22 February 2017 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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Around the Works

Refugee learning curve


When young Australian lawyer Taya Hunt moved to Cambodia a year ago to volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service, she was swapping her coveted role as a Brisbane judge's associate for a job working with refugees in a developing country where the hopes of asylum seekers are regularly shattered, and injustices are borne by those who least deserve them.


'I think I was perhaps a little naïve', says Taya, who is back in Australia briefly before returning to work with JRS in South East Asia, this time in Bangkok.


'Transparency International says Cambodia is the most corrupt country in the region behind Burma, and so to experience that corruption on a day-to-day basis in the work I was doing was difficult, and not what I had been expecting.'


But the highlights of her work among society's most vulnerable were numerous, she says.


'Meeting the amazing asylum seekers and refugees who made their way to Cambodia -their resilience and strength - has been incredibly inspiring.'


Taya says it is a measure of the refugees' desperation that they would seek asylum in a country such as Cambodia.


'I think that's what refugees are: they go wherever they can to be safe, even if it means going to another developing country. These people don't have the luxury of choice, it's just wherever they can go.'


Of those refugees assisted by JRS - from Vietnam, Iran, Burma, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan and China - most hope to be resettled. As a signatory to the 1951 convention on refugees, Cambodia now has its own domestic legal refugee regime, says Taya. Consequently, the UNHCR is not nominating people for resettlement, and many countries won't accept refugees from Cambodia. 'Essentially their position is that refugees are safe in Cambodia and don't need to be resettled in third countries.'


And while Cambodia might be safer than their home countries, life for refugees in Cambodia is very difficult, particularly for black Africans.


'Quite often people with dark skin are arbitrarily arrested, they find walking after dark not to be safe, and they don't have a lot of opportunities for work or education, so that's a real problem', says Taya. 'That's something the Cambodia team will have to work really closely on in the next couple of years, looking at solutions for these people.'


The safety of refugees was an issue with which Taya was confronted last December when 20 Uighurs - a Muslim minority group in China - were arrested by Cambodian police at gunpoint and deported to China in what Taya describes a 'gross violation of refugee and human rights law'.


'I was quite good friends with a number of them and had spent a lot of time with the two children and the pregnant mother who were forcibly returned', she says. 'JRS had been very involved in their cases and our office had developed relationships with all of them.'


Nothing has been heard from the refugees since. 'I think Human Rights Watch hit the nail on the head when their regional director described the asylum seekers being forcibly returned to China as being sucked into a black hole. You don't see or hear from them again. There have been unconfirmed reports as to what's happened to them, but despite JRS's best efforts we haven't been able to communicate with them.'


Despite the confrontation of her job, Taya is thrilled to be returning to JRS in Thailand, where she will work as a consultant looking as refugee law, refugee status determination and asylum protection in Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines Cambodia and Thailand. She will also compile a manual aimed at assisting refugee workers in advising the asylum seekers and refugees they're working with.


'I'm really, really excited about it. I'm hoping it will be as practical as I can make it, and really useful for refugee workers.'


Looking back, Taya says her work with JRS has reinforced the motivations for her career as a lawyer. 'It has been so wonderful working in an environment in which I feel completely comfortable ethically and morally, and using this pool of knowledge that I've got through my degrees and my experience for something I feel is wholly good', she says. 'It's a real privilege, I think, to be able to work and not feel compromised.' 


By Catherine Marshall



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