An introduction to JRS Australia’s new director, Carolina Gottardo

new director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia Carolina Gottardo

The most pressing issue is to treat refugees and people seeking asylum in accordance with the dignity and respect any human being deserves, something that Jesus taught us.

As you may know, JRS Australia has a new director, Carolina Gottardo, and while we know she is supremely qualified for the role, we wanted to get to know her a little more personally. We sat down for a cup of tea and a chat and asked her to answer some pretty tough questions! Here’s what she had to say.

Interviewer: Can you give us an overview of your history and what brought you to JRS Australia?

Carolina Gottardo (CG): I’ve been working for more than 20 years with human rights issues in different countries and in different contexts.

I found the values and focus of JRS really chimed with my own values, the direction of my career and what I care about. I especially like that JRS focuses on those who are most needy or most forgotten and the belief in the worth and dignity of people and their rights, especially those seeking asylum.

It was also an opportunity to put my faith into action as I’m a Catholic woman, joining an organisation that believes in social justice and that works actively to uphold the dignity and the rights of people seeking asylum.

Interviewer: What is it you hope to bring to your role as the director of JRS?

CG: What I hope to bring to JRS is my long experience working specifically with human rights issues and specialising in the rights of refugees and migrants. Also my management and leadership experience within the charity sector.

I hope to bring a global perspective to the role, considering I have been associated with these sort of issues in different countries. One of the most important things I think I bring is my passion for refugee issues and the worth of pursing social justice, the willingness to try and make a difference and a lot of commitment and energy into migrant issues and the mission of JRS as an organisation. I want JRS Australia to continue to be there, welcoming people seeking asylum and improving the situation for some of the most excluded people in society and to advocate for the rights of those seeking asylum and for a meaningful change in the system.

Interviewer: So let’s talk about the issue at a global level for a moment because we’re currently facing the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. In your view, what are the key issues facing people seeking asylum worldwide? Also specifically what are the issues facing those seeking asylum in Australia?

CG: I have to start by saying that people are seeking asylum because they are forced to. You don’t leave your house, your friends, your belongings, your family and what is dear to you one day because you simply feel like it. And you’re right, the world is seeing unprecedented conflict and unprecedented displacement. In fact, we have 65 million people displaced around the world. This number is alarming. But it’s very important to note that refugees are vastly having to flee to countries very different from Australia. The countries that are really taking the burden are neighboring countries to where the conflict is happening and countries that are often struggling financially, for example Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

So this said, it’s important that there’s more fair sharing of the global displacement phenomenon because otherwise certain countries will be disproportionately affected and could crumble with the displacement crisis. There is a legal obligation of protection, but there is also a moral obligation in terms of maintaining the dignity of human beings that are being displaced by conflict.

The most pressing issue is to treat refugees and people seeking asylum in accordance with the dignity and respect any human being deserves, something that Jesus taught us.

Interviewer: If we move from the global refugee crisis and zoom in on how Australia is dealing with the problem, we can see that much of the time they are not following the principals that you are talking about. If you were in a position to change the policies concerning refugees and those seeking asylum in this country, what would you do?

CG: I think it is important to understand that it’s an issue of complying with international law that Australia has signed up to, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and other legislation.

Secondly, Australia has some positive policy and practice in terms of the resettlement of refugees that are coming directly from [refugee] camps (off-shore processing) and it’s done with the collaboration of UNHCR. But on the other hand when dealing with people arriving to Australia directly [onshore processing], the same country has some of the most punitive asylum policy in the world, which has actually being used as a model for increased coercion in other countries.

If I were in the position to change it, I would say ‘no’ to offshore detention, ‘no’ to mandatory and indefinite detention as people seeking asylum have not committed a crime. I would ensure Australia complies with our international obligations, that cases are promptly processed and with a fair hearing. I would also implement permanent protection options for those coming as part of the on-shore program because the current visa system for people that actually are refugees (but arrived by boat) is highly questionable. The system forces many people seeking asylum that JRS is working with, to a life in limbo and at danger of destitution, detention and deportation. In short, I would advocate for humane policies that uphold the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum and respect their inherent dignity.

