The ASRC Innovation Hub: Empowering asylum seekers to help themselves

By Gavin Ackerly | 12 Feb 15

“We have created, and many of us in this room have benefitted, from establishing a regime, an industry, a culture of dependency where humanitarian relief becomes long term assistance.”  – T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Aleinikoff’s statement made in July 2014 at Oxford University’s first Humanitarian Innovation Conference to an auditorium full of humanitarian professionals – most of whom had dedicated their lives to relieving the suffering of the world’s 51 million displaced – was certainly daring. But with human displacement being increasingly protracted and forcing affected people to live in chronic poverty, it was obviously and painfully true.

Later that day I was to present my own ideas on how things might be done differently. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s (ASRC) Asylum Seeker Innovation Hub had just been built and I looked forward to presenting the unique model of rights-based assistance we were pioneering called symbiotic innovation.

Innovative thinking, the type that disrupts the status quo, is by its nature challenging to those who have built their careers and livelihoods upon the existing system. As such, Aleinikoff was conceding that the United Nations is too big, too bureaucratic and too averse to change to lead us into more adept humanitarian action. He was calling on “outsider” organisations to innovate their approaches to humanitarian assistance. He implied that it was up to community-based organisations – such as ASRC – to lead, owing to their agility and close relationships with communities.

Earlier in 2014 I attended a meeting in Dandenong, a cluster area for asylum seekers in Melbourne’s south east. The local council had called together organisations working with asylum seekers to generate fresh ideas for dealing with the growing poverty and despair within these communities. A former Cambodian refugee who spoke said that his integration into Australian society was made easier by an Australian community member who had “walked alongside” his family during those early years, supporting them and showing them that they were welcome.

During the brainstorming session, a representative from Victoria Police asked why agencies couldn’t replicate the experience of this Cambodian family. Her idea of “adopting a family” where Aussie families could befriend, support and mentor asylum seeker families – simple, tried and tested, and able to mitigate the scale of the problem – was met with fiery resistance from the sector agency representatives. The consensus was that only specialised agencies had the expertise to run something like this. There would be duty of care issues to be considered, and resources would be required, resources that were in short supply. It took three minutes for a good idea to be quashed.

That meeting changed the way I saw the welfare service agency and its role in our society. The once fundamental responsibilities of communities have been placed in the hands of a removed third party. These days, childcare, food security, employment assistance, even personal relationships have been farmed out to some sort of agency. These rights are deemed too important, too specialised and often too risky for mere members of the community to handle. This reality is borne partly out of desire to give the most professional assistance to the neediest, and also a sense of our distrust in the competence of communities to hold certain responsibilities – particularly disadvantaged communities.

The truth is, in these cases, the more agencies remove responsibilities from the lives of the disadvantaged, the more weakened those communities become. Those agencies, both big and small, can never hope to adequately meet the needs of communities, which are often too complex and sophisticated for a bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all agency model to address. Furthermore, as long as an agency sits separate from the community, its interventions will lack responsiveness and relevancy.

Fundamentally, it is not what the service agency does that is so important; rather its ability to respond lies in what it is – its make-up, its DNA – whether it is a part of community or apart from community. This is the thinking that led to the symbiotic innovation concept that now forms the foundation of ASRC’s Innovation Hub.

“Through shared experience, asylum seekers further develop their skills and
knowledge to help themselves and others in their community.”

In the Australian setting, the ASRC Innovation Hub is a space where agility, creativity and innovation can thrive. The Innovation Hub was created to empower asylum seekers to help themselves and to teach their families, friends and communities. It has an integrated service model that draws on our four empowerment streams: employment, education, social and community development, and social enterprise. Each of these streams allows us to engage asylum seekers in finding solutions to their own challenges. The Innovation Hub builds on the strengths, rather than weaknesses, of the asylum seeker.

Asylum seekers are becoming part of the Hub’s workforce, working alongside established Australian professionals and community members. Through shared experience, asylum seekers further develop their skills and knowledge to help themselves and others in their community. Equally, the Australian professional further develops his or her skills and knowledge to assist other asylum seekers to do the same.

Furthermore, both the worker and participant enjoy working together through, for example, participating in the social entrepreneurs program, improving the design of our direct services, or by setting up asylum seeker-owned business venture. This cycle of ongoing improvement of all parties was the genesis of the term symbiotic innovation.

This approach puts the agency in the passenger’s seat when addressing the rights of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers themselves have individual capacities to, despite the many constraints, meet their own needs and to flourish while waiting – possibly for quite some time – for a refugee status determination. Being able to support themselves with food, shelter, healthcare, education and a livelihood is the difference between the old welfare model and the contemporary expression of the Innovation Hub.

Only agile, adaptable agencies can change their models to innovate rather than to fear change.

Agencies, as I have discovered, find it much harder to adapt to change than asylum seekers do. This is a bold step toward returning the skills and knowledge back to the community where they belong. It has taken a brave leap of faith from the staff and volunteers at the ASRC, as to truly empower others we must recognise, and often relinquish, our own claims to power.

Of course, it would be easier for us to cling to the status quo. But as Aleinikoff pointed out, when facing challenges of this scale, there should be no sacred cows.

Gavin Ackerly is the Director of the Empowerment Pillar at Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Feature image: John Englart/Flickr