When someone in danger knocks – helping refugees and asylum seekers

When someone in danger knocks – helping refugees and asylum seekers

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

'It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks' – Dina Nayeri, Iranian-American novelist.

Within Victoria Legal Aid’s (VLA) Civil Justice program, our Migration team works to help refugees, asylum seekers, those in Australia on humanitarian grounds, those whose visas are cancelled and other vulnerable groups in the Australian community.

A passionate lawyer in this small but thriving team, Hannah Dickinson worked in private practice in immigration law for six years before joining us. In private practice, she quickly came to appreciate that often the people who needed help the most could not access it, due not only to financial obstacles, but also cultural, language, health, education and awareness barriers.

‘A skilled and experienced advocate is often essential for people navigating Australia’s complex and strict migration system, but there is extremely limited help available for those who cannot access private representation.

‘One of the most important ways we can help to achieve broader systemic change is through litigation: you can uncover and explore the edges of the law, with immediate applicability to individuals other than your client. It can lead to legislative and policy change, sculpting a fairer system, case by case,’ said Hannah.

Our migration lawyers’ chief role is in the federal courts, which review migration decisions that have gone through a merits review process, to determine whether they were made lawfully. In a very dynamic legal space, this assessment often involves identifying a novel or difficult argument. If a court is persuaded there is error, the decision can be quashed, leading to a client’s release from detention or an opportunity to have their claims properly considered.

Telling the refugee’s story

Hannah’s love of migration law is closely bound to the stories of her clients and her commitment to achieving a just outcome for them.

‘To succeed, a person’s story must be presented using the grammar of administrative law, which is often like mixing oil and water. A lawyer’s role is to assist a person to tell their story in a way that can be heard within this system, to ensure they feel heard, to compel decision-makers to properly, fully and lawfully consider that story, and to hold those decision-makers to account where they fail to do so.’

Our clients are largely seeking asylum, dealing with visa cancellation or are victims of family violence facing insecure visa status. Many are vulnerable due to disability, poor physical and mental health, poverty and backgrounds of severe trauma. The team looks for ways to find and assist people who need help who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Holding on to the wins

Despite the challenges, Hannah sees her role as giving a voice and hope to disempowered people.

‘It is our role to represent clients whose arguments would otherwise never see the light of day, and for whom the consequences might be catastrophic.

Through the many difficulties in this highly politicised area of law, Hannah holds on to the wins.

‘There is no question that this area can be dark. That context makes our wins for clients all the more gratifying.

‘A recent example come to mind, though every success is hugely heartening: the Full Court win for Mr Omar, a Somali man with an intellectual disability. This judgment has been broadly applied across every stage of decision-making, and has made a real difference to the assessment of the harm a person faces upon forcible removal to their country of origin. Of course, it is often the releases from detention that are most gratifying – for example, a woman and her child transferred from Nauru, an elderly woman with serious mental health issues, a woman who had been injured and disfigured during exploitative farm labour and a refugee who had been detained for a decade. Through court injunctions, we have successfully prevented imminent forcible removals from Australia of people with serious claims to be heard.

‘I also believe sustained and reasonable advocacy can have a significant impact in and of itself. Apart from the excellent policy work VLA does, I chair the Visa Cancellations Working Group, a national group which aims to improve the systems and outcomes in the cancellation space, particularly for unrepresented people and refugees.’

Migration Lawyer Hannah Dickinson
Migration Lawyer Hannah Dickinson

Migration law – a place to do good

For those interested in a career in migration law, Hannah believes it is the perfect role for people with compassion, fortitude and creativity.

‘Migration law is extremely stimulating and challenging, whether you like advocacy or the more cerebral, black-letter-law aspects, and no case is the same.

'This area needs talented and committed lawyers to help the thousands of people who need life-changing legal help. If people are looking at developing a career in this area they might look at volunteering at Refugee Legal, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or the Human Rights Law Centre.’

Refugee Week

Hannah considers Refugee Week this year is particularly relevant, falling as it does during a global pandemic that is affecting refugees, migrant communities and detainees disproportionately.

It is a time to celebrate the strength and humanity of refugees, and their important role in building Australia, but we must also scrutinise the systems and stigmas they are subject to and reconsider the values we want to espouse.

‘We are moving away from a transparent, fair system adjudicated by skilled decision-makers and towards a factory-line approach that leads to some appalling outcomes. We are leaving traumatised people without any security and often in desperate hardship for years on end.

‘After Refugee Week, we must continue to work to give refugees a voice and to ensure their humanity is acknowledged. This is a vital task, critical to the health of Australian society, as a just and non-politicised administrative law system is an essential foundation in protecting all of our rights.

‘I believe that the fair go, the dignity of the individual, compassion and mutual respect are intuitive values in the Australian community. Our administrative laws and processes must urgently change to reflect these values,’ said Hannah

More information

Read our explainer – why we work on ‘fast track’ migration matters.

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