Interviewer: I suppose much of the policy has been reinforced by the fact that most of the media coverage and much political discussion highlights reasons to oppose refugee resettlement especially when it comes to the people they have labelled as ‘boat people’. What would your response be to someone in the community who believes the current policy is positive?

CG: Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. As someone who is from another continent, I can see why this country is portrayed as a lucky country. The Australian population is very small with low density levels and has lots of natural resources. So the point is that Australia should contribute its fair share to the issue of global conflict and displacement when it comes to refugees, regardless of the mode in which they arrive. Refugees and people seeking asylum should not be seen as a problem, but as a gift to the country. Many refugees are very skilled and they would contribute to Australia quite a lot. Refugees just want a fair chance. They actually want an opportunity to work, to integrate, to contribute and to be useful. Refugees are likely to give much more back than what they have received.

It is also important to keep in mind that the countries people seeking asylum are being sent to through the Australian policies, are those not signed up to the Refugee Convention. Australia is heavily subsidising detention centres in countries such as Indonesia, at a very high human cost. This is not something we can take lightly and it shouldn’t be such a politicised issue. This is about human lives.

There’s a misconception about people seeking asylum and this has been fed by politicians, the media and inaccurate language like ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘boat people’. These kinds of words and terms have very negative connotations for ordinary people.

But in reality, people are not jumping queues. If you look at the 1951 Refugee Convention and if you look at the international human rights law, you are able to seek protection in a country when you’re fleeing conflict, it doesn’t matter what your mode of arrival is.

These people are only exercising the right to seek protection when they don’t have any other choice. So it’s very important to take into account that people seeking asylum and arriving by boat are not breaking the law. They are not jumping the queue. They are not doing anything wrong. They are just trying to save their lives and secure protection.

It’s for the Refugee Status Determination process in Australia and the countries that have signed the Refugee Convention, to determine if someone is really in need of protection or not. But people should be allowed to exercise their rights and they should be allowed access to protection regardless of their method of arrival. Of all the forcibly displaced people in the world, only 0.02% arrive in Australia.

In short, people should be allowed to seek protection, exercise their rights and access refugee status determination regardless of their method arrival. I would point out that labels such as ‘boat people’ and ‘queue jumpers’ are just strengthening misconceptions that are not helpful. The rhetoric we hear in Australia is really about sectarianism and has a skewed focus on trafficking and smuggling without acknowledging the rights of the innocent people that are caught in the middle and who need our help. Unfortunately we are seeing this is also the case on a global level (with only a few exceptions).

At JRS what we see is poverty. We see destitution. We see fear. We see people that were dreaming of a much better life escaping conflict only to find that the country they had idealised is actually turning their back on them. We also see determination, resourcefulness, agency and an enormous willingness to contribute and to belong.

We need to dispel the myth that asylum seekers have a lot of money. That they are jumping queues. At the heart of it, people are in desperate situations that will use any means to achieve security and protection for their families. We would do the same if we were in that situation. If your house was being torn apart, if you’re a woman and you’re going to be raped, if you watched family members die you would want to leave that behind. You would want your children to survive. People need to ask themselves, if I was in that kind of situation, what would I do?

Interviewer: Finally, how do you think JRS can make a difference for people seeking asylum in our community? Do you think individuals can make a difference?

CG: JRS is a special organisation because it’s all about being there shoulder to shoulder with the most excluded people, the ones nobody else wants to work with, the ones who fall through the gaps in the system and in Australia this is the case for those seeking asylum.

We’re also trying to advocate for fair and better policies. Part of the beauty of what JRS does is that it’s a combination of service, accompaniment and advocacy, being there with people most in need and, at the same time, trying to address the macro policy issues. JRS makes a change to individual lives as well as aiming to achieve change in Australia and at the global level.

In terms of what individuals can do, of course they can make a huge difference. It is a group of individuals that achieves change. You could come and volunteer for JRS and make a difference on the ground, you can donate money so we can continue our work, you could join campaigns, raise awareness with your colleagues and friends or hold accountable your local MP. Big changes are always made by people doing things at the grassroots level and at JRS we believe in the difference that we can make together.

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