The current discord over refugee representation at this year’s Palm Sunday rally is an important turning point which Australia’s humanitarian sector needs to embrace, writes Community Four’s co-founders, Baqir Khan and Gavin Ackerly.  

Last week, a dispute over the Palm Sunday refugee justice march saw community members with a refugee experience in open conflict with the organisers of the event. The situation arose due to claims by refugee led groups that there was a lack of opportunity for people from a lived experience to lead, and speak at, the Palm Sunday rally. The event’s organisers counter claimed that the refugee led organisations in question did not conform to the Palm Sunday planning process and that refugee justice in this country is about all Australians, not just refugees. Either way, the result is a dividing conflict within a movement that needs all the collaboration it can muster.

One of the major barriers to real progress is not being able to admit that we have a problem. Sometimes this forces us to ‘put our fingers in our ears’ when the people we don’t agree with are speaking out and, in the worst cases, it causes us to apply pressure to prevent these troublesome people from speaking out at all. The Australian government’s gagging of people seeking asylum through strict codes of conduct and media blocks is a perfect example of the ways in which some people with privilege seek to maintain their position by silencing inconvenient truths. However, it is not just the refugee sector in which this has occurred. The LGBTI movement has faced similar silencing through aggression and by being treated as if they lack the capacity for self-determination. This has also been the case for women, indigenous Australians and black Americans (to name a few). Their voices and experiences have too often been assumed by the people who claim to speak on their behalf, by people who believe they know what is best for them.

Over time these communities have taught us that effective and sustainable change for the oppressed only truly comes when they themselves take control of their own movement. This is because they are the ones that live with the daily reality of oppression and are the ones that will have to live with any change that is achieved (unlike those of us who can switch the lights off and go home at the end of the day as truly free citizens). It is their diverse voices that we need to listen to before taking another step forward.

One wonders, if the Palm Sunday event was a march for women’s rights, would we be content to have men leading the event and a majority male line up speaking about what change should look like for women?

The situation for refugees in this country has never been worse. After 16 years of sector led advocacy and activism, we need to be honest and say that we have failed to effect significant political change for the people who seek asylum in this country. And there is no dishonour in this, as long as we are able to accept that we, as a sector, need to change our approach.

Acceptance of failure is not easy, particularly in the community sector where our work is so tightly tied up in how we see ourselves. However, the truth is, failure is an essential element of innovation and creativity and by ignoring it we condemn our work and ourselves to mediocrity. To overcome the immense challenges we face as a sector and as a movement, we need to embrace the notion that recognising our failures is a good thing. And that the process of ‘shining a light on ourselves’ begins with being open to criticism – especially from those community members whose voices we are fighting to raise.

We cannot ask the rest of the Australian public to do what we ourselves are not prepared to do. We cannot simply choose to listen to those voices we agree with – and ignore or silence those which we do not. Now more than ever we need to show the rest of Australia that it is OK to have dissenting voices, no matter how frustrating or painful, that it’s OK to get it wrong and to change our ways to get it right.

Let’s begin by handing over the leadership of the refugee movement to those who are or have been refugees, the people that our work is really about. Let’s make this years’ Palm Sunday the day that we really turn a corner. Let us re-unite as a movement and become the change we seek.

See you there!