum Seekers broadens our Legal Education

By Rose Clayton

In October 2015 I started volunteering in the Law Program of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. I avidly followed the plight of refugees in the news but I needed to physically do something about an issues I was so passionate about.

Applying for the role as a Legal Triage Officer was a lot like applying for a job. You first have to attend one of their information sessions, which tells you everything you need to know about the ASRC, and explains all the roles across the organisation. After that, the ASRC sends you an email every month with all the volunteer roles available. I applied for both the legal triage role, and paralegal. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed, and given the role in triage.

The triage role was a great for me to start in, as it is the first point of contact at the ASRC for clients. This means we see a range of clients from varying countries and protection needs. Usually clients are at the beginning of their protection claim, however some are already halfway through or nearing the end.

The majority of clients I see in legal triage have recently received an invitation from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) inviting them to apply for temporary protection. This invitation is sent out to all Asylum Seekers who arrived by boat after August 2012, but before the 19th July 2013. People who arrived before August 2012 had the opportunity to apply for permanent protection. However, if their applications were not finalised by the 16th December 2014, the change in law applied retrospectively and their applications were made temporary protection applications. Any boat arrivals after the 19th July 2013 were sent to offshore detention centres.

Applicants have an option of a 3-year visa, or a 5-year visa (called a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa and they must live rurally). Once this time has passed, the individual must apply for protection again from scratch. This means they have to re-tell the traumatic events that have lead them to seek asylum. If the DIBP deems it is now safe for them to return to their home country, they will be rejected.

Before I started at the ASRC I had a rough idea of the law regarding Asylum Seekers as a step-by-step, black and white process. As law students, I think there is a tendency to just learn the law, and clinically apply it to whatever made up situation we are given in our assignments and exams. However, it is one thing to know the law, and another to understand exactly who it affects those it applies to. So let’s put it into context:

  • An individual arrives by boat in December 2012.
  • The individual receives an invitation to apply for protection dated 1st March 2015 and comes straight to the ASRC for assistance.
  • After a workshop where they gain vital information, they go on a wait list for an appointment where they will be assisted in writing their claims and submitting their application.
  • They apply for temporary protection in October 2015.
  • After initial rejections, appeals etc. the individual is awarded protection in November 2017.
  • In 2020 and 2023 the individual applies for protection again and is successful.
  • However in 2026 the DIBP deems it is now safe for that individual to return to their home country.
  • In total this person has been in Australia for 14 years. They have a job, a life and have not only become part of the community, but is contributing to it. With another person on a TPV they have had children, all born in Australia. However those children in the eyes of the DIBP are all subject to TPV’s. The children have known Australia to be their home. Australian schools, culture and prosperity. However under the current legislation the DIBP has the right to send them ‘home’.

The above is an example of the circumstances Asylum Seekers find themselves in while trying to seek protection in Australia. I have personally had to tell a man with a daughter (who has never known her home country), that they must prepare to leave Australia by the end of the month. The child only knew English and Australia.

Working with asylum seekers underlines the effect a complete lack of hope has on the human psyche. Hopelessness is what drove individuals to flee in the first place, only to find themselves in an equally hopeless situation. There is no government funding for legal assistance for those seeking temporary protection. Only the ASRC and a handful of other not for profit organisations are available to assist. Without these organisations, people seeking asylum would have to either pay for a lawyer, or navigate the complex application process themselves.

For me it is a privilege to work at the ASRC every week. The centre is full of life and passionate individuals. Each morning Kon (founder and CEO) gives a brief for all the volunteers in the centre. We get updated on different projects within the ASRC, as well as the progress of the ASRC’s advocacy to both the State and Federal Governments. His passion and drive is inspire me, and it is a real comfort to be amongst people every week who care about something as much as I do. The lawyers I work under are extremely supportive and patient and their skills enabled me to learn. This practice is incredibly valuable to me.

For myself personally, volunteering has been beneficial to my own mental health. Coming to the ASRC each week gives me the perspective I need to deal with any of the other pressures or stresses in my life (like law school!) It is all too easy to get overwhelmed and weighed down by your own issues. I feel my time at the ASRC helps me keep afloat and feel like I can manage whatever life throws at me. My life is so privileged, and volunteering at the ASRC is a constant reminder of this.

It goes without saying the ASRC relies on donations and fundraising. The Melbourne Marathon is Sunday the 16th of October and the ASRC has a team for you to join running in each distance category if you want to contribute in some way. See more here.

Rose Clayton is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe Law School


La Trobe