A social worker, lawyer and teacher, Kon Karapanagiotidis has emerged as one of the most influential voices in Australia on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
A voluble critic of the country’s leading political parties, Liberal and Labor, whom he recently called “cowards” on public television, he was named this year among the 10 most powerful Australians on social media.
Over the past 22 years, Karapanagiotidis has worked at the grassroots with marginalized communities, inspired by the struggles of his Greek immigrant parents and his own experiences of racism growing up amid the tobacco farms in rural Victoria.
In 2001, he founded the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne after he found the displaced people living in the community with virtually no basic support. What started as a food bank – run with the help of students he was teaching as a lecturer in welfare studies at Victoria University of Technology – went on to become the largest asylum seeker organization in Australia.
Supported by more than 1,200 volunteers and 90 staff in assisting around 2,000 people each year, it has become a powerful advocate for the human rights of people seeking asylum.
Karapanagiotidis’ work has been recognized with an Order of Australia Medal, a Churchill Fellowship, La Trobe University Young Achiever Award, a finalist for the Human Rights Medal and finalist for the Australian of the Year in Victoria.
Refugees Deeply: What are the implications of the recent elections and the narrow return of the coalition for Australia’s asylum and migration policies?
Kon Karapanagiotidis: While both major parties, the Liberals and Labor, have regressive and illegal policies towards people seeking asylum (turning back boats, indefinite detention of children, offshore detention prisons) a coalition government is the worst scenario for people seeking asylum in Australia. Its return will mean the following: the continuation of the fast-track legal process that is an unprecedented attack on the legal rights, natural justice and appeal rights of refugees for 24,500 people trapped in this system. It will mean the best that people seeking asylum can hope for are three- to five-year temporary visas if found to be refugees.
This is a terrible outcome, condemning people to further limbo after having spent up to four years there already. It will see our refugee intake remain tiny, reaching just 18,750 by 2018–19 after being cut by the LNP [Liberal] government by 31% in 2013. And there is absolutely no plan on what they are going to do with the more than 1,500 refugees they have left to rot on Manus and Nauru [offshore detention centers].
Refugees Deeply: How prominent an issue were refugees and asylum seekers in the campaign? Language about “illiterate and innumerate” refugees made headlines elsewhere; was there any change in emphasis or approach from the major parties and their supporters?
Karapanagiotidis: What marked this election as different was that it was the first one in almost 20 years where the issue of people seeking asylum did not captivate or hold the election cycle. It was not for lack of trying, with the Liberals trying to whip up fear and hysteria that our borders would be “overrun” if Labor won and that “people smugglers were ready and waiting for an ALP [Labour] government” but it never picked up much traction.
Labor played it very safe by promising a refugee policy platform that was as cruel and backward as the Liberals in most circumstances, thus helping neutralize the issue further. However, what we also saw was a public getting increasingly tired and distrustful of this narrative and a softening of public sentiment towards people who have come by boat, with polls during the election showing the majority of Australians no longer supported indefinite detention of refugees just for coming by boat. And the majority supported people on Manus, if found to be refugees, being brought to Australia.
There is far greater awareness of the cruelty and mistreatment of refugees. With the government being successful in turning desperate vulnerable refugees at sea back to danger and possible death but still continuing their barbaric policies, the public is starting to see this is more about political opportunism and fear-mongering than the myth that it’s about saving lives at sea.
This was best captured when Peter Dutton (Immigration Minister) said during the election that refugees were both illiterate and innumerate and a burden while miraculously taking jobs at the same time. He experienced a huge backlash and what was interesting was that this came from all quarters, including many traditional conservative media. It hit a raw nerve being that outside indigenous people all of us are descendants of boat-people/migrants/refugees and all of us are proud of it. When Dutton said those words people took it to heart, correctly, that he was attacking the legacy and sacrifices of their parents and or grandparents.
Refugees Deeply: Australia has faced criticism from rights groups to the U.N. for its offshore detention centers. It has been accused of undermining human rights in the wider region. What would it take for a change of approach from the “Pacific Solution”?
Karapanagiotidis: The Pacific Solution is an abomination; these places are nothing but gulags and open-air child abuse camps. The Australian government has overseen more refugees dying on Manus than it has safely resettled in almost four years and allowed widespread abuse of women and children on Nauru.
These are not bad-news stories for our government. Sadly, they are in fact the wanted outcome and the message they want sent to refugees globally: if you seek our protection by sea (even if it’s because it’s the only way you can save your life) we will terrorize, brutalize and break you. As for what it will take for the Pacific gulags to end under a Liberal government, honestly it would take the Nauru and Papua New Guinea government evicting Australia from there and refusing to have them any more, something that happened last time under John Howard.
But they are so addicted to our misused aid money that it’s not likely soon. We did have the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court rule that Manus Island was illegal and it had to be shut down; the problem is the Australian government has such a racist colonialist attitude to the Pacific that it has so far ignored the serious implications of this decision.
Refugees Deeply: Discussion of Australia’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers focuses on the detention centers. What is the reality for those who do arrive in Australia? How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of the asylum system and treatment of refugees in the country?
Karapanagiotidis: The public focus has been on detention and this is understandable given that this is where the most horrific and systemic abuse of people seeking asylum occurs, where people are most vulnerable to abuse due to being out of sight and out of mind. The reality, though, is that there are approximately 30,000 people seeking asylum in the community – 10 times that of people in detention. Sadly, the community-based model is also in crisis due to the deliberate efforts of government to make sure that it fails.
What do I mean by this? The federal government left 24,500 of these 30,000 people without the right to work for almost three years; has just slashed 90% of legal funding to assist people through their new draconian process; has cut funding to support services; plans to take away working rights, access to an income or healthcare if people find themselves before the courts on appeal. These are all ways to dismantle hope and make life so unbearable that they give up and go home.
There is an alternative: the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that I founded 15 years ago is an example of this. A compassionate, strength-based community settlement and welcome model. And it works. Our center – via a team of 1,300 volunteers, 90 staff across 30 programs from legal assistance, education/employment, food banks to aid and English-language programs – enables thousands of resilient and courageous refugees to thrive. We do this by investing in the potential of people seeking asylum, providing a holistic safety net in the short term and protecting their human rights through independent advocacy. The cost? Our annual budget is what is costs the Australian government to imprison 20 refugee children each year on Nauru.