Interview with Kon Karapanagiotidis

By Right Now in conversation with Kon Karapanagiotidis | 17 May 11
Photo of Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
Kon Karapanagiotidis started the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) nearly ten years ago, on 8 June 2001, as a practical class project for his welfare studies students. From that little food bank in Footscray the ASRC has grown to provide 23 different services, including legal help, English classes and a health service. Right Now spoke with Kon about the public attitudes to asylum seekers, the recent protests at Villawood and the need for moral leadership.

RN: Since the ASRC started in 2001, do you think there’s been a difference in how we, as a public, react to asylum seekers?

In ten years I’ve seen amazing progress and amazing regress as well. On the one hand, at a state level, I’ve seen our organisation achieve things that I never thought we could achieve for asylum seekers, such as access to TAFE, concession public transport, access to the emergency health system without Medicare. Those three things are the first of their kind in the country.

While the majority of the centre’s work is to provide services to asylum seekers, we place a lot of energy into ending the policy of mandatory detention.  We make sure to use our independence through our campaigns program.

We played a part along with many other organisations, in the end of Temporary Protection Visas, the closing of Nauru and Menace Island, the end of charging people for detention [and] the end of the 45 day rule.

But at the same time, ten years later, I look at the current state of the debate and fear that we’re just going backwards. A lot of things are as bad as they were during the Howard years. We have 1084 kids in detention, more than we’ve ever had in the history of Australia. We have almost 7000 people in detention, the most we’ve ever had in the history of Australia. We’re talking about [re-]introducing Temporary Protection Visas; we’re still demonising asylum seekers; we’re still politicising the issue; we’re building more and more detention centres – we’ll have 26 by the end of this year, also the most we’ve ever had.

We don’t have a boat problem yet both political parties continue their total failure of moral leadership or vision on this issue. In lots of ways, you feel like its 2001 all over again. But you’ve got to stay positive, stay focused on the positive achievements, and keep fighting against all the things that make you feel like you’re going back in time.

In lots of ways, you feel like its 2001 all over again.

Recently, there’s been a lot of coverage on the protests at Villawood and in Western Australia.

When I see all the uproar about our taxpayers dollars and ‘how dare these people destroy Australian property’ and ‘how ungrateful they are’, etc etc, [I think of] a great quote by Martin Luther King, “A riot is the language of the unheard”. What people aren’t asking or talking about is why these people are rioting and why they are burning the place in which they live? It’s because all these people are desperate, it’s because they are in a system that is unjust. I’m much more worried about the damage being done to human beings than the damage being done to property. Property can always be replaced.

When we talk about taxpayers’ waste I can sit there and say, do you want to know how to save a billion dollars tomorrow? Release 7000 people from detention. For a tenth of that cost these people could be humanely cared for in the community. Instead we spend three million dollars a day detaining people unlawfully, in breach of every human rights treaty from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to the Covenant on the Rights of the Child (CROC) to the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

I’m much more worried about the damage being done to human beings than the damage being done to property.

No person belongs in a detention centre and we need to be asking about the profound damage we are doing. We’ve had five people take their own lives in detention since October. We have record numbers of people in detention. Children are hunger striking and being denied access to schooling. Over 1,000 proven refugees in detention at present, waiting in limbo because of ASIO checks. There are people coming up on two years spent in detention.

My biggest question and concern is where is the moral outrage? This detention system forces people to become so desperate and so unwell that they actually resort to burning property and rioting because they have lost all other control.

The government that claimed that detention (including of children) would be a last resort, and yet mandatory detention remains the first resort for undocumented arrivals, despite the fact that none of these people are illegal [immigrants].

The rioting and destruction of property we are seeing is a by-product of desperate people who are living in over-crowded, under-resourced, indefinite detention in remote areas. What do you think is going to happen to people [when] you cage them and treat them like animals? What do you think is going to eventually happen? This is the inevitable outcome of that.

Every oppressive system in this world is just a system made up of individuals making day-to-day decisions.

You talk about moral leadership and it seems that both sides of politics aren’t ready to show that kind of leadership. Do you see it coming from somewhere else?

When government fails to provide that moral leadership, we need to provide it as a community. [Look at] the success of the ASRC; thousands of people have come and supported us, worked for us. Our team has attracted a nationwide refugee movement and that movement is made up of people from every walk of life, every class, every age, every background: culturally, racially, religiously. And that is people coming together and saying that if we can’t see the kind of leadership we want in our political leaders, then let’s see it in our community.

