A few months ago, I tidied up my eighteen month volunteering experience with the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service (RAILS), finishing up with the influx of Iraqi client claims we were receiving due to the Islamic State developments in Iraq. Over the past year and a half, I have come to learn many practical things in regards to legal research and writing, as well as experiencing, at arm’s length, the plight of refugees. Each lesson has been valuable in not only shaping the way I understand the world, but also, the legal profession.
At RAILS, I would work with a certain caseworker for each semester. As I was there for three semesters in total, I had the privilege of working with three different solicitors and migration agents, including the principal solicitor, each exposing me to a different area of immigration law. RAILS provides a myriad of legal services for refugees in need, ranging from every day advice to High Court judicial review cases. The three main areas it focuses on are: protection visas (both offshore and onshore), permanent residence visas for victims of family violence and family reunification. In an average day, I would do anything from calling clients to writing draft submissions for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection or tribunals, delivering court documents or sitting in on client interviews. On the odd occasion, I even had to child mind. I was also lucky enough to work on a few high profile cases that garnered media attention over the eighteen months. Through the varied work I did at RAILS, here are the things that I have learnt and taken to heart.
Firstly, injustice is in the ‘form’ of law, as well as the ‘letter’.
When we think of injustice in regards to refugees, we often think of the draconian and illegal policies dished out by politicians and translated into legislation. What I’ve learnt at RAILS is that injustice is much more than that; it is bound up in the processes of how the law is administered. Injustice is using an interpreter that the client objects to, it is refusing to conduct an interview face to face, it is forming bias before a case is heard. It is also embodied in the rapid change of migration laws, as well as the retrospective operation of some laws. There is also injustice in the long waiting periods for bureaucracy to work its magic. In the nine months that someone is waiting for a family reunification application to succeed, their family could easily be killed. The stripping away of funding for boat arrivals, as well as a narrow focus on advocacy from the government is also akin to taking away legal representation.
Secondly, domestic violence is a dangerously rampant, but hidden crime.
Before working at RAILS, I thought I had a firm grasp of what family violence (usually against women) entailed and the frequency of these incidents occurring. But when I started volunteering at RAILS, I was exposed and confronted with the realities of the brutalities committed against women in PNG and the mass scale of such crimes in certain regions of the nation [as discussed last week in the piece by Tasman Bain, see below]. I am so thankful for organisations such as Meri Toksave that are actively working to improve the dire situation that currently exists. I began to see case after case of women living in Brisbane come forth with their long histories of abuse. It was then that I realised that violence against women, despite all the mechanisms we have in Australia to prevent such things happening, is still being perpetrated on too many occasions. Yet due to the sensitive and private nature of the issue, we rarely hear about it.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most relevant to law students, I learnt that as students who have had the privilege to study law, we have an immense potential to impact society and promote change and reform.
Being law students, where we are given the opportunity to study and understand the law, grants us a lot of power. Though it may not feel like it all the time, we are in an incredibly advantaged position to influence those around us. By being literate in what the law really is, we can engage in constructive discussions about the legality of current asylum seeker policies, we can emphasise the flaws in the current legal system. We can go forth among the disadvantaged and lend our services for free and promote access to justice. We can do all this, just as students.
Even though I was just a humble day volunteer, I was in a position where I was able to work with the clients and caseworkers with a lot of flexibility. I got to spend time with clients, listening to their stories in between small chats and making them feel welcome and cared for in what may often seem like a hostile and cold environment. And despite the menial tasks I did, by supporting my caseworkers, I was able to free them up to do more important jobs, as RAILS is stretched by its limited resources. Every little bit counts when often someone’s life is quite literally on the line. As a law student I saw how far my little bit of work every week could go. And despite the many disappointments and sad encounters I shared with our refugee clients, my greatest reward lay in the times where RAILS did win a case for a deserving fellow human being – one who just wanted security and the freedom to live. There is rarely a better feeling than being at the receiving end of a client’s gratitude.
If you are interested in volunteering at RAILS, please visit http://www.rails.org.au/volunteer/