Upholding the rights of vulnerable asylum seekers

Upholding the rights of vulnerable asylum seekers

Friday, 21 June 2019

Migration managers Chelsea Clark and Sarah Fisher
L–R: Chelsea Clark and Sarah Fisher

Chelsea Clark and Sarah Fisher job share the migration manager role in our Migration program. ​Read more about what inspires them to do this vital work on behalf of our asylum seeker clients.

Where did you work prior to coming to VLA?

Chelsea: I commenced at Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) as an articled clerk, so there was not much before VLA! Directly prior to commencing at VLA, I was working in Chiapas, Mexico with a group of Indigenous people known as Las Abejas. Prior​​ to that I worked on the Single Noongar Claim for the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council.

Sarah: I worked at a range of places including a community legal centre and various private law firms before coming to Victoria Legal Aid. I have done some employment law over the years, but have always maintained migration files of some kind.

What motivated you to become a migration lawyer and specialise in the area of migration law?

Chelsea: I was fortunate to do a clinical law subject while I was at university, which focused on assisting asylum seekers at the primary and review stages of their applications. I really enjoyed working with asylum seekers, particularly the intersection between the law, and learning about the different historical and political conditions in the countries from which my clients fled. It is an area of law where legal representation is vital to a positive outcome for clients, and given the potential dire consequences of a negative decision on the lives of our clients, it seemed like a logical area in which to focus my practice.

Sarah: My favourite subject at university was administrative law, but I fell into migration law after living and working overseas for a while. Once bitten by the migration law bug, I felt that I had found the perfect intersection of interests – global issues which force movement of people, fascinating if challenging personal stories from every corner of the world, access to justice and a dynamic legal landscape. Like Chelsea, I have enjoyed learning about different cultural, religious and political beliefs.

​What does a day in the life of the Migration team involve?

Chelsea and Sarah: The Migration Program's core work is judicial review of administrative decisions to refuse or cancel protection visas. Accordingly, our days are spent reviewing the decisions of the Minister for Immigration, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) or the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA) to ascertain whether there is a legal error, and challenging decisions that we consider are based on errors. We also provide phone advice every day, monthly advice at the AAT, mainly in regard to citizenship cases, as well as a fortnightly duty lawyer service at the Federal Circuit Court in the directions list. Recently we have been undertaking a lot of work in capacity building within VLA and more widely across the sector, mainly in the area of character cancellations and judicial review of fast track matters.

What do you enjoy about being in Migration? Why do you do it and why do you find it satisfying?

Chelsea and Sarah: We both enjoy administrative law. Given we have no Bill of Rights in Australia, it is often principles of administrative law and judicial review upon which we need to rely to make sure that processes are fair and transparent, and that decisions are made in accordance with the law. We really appreciate this aspect of our work and genuinely believe that the work of the migration program not only benefits our clients, but also benefits the community as a whole, by ensuing that decision makers act within the bounds of the law.

What don't you enjoy about being in Migration?

Chelsea and Sarah: The highly politicised nature of the law, and being witness to the human misery that this creates.

What are the biggest challenges you face in Migration?

Chelsea and Sarah: There are so many challenges that face asylum seekers and those trying to provide assistance. One that springs to mind is the unreasonable delay in decision making for many of our clients. It is not uncommon for clients to wait more than two to three years for a decision in their case. During this time, clients can be held in immigration detention, or be living in the community without work rights, no access to Centrelink, and totally reliant on charity to survive. They are often separated from their family, and the uncertainty of their visa or legal situation has a devasting impact on their mental health. Additionally, their deteriorating mental health and delay in their cases often impacts their ability to provide consistent evidence, which can then lead to adverse credibility findings.

Are there any cases that have stuck with you over the years where you've gone home and thought, 'I've really made a difference in that person's life today, and this is why I do this work.'

Chelsea: There have been many, but to be honest, they are always such a hard fought win that the feeling is often one of relief, rather than anything else. I can recall feeling pretty happy when I helped get some kids out of detention, and it's always a good day when a client gets a protection visa.

Sarah: There have been quite a few. I recall helping an asylum seeker to seek judicial review of a negative Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision. He had very compelling claims. However, we had lost at the Federal Circuit Court and counsel advised there was no merit in appealing the decision. I felt uncomfortable about this assessment and, after unsuccessfully seeking Ministerial intervention on behalf of the client, I sought an opinion from different counsel. She thought there was enough to go to the Federal Court. We filed an appeal way out of time and won. The man was ultimately granted a permanent protection visa and is now doing really well.

Any advice for those thinking about taking up a role as a migration lawyer?

Chelsea and Sarah: Try to focus on where you can make a difference, and endeavour not to get too overwhelmed by the injustice of it all. Legally, it is an incredibly interesting, dynamic and challenging role, and can be very rewarding, particularly when you get a good outcome for a client.

If you had the power and authority, how would you improve the system that you deal with every day?

Chelsea and Sarah: Without a doubt, end indefinite mandatory detention.

More information

For information about how our organisation can help with migration issues, see Migration.

Read our former Managing Director Bevan Warner’s thoughts on why Victoria Legal Aid champions fairness for refugees.

Was this helpful?