The success of the ASRC has been giving people a chance to re-shape the way in which, as a country, we deal with this issue. When you talk about human rights one of the things we fail to understand is that as individuals we have the power to change things…we might not be able to always shift the political rhetoric. But human rights is something that is lived and breathed and enacted every moment of everyday day by the choices that we make as individuals.

Every oppressive system in this world is just a system made up of individuals making day-to-day decisions. When we make different choices and different decisions and decide to stand for something we can bring those systems down. At the end of the day, these political machinations will continue until the will of the people asks for something different. I accept that we’re still a minority but I think we’re a growing minority from where we were ten years ago.

What is the process like on the legal side of things?

The refugee determination process is still deeply problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a two tier system: if you’re offshore, you are part of given a second rate, third world, refugee process that is completely corrupted. To give you an example. We spend something like 30 hours preparing a refugee application with our community-based asylum seekers. The average time a person’s given on Christmas Island is three to four hours, often with unqualified interpreters. [They go] before independent review panels instead of a proper statutory refugee review tribunal [and it’s] a constant dog-fight just to get access to reports. It’s a completely corrupted and skewed process set up to actually reject asylum seekers.

[Secondly] you are still going through a process that continues to fail to deal appropriately and fairly and justly, particularly with the most marginalised groups…women, people who are mentally unwell, and people whose claims are based on gay and lesbian issues. We have a refugee determination process that fails to recognise that violence against women falls under recognised categories in international law. The failure to see gender-based claims as political means that our system remains quite sexist towards women.

It is a system that continues to place an undue weight on credibility, rather than recognising how mental well-being, torture and trauma impacts on a person’s capacity to re-tell their story in a clear, consistent narrative. It continues to take a very outdated, homophobic view towards gay and lesbian claims.

So it’s a process that is still hit and miss. There are good people at every stage of the process but it’s a bit of a lottery still, depending on who is hearing your case. In addition, the system lacks proper transparency, consistency and accountability.

In terms of who the detainees get as legal representatives, is this random as well?

It is. There’s a bit over half a dozen contractors who have successfully tended for the work and you can get a really terrific one, like the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC) but sadly you can also get some that pride themselves on doing a refugee claim in two pages as they can make more money in less time. It’s really quite appalling when that happens.

Campaign work has been a big part of the ASRC over the past ten years?

When it comes to human rights you need to be able to say what you want, when you want and not worry about making enemies or pissing off the government.

We make sure to use our independence through our campaigns program. Our centre puts a lot of its energy into ending the policy of mandatory detention. We do spend a lot of time lobbying for children out of detention. And one of the key pillars of our campaign work is an end to mandatory detention and the closure of Christmas Island. We play a large role in being a whistle-blower and in exposing things like the number of kids in detention, including kids in Darwin who hadn’t gone to school in six months. From the days of bringing Cornelia Rau’s story to the media, [to] leaking the plans when Christmas Island was built to detain children… our independence makes us a valuable resource.

When it comes to human rights you need to be able to say what you want, when you want and not worry about making enemies or pissing off the government. And we are yet to meet a standing Minister for Immigration in the ten years I’ve been running this organisation.

Ironically, our number one referrer to the ASRC is the Department of Immigration. But we are their most vocal critic and we need to be. What’s the the point of being independent unless you’re going to use it? We just call it like it is and say the real criminals are the Australian Government.

The real inhumanity and injustice is the way this Government, like the one before it, panders to the worst in Australia. We have the most debased refugee policies, but we don’t actually have a boat people problem, the numbers are minuscule and yet the hysteria is a thousandfold.

What are you most proud of?

I think the thing I’m most proud of is that ten years down the track, we’ve survived when people didn’t think such an organisation was possible. [We’ve] run an organisation without federal government funding and virtually no state government funding. In ten years we’ve supported over 7000 people seeking asylum. We’ve provided sanctuary, hope, aid, support, legal assistance, health care and empowerment to 7000 people and a space that helps the refugee movement to keep growing in this country. We’ve provided an opportunity for thousands of people to get in there at the coalface and help asylum seekers. And we’ve provided a place where people always feel safe and welcome. In ten years we’ve never turned away an asylum seeker in need, so I feel pretty proud of